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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Video Trade Small but Hot

WASHINGTON -- Everywhere you turn, it seems, somebody's selling a new kind of video-conferencing system.

Sony Corp. has introduced one that allows for four-way hookups. MCI Communications Corp. says it hopes this summer to release a home-oriented product that gives parties to a phone conversation the ability to see one another on their television sets.

Sound familiar? Of course. We've been hearing for too many years to count that video-conferencing is finally set to be a mass-market product. But when was the last time you saw one of the video phones that AT&T Corp. put on the market three years ago?

But the fact is that with all those false starts, the industry has succeeded in creating a business that is quite fast-growing, if still small.

The hottest products now are units that send pictures between computer screens using telephone technology called integrated services digital network, or ISDN, which allows for more rapid movement of information than over the normal phone system. Dickinson & Associates, a Massachusetts research firm that tracks this market, estimates that in 1995, companies worldwide shipped about 47,000 such products, almost triple the 17,500 in 1994.

The main thing that's changed in the past two years? Computers.

In the 1980s, the systems were television-based. Industry ran with the notion that their customers were big companies that wanted elaborate video-conferencing rooms. Systems entered the market priced at close to $1 million. Later, manufacturers lowered their sights, building wheeled units that could be rolled around to be used in various parts of an office, costing as little as $20,000.

Two years ago Intel Corp. entered the market with its ProShare system, a kit that includes camera, microphone, software and hardware that turns a personal computer into a video-conferencing station. The kit now costs, with rebates, about $1,000.

Simultaneously came the World Wide Web, a new transport medium for online images. Products are now emerging that send video images across the global computer network at basically no extra charge to anyone who has Web access and the right equipment.

But for most, these systems remain in the realm of the experimental. Companies can't figure out how to use them efficiently. And many say they seem like a gimmick, despite manufacturers' studies that show faster turnaround times for group projects, reduced travel expenses and other benefits.

Bruce Ryon of the market research firm Dataquest Inc. suggests that things will take off when a decent system costs $100 or $150. At that price, it's not hard to imagine it becoming a standard feature in new personal computers.

Behind the scenes, the industry is negotiating common technical standards for sending live pictures back and forth so that one manufacturer's system could connect to another's.

where people sat at sets like newscasters to confer with distant colleagues

And other companies have plans for late-year launches of video-conferencing products aimed at the holiday market.

To date, the main customers of all of these systems have been companies.

, in the way voice mail software and hardware is included with some systems