They Say It's Almost Like Being There...

THE videoconferencing revolution hit Peter Bulkeley's classroom last fall. And it's not clear the good professor will ever be the same again.

"In my opinion, it was the most stunning success I've experienced in my career," says the chairman of Boston University's manufacturing engineering department. "We run student evaluations of teachers. I got the best grades I've ever gotten."

The students - engineers at United Technologies Corporation - did pretty well too. They outscored the same class Professor Bulkeley taught in person, even though they were taught via videoconference 110 miles away in Windsor Locks, Conn.

Videoconferencing, once the preserve of huge corporations, is on the verge of becoming affordable and commonplace.

Companies such as Compression Labs Inc., which donated the equipment in the Boston University pilot program, and PictureTel Corporation are selling videoconferencing units not much bigger than a television set for a fraction of the cost of traditional videoconferencing systems.

PictureTel's lowest priced system, with a black-and-white screen, runs $19,900. Company officials and industry observers expect prices to fall much further.

Already this month, AT&T and Compression Labs have introduced desktop videoconference systems. AT&T will sell its VideoPhone 2500 for $1,499 starting this summer. Compression Labs has announced a $2,095 product that will run on the Macintosh computer, called the Cameo Personal Video system Model 2001. Many computer companies and telephone giants are working on the technology, including foreign ones such as British Telecom. Changing the way people work

Many observers expect the technology to spread rapidly within the next five years. "We stand at a watershed in our history where our technology has enough power, the networks are fast enough, [and] the storage systems are big enough," says Alan Blatecky, who runs a more traditional videoconferencing system for a partnership of North Carolina universities, industry, and research institutes.

"Within the next two to five years, we'll see a lot of growth in video as a means of communications," adds Nathan Felde, executive director of NYNEX Science & Technology Inc.

The new technology is already changing things. For the past four years, Bulkeley taught his product-design course to United Technologies by videotape. He'd tape his live class at Boston University using two technicians and several cameras, then mail the videos to the engineers in Connecticut. Five times a semester, he'd drive down to Connecticut to teach a class and confer with the engineers. The new videoconferencing units eliminate all that. No more special TV classrooms or technicians. The units can b e wheeled from classroom to classroom. Bulkeley himself operates the camera of his unit (and the camera in Connecticut) through a simple control box.

The new systems are also cheaper to operate. Traditional systems required dedicated phone lines, microwave units, or even satellites to beam their signals. These new systems use existing phone lines. A coast-to-coast videoconference costs as little as $25 an hour.

"Our mission in life is to make videoconferencing as easy to use as a telephone," says PictureTel's Rob Mitro.

That idea is not far off, although there are still obstacles. During the class sessions last semester, United Technologies used a dedicated line running at 384,000 bits per second (b.p.s.). This semester it will run the videoconferencing system on the regular telephone network, running two lines at 56,000 b.p.s. apiece. Compression technology allows the new videoconferencing systems to work on existing phone lines.

Bulkeley of Boston University is pushing to market the university's expertise to corporations in the United States and abroad.

Teaching "is going to be a software-driven business where you can acquire the best in the world wherever it is available," Blatecky says. He estimates the business potential for universities runs into the billions of dollars per year.

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