Cross-Country Computing With Mike & Rob

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUT together a computer company and a telecommunications giant and what do you get?

Here at NCR headquarters, Mike Foley is trying to place a video call. ``Rob? Rob? Are you there?'' His colleague, Rob Hudson in Naperville, Ill., does pop up on the computer monitor for a few seconds. His image flickers and the full-motion video becomes a freeze-frame. Lost connection. He dials again.

This is NCR's just-announced Telemedia Connection. It is one of the first joint AT&T-NCR products on the market. The company says 250 such joint projects are in the pipeline.

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The collaboration to create Telemedia Connection has been intensive. NCR made the personal computers, the two video boards within the computer, and the software that resides on those video boards. AT&T was responsible for the chip-sets on the video boards and the compression technology to deliver video data over telephone lines. Of course, the system is optimized to work with AT&T phone equipment.

Rob pops up on the screen again. Telemedia Connection allows a computer user to take control of a computer hundreds of miles away. So Rob in Naperville calls up a Microsoft word-processing document on his machine and shares it with Mike here in Dayton so that both can work on it. At least, that is what's supposed to happen. For some reason the program isn't loading. Rob and Mike hang up to try again.

Telemedia Connection is what Philip Neches, NCR's chief scientist, calls the ``low-hanging fruit''of the two-year-old NCR-AT&T merger. Such products were obvious candidates for collaboration. But there are many others coming down the pike that are not so obvious. Dr. Neches talks about integrating a whole of series of hardware and software to create more efficient business networking. ``It's the sum of them,'' he says.

A glimpse of the future can be had at NCR's product center, where NCR automated teller machines are hooked up to video cameras. Tellers (or even a loan manager) could have video conferences with clients in their car. Delivering loan repayment options on the screen, perhaps even capturing a client's signature via an electronic pen, could transform the banking business even as it puts new demand on networking technologies.

The pieces already exist. The challenge is to integrate them, Neches says. ``When electricity was new, it wasn't that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. If he had just invented the light bulb, there would be only one electric light bulb in a laboratory.'' Instead, Edison created a power-generation system so that everyone could use light bulbs. The same need is manifest today in information processing, he adds.

Mike and Rob are beginning to make headway in their video call. Rob brings up a Microsoft word-processing program and a document, which show up clearly on Mike's machine too. Rob highlights something he wants to change on the document. Then, here in Dayton, we highlight a piece of text and change the fonts, just as if the program were loaded on our machine. Mike holds up a picture to the camera sitting on his desk, takes a ``snapshot,'' then sends the file to Dayton - a sort of instant photographic fax. We then can touch it up using our computer. These new hybrid computer-telecommunication products may still be a little awkward to use, but the future promises to be a lot of fun.

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