Q&A with Andrew Stehling, eVideo Government Sales at PictureTel
You may know PictureTel (http://www.picturetel.com) as a popular videoconferencing company, especially its ProShare line of desktop systems. In July 1998, PictureTel got into streaming media too, when it purchased Starlight Networks, makers of StarCast and StarLive. Since then it has combined the two video applications into one cohesive product called eVideo Application Server (released mid-1999), which controls the distribution and management of streaming-media applications.
The combination of videoconferencing and streaming is a natural fit. You can use streaming media to extend the capabilities of your videoconferencing network and distribute the event to users through Real or Microsoft, for example. Or you can save a videoconference session as a streaming media file so that it is saved and can be accessed at any time.
PictureTel's eVideo does exactly this. It works with both Real and Microsoft (as well as Starlight's MPEG) streaming servers to help administrators manage their streaming media network. It is also a presentation/learning product. eVideo can be used to create a rich-media presentation with audio, video, chat, PowerPoint slides and polling features.
I got a first hand look at eVideo. Andrew Stehling from PictureTel's eVideo Government Sales division gave me an in-depth demo at last week's Telecon East show in Washington D.C. He also revealed that PictureTel was in the process of spinning-off Starlight where it will concentrate on its streaming media solutions. That includes eVideo and a yet-to-be released product that will integrate streaming, videoconferencing and voice over IP (among other things) in one offering.
Streaming Media Newsletter: So just what is eVideo? I remember hearing about it when it was released. It's good to see it in person, finally.Andrew Stehling: eVideo is an application that allows you to manage your streaming environment. It does a few things, like tell you who your users are, who's signed on, how long they've been signed on, what they've done while signed on, bill them if I wanted to, or restrict their access. I can also determine where people are. So automatically I'll serve them the correct stream. If they're on the LAN, I'll serve them MPEG. But if that same person goes home and signs on through America Online, I can recognize that and serve them up Microsoft or RealNetworks.
Q: So this requires that users sign on with a username and password.
A: Yes, they sign on and it tells me where they are. It will also download software to them, if they don't already have it. We will know if they don't have Real or Windows Media when they sign on. We will download the software, configure it and get them up and running so they continue on.
Q: And it all pops up in the browser window.
A: Yes, you just need the browser. So this whole environment is managed for you in terms of end users and entitlement and passwords. Now the other thing that's important about the administration side of it, is that you're not going to want to stream out to the same people all the time. We call this delivery chains. You're not going to necessarily use all of your engines at the same time. You might have an event where a CFO might want to talk to certain people and want to do it in high speed and low speed. So out of the inventory of streaming equipment that you have, you're only going to use a subset of that. You can schedule that, test it, ping it--you might want to test for bit rates and jitter. The Administrator Console will do that. In 15 minutes you can finish what used to take hours. You'd need a staff; one person sitting at a Microsoft server, someone at the splitter and the Real Server. We have a software agent and you schedule it here. You say at 2:00 I want Microsoft to stream at 56K, but at 4:00 I want it at 28.8.
Q: So it's a facilitator. Did you create this because the tools for Microsoft and Real just weren't robust to do all this?
A: Yes. They're our best customers. If someone uses Real and we show them this, they're all over this--they want this big time. The other thing that Real doesn't do is the high speed stuff. They're not doing much with MPEG. We also manage your video on demand library. So it's not only streaming, it's a video on demand library. Now when I set this videoconference up I can say I want to record it or to store it. Now if you store it you can replicate it to other servers. We can do it now or at 2:00am when the WAN is pretty quiet. You can go ahead and replicate it whenever you want. So it's no longer a laborious process of figuring out what servers I want to go to, copying files over there, wondering if they're current.
Now we also save these as templates. So the next time you do it, you're not reinventing the wheel. So if the CFO says I'm going to do this again in two months, but I want to change my material, you can do it. The next thing I'll talk about is, what else can you do besides a talking head.
Q: Before we get to that, can this work with both servers at the same time? A Real and Microsoft server?
A: Oh absolutely, in fact I can have a dozen servers. You can have 5 MPEG cards, three different Microsoft servers, splitters all over the world and Real too and manage it from here. And that's what this delivery chain is all about; because we have an inventory of everything that's out there and all those software agents facilitate it. This is all through a browser so you can be in the Mediterranean having a margarita and you get a cell phone call from your CEO saying to set up this call. Just get on your laptop and do it.
Q: So how does this work with your videoconferencing system? I believe you were saying earlier you could record your conferences.
A: Exactly. First of all, as far as input, you can have any NTSC input. It could be a VCR, DVD, or a videoconferencing codec. So I can take a codec, take the RCA audio/video outputs put it into the streaming engines and now when the conference is taking place, that videoconference is being streamed out. If it's a multipoint conference and you have all this voice activate multipoint going on--no problem. Everyone will see that multipoint as it switches to each speaker.
Q: But how does it know which person you'll be seeing in a multipoint call?
A: The bridge, the multipoint conferencing bridge controls, through either voice activated control or chair control what everybody's going to be seeing. So we're going to be just another peer client to that multipoint conferencing unit. If you have 10 people in a conference as each person starts to talk, the bridge will switch to that person meanwhile we'll be streaming that out to everybody.
Q: So what other pieces does eVideo come with?
A: We've talked a lot about the Administrator. There are three other consoles you can be. You can be a presenter, behind the camera presenting to people. We have the ability to embed PowerPoint presentations and survey and voting capabilities. And a chat back capability as well. It's a really unique thing in this release of the software is that this PowerPoint would have been sent out as individual bitmaps to everyone signed on. If there were 1,000 people watching, 1,000 bitmaps would go out. Your whole network can be bogged down by this PowerPoint slide. Not only that but if you're on a 28.8Kbps at home, the presenter might be three slides away by the time you get it. We've taken this technology where we embed this directly into stream so there's no difference, because it's part of the multicast. This makes it much more scalable. It used to be a big barrier to effective conferences because people would get things late. This alleviates that kind of thing.
Q: So what are the other consoles?
A: So first there's the Administrator and the Viewer. The Moderator is another workstation. The moderator can take a chat question and answer it privately, post it as a public answer so people don't ask the same questions. I can also "promote" the question and send it to the Presenter when there's a really good question.
This is the fourth leg in the stool. The Presenter sees the camera view, sees the presentation, and can change slides. He can also ask a poll question so everyone votes and he gets the answers and can look at it privately or post it publicly. The Presenter can bring up the promoted question, interrupt the presentation and answer it or answer it later.
Q: So what formats do you support?
A: Basically we're engine agnostic. We support Microsoft, Real and MPEG-1. MPEG-2 is in the works. The only reason we're not doing much MPEG-2 now is that it requires a decoder card in the client PC. As other engines come out, we will support those. We've talked to FVC.com and IP/TV about their stuff.
As a user, when you sign on, you have a TV Guide showing you what is on for today and what you're allowed to see in the video on-demand library. Since we are open software, we can bring in other specialty applications; a good example is Virage. For a Navy customer, CINPAC fleet out in Hawaii we're integrating their package with our applications.
Q: So when you buy this, you're buying just software right?
A: Yes, software. We're using standard-off the shelf NT servers. There's no special "anything" other than our application software. You're buying concurrent licenses to the software. Not how many people are out there that can use it, but how many average concurrent users you have at any one time. So if go from 500 users to 1,000 you trade in your license. The software doesn't change; it's just a licensing agreement. Obviously, as you get more concurrent users you'll need a bigger NT server or multiple servers and the bandwidth has to support it.
Q: You mention that the server supports NT. Does it support other operating systems?
A: No. We have done Sun for the video-on-demand, which needs a more robust environment to support concurrent users because each user gets their own stream. So we have support for Unix but we have found we're doing quite well with NT servers. Several years ago at Starlight, we found it was important to use Unix and Sun because of the demand you're putting on the server. Now NT's gotten better and all the customers I have in the Starlight government business are all running NT.
Q: Can you use the Administrator separately from its other components?
A: It's all wrapped up in one thing. You get all of that. But if all you do is use the Administrator you can do that. If you say you don't want to stream PowerPoint or do chat back, all I want to do is stream audio video and give access to the library, just use the Administrator console.
Q: So what other things are you working on developing?
A: We have in development right now the eVideo 3000. Everything I just told you about streaming, carry that forward and think about that about everything a user has on their desktop. When they go through this portal, they're going to have voice over IP, videoconferencing, scheduling software, conference calls, forwarding calls to another PC. So just expand everything to now we're going to include H.323 bridges, gateways, H.320 bridges. This is primarily focused to ISP's providing them as a service. Now if you're a home user and you're coming in under DSL, we'll be your portal into all the different things you've signed up for with your ISP. If you signed up for video-on-demand or telephony, it's in there. All of that is now managed under one umbrella.
Q: So which company will keep eVideo? Starlight or PictureTel?
A: This will be part of Starlight which is doing a spin-off as we speak. There are two products that Starlight kept: it's own that it developed [StarCast and StarLive] and eVideo Application Server. The other product we took with us is the eVideo 3000 I mentioned.
Q: How will eVideo 3000 be sold? As separate products?
A: You'll be able to buy modules. You might buy a streaming or H.323 module. For example we're speaking with government agencies that act as their own ISPs. NASA for one, is building these racks where they have their own internal network. Many government agencies are large enough to do that and many corporations want to build their own. There's also security issues--the Pentagon, for example, isn't going to let an outside provider manage its network.
Q: It seems a few other companies (like FVC.com) are looking into getting into this portal idea to manage a network's media offerings. What are the advantages?
A: Ultimately just in terms of how many networks are you going to support. If you look under my desk today, there's an ISDN line, regular LAN connection, phone, modem, and a TV cable. Now wouldn't it be great to have all that disappear and do everything over the network? If I have DSL at home, instead of a TV, phone, satellite dish, analog; what if I integrate it all together. I can go to my PC and make a phone call from my PC.
Q: I spoke to another vendor at the show that's using IP to essentially distribute TV signals over a network. Why not just use regular NTSC connections?
A: It's an infrastructure issue. If you have just one network to manage--think of those five connections I told you about. I have ISDN sitting around wasting money. I might not be watching TV but I have a coaxial cable or a decoder box, sitting there. Now someone has to manage all that. There's someone that knows PBX, another that knows the LAN. If this was all under one structure, everything's simplified. I have one way to manage it. Andrew Carnegie said, "I have one basket and I watch it very closely". That way I ensure that everything stays up and running.
Q: That seems very forward thinking. Are you ahead of the game at this point?
A: No, I think everybody is thinking [in this direction], whether they're overtly or covertly saying it. There's no question that's how all of us will be dealing with our PCs in the future. It's just how open and honest your company's trying to chase that marketplace.