One of the coolest demos at Macworld didn’t appear on the floor, but was shown at Apple’s System Software Showcase at the Boston Computer Museum. ShareVision Technology showed an unnamed video-conferencing system for the rest of us, one which we’ll call ShareVision as well for simplicity’s sake. ShareVision consists primarily of a pair of NuBus cards, one containing the guts of a v.32bis modem, and the other doing compression, which is necessary for video-conferencing. ShareVision sets itself apart from the competition in two ways. First, it runs over normal phone lines, unlike a competing (and much less impressive) video-conferencing system from Northern Telecom. Second, it will cost about $1500 for a complete system consisting of the two boards, video camera, and software.
I played with ShareVision briefly and talked to a video engineer in California while watching him on my screen and modifying an Excel spreadsheet with him. Not only does ShareVision use v.32bis modems over normal phone lines, but the phone line used for the demo supposedly had bad line noise, which dropped the effective speed from 14,400 bps to 9,600 bps. The two small pictures (I could see myself as well the guy I was talking to) shook and reminded me of a mediocre QuickTime movie, and the audio quality sounded like computer-synthesized speech when one of us moved on screen a lot, but let’s face it, simultaneous color video, audio, and data transfer over normal phone lines for $1500 qualifies as way cool.
The data transfer capabilities especially intrigued me because they’re done right, via Apple events, rather than through tiddly little pseudo-application modules like some other groupware programs use. So instead of using some dumb draw program that makes the original MacDraw look powerful, you could in theory use something like Canvas, although I don’t know if Canvas supports the required events. The demonstration application of choice was Excel 4.0, one of the most fully-wired programs available. The engineer in California and I could both open and work on the same file, changing data and watching charts redraw. Impressive! We have no fully Apple-event aware word processors as yet, although I, of course, have high hopes for Nisus XS. ShareVision also sports a shared collaboration area, but I can’t remember what few tools it offered.
From the sound of it, ShareVision Technology has done the hardware right as well. Numerous technologies go into a product like ShareVision, all of which have other uses which ShareVision will provide. The v.32bis modem will double as a standard data modem and will include group 3 fax capabilities. The video camera will allow you to capture motion video and still images, and the microphone will help you digitize sound. ShareVision will use a special microphone from Norris Communications called the Ear Phone which combines a speaker and microphone into a tiny unit that fits in your ear. More on that in a future issue. I feel it is important to utilize all this technology in multiple ways, as ShareVision proposes, because doing so will significantly reduce the real-world cost of the system.
ShareVision impressed me equally as much because of the price and the hardware requirements. $1500 will get you a video-conferencing system when it ships, supposedly sometime this fall. Until now, video-conferencing has been too expensive for use except by wealthy businesses. With ShareVision, small businesses and some individuals could avoid expensive and unpleasant travel. Considering travel costs, a ShareVision setup ($3000 total because you obviously need two) could easily pay for itself within a few months, assuming of course that the replaced travel could get by without the undeniable handshake value of meeting someone in person. Multiple offices in the same city might find more use for ShareVision than more widely separated offices because of free phone calls and the shared work environment that would obviate the need for lots of 20 minute drives in traffic. Just think of the use in telecommuting!
If ShareVision ships this fall at $1500 as promised and works even as well as I saw in Boston, I suspect that it will sell slowly for a short while until it catches on, and then sell like hotcakes. Perhaps we will soon all have ShareVision numbers on our business cards along with fax numbers.