Overview: Scheduling and Control Software for Videoconferences

Videoconferencing is such a new concept that simply understanding the technology and deciphering how it works can be overwhelming. However, for those organizations actually using videoconferencing equipment, the frustrating task has become scheduling and coordinating conferences between a number of sites. It's a new problem and it needs a new product to solve it -- videoconference scheduling and control software. Basics Software packages currently available basically comprise two components: scheduling software and control software. The scheduling portion d'es just that and works in conjunction with a database management system. All the information required to schedule a conference is stored here: Data on each conferencing site, conference participants, equipment configuration, etc. The control software actually takes control of the multipoint control unit (MCU), the DACs, or whatever piece of equipment is acting as the central hub for the multipoint conference. It initiates connections (either dial-up or direct) between each site and each piece of required equipment and then terminates the connection at the scheduled time. The few videoconference schedulers available all offer a graphical user interface, allowing easy use by those who are not technical. And so it should be. After all, the purpose of this software is to automate a task previously done manually by an administrator. Thus, it is important that the software be designed with the non-technical user in mind. In most programs, there is considerably more functionality available to those who need to understand and use it. The same should be the case for scheduling software. It should offer additional power and capability to those who are more technical and require access to low-level scheduling and control features. Use in the Field The scheduling administrator must determine the sites required and the frequency of the conferences to be scheduled. As necessary selections are made, the software automatically reserves the desired sites, participants and equipment, at the required times. If one site is not available at the requested time, the scheduler notifies the user that there is a conflict and will either offer alternate times or provide a closer look at the conflicting site's schedule. Additional features offered with some schedulers are the ability to redefine a list of holidays and the ability to assign a priority rating to individuals that would enable them to "bump" an existing conference. If this were to happen, those whose conference was canceled would automatically be notified to reschedule. Some schedulers provide correction for time zones; offer e-mail or fax reminders to conference participants; generate reports and summary information; and include the ability to determine, during a conference, if schedules allow for a meeting to run long. Specific Benefits Benefits experienced by using this type of software are not limited to a specific industry. Any type of organization -- government, commercial or educational -- conducting videoconferences between more than two sites could significantly benefit. For instance, the ability to generate reports and summary information is a highlight. Large organizations with a number of videoconferencing sites can analyze summary information to determine if there is a need to expand or enhance their facilities at a particular location. Or a school principal interested in setting up a biology class to be transmitted to remote locations could utilize information regarding high and low usage times to optimize resource allocation. Future Functionality Standards have always been a crucial factor that determine an industry's success and rate of growth. Scheduling software is no exception. Future versions of videoconference scheduling software will be able to communicate with non-videoconference scheduling packages (such as ones offered by Microsoft and Lotus). This will allow someone to not only query the conference site schedule, but also to look into an individual's personal schedule to determine what times he or she is free. Further, being able to dial up via a modem, or to access the scheduler through an organization's existing LAN or WAN will allow use by remote locations. Diagnostics and error detection will rapidly identify problems in the network and minimize downtime. Reports currently output in a text format will be translated and presented as tables and interactive graphs. Several scheduling software developers are already moving to an open system architecture, which will allow the software to be run and remotely accessed by users regardless of their platform -- DOS, Windows, Mac or UNIX. We will also see integration of modules specifically designed for distance learning users. These include tracking credit hours earned; compiling and analyzing student scores; plus incorporating more traditional distance learning capabilities such as multiple-choice exams that can be transmitted simultaneously with the video, audio and data signal. Closing Words Organizations need tools that not only save dollars, but also make tasks easier and time spent more productive. Powerful, user-friendly scheduling and control software has much to offer the educational community in this regard. n Ann LaRock, the author, is director of marketing for AC, Ltd. in Herndon, Va., (800) 733-2238. AC is an integrator of videoconferencing systems and a developer of videoconference scheduling and control software. Their product is called VC Wizard.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.