Although technologies such as e-mail and conference calling have helped streamline communication between project team members, nothing has replaced the importance of a good, old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. But, so often, more time is spent on travel to and from a meeting than in the actual meeting itself.
With the advent of broadband high-speed access to the Internet, A/E/C firms and owners can now conduct face-to-face meetings online in real time. Currently, several services-and many more to come-integrate data, audio, video and telephony to permit communication of ideas and illustrations online. Two such services are NetMeeting from Microsoft and WebEx Meeting Center from WebEx Communications Inc.
Both services offer rich features:
Video and audio conferencing enables users to share information and applications using a desktop-computer video camera and Internet audio. Users can send and receive real-time video images using Windows-compatible equipment, and can send video to a user who doesn't have video hardware. Audio portions can be conducted via standard telephone conferencing. Video speed, image quality and microphone sensitivity can be adjusted.
Whiteboarding allows users to incorporate graphic information into meetings by cutting, copying or pasting information from any Windows-based application onto a "whiteboard" type of software. Colored pointers differentiate each participant's comments.
File transfer lets users send files during a conference. Files can be distributed to everyone or selected participants.
Program sharing enables users to share multiple programs during a conference. For instance, two presenters in remote locations can jointly conduct a PowerPoint presentation. Shared programs can be viewed in a frame, making it easy for users to distinguish between shared programs and local applications on individuals' desktops. Users can shrink the shared program frame to complete other work during a meeting.
Other features include polling, which lets presenters solicit feedback from meeting participants, and security functions like password protection and encryption.
Pricing is based on the level of service, ranging from free for basic services to reasonable rates for multifunction meetings. A broadband high-speed connection-a digital subscriber line (DSL) or higher-is a must, however. Dial-up modems will not work.
The future of online meeting services will depend on their acceptance in major industries, including the A/E/C industry. Project-management Web sites such as Citadon, the company formed by the merger of Bidcom and Cephren, have already incorporated these services into their offerings, and major telecommunications companies such as AT&T are partnering with online meeting companies to bring complete solutions.
Tom Hernandez is associate partner and director of computer services for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC in New York City. He welcomes comments through the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.