to be: a lurker. Skulking around the fringes of the Internet, tapping into people's conversations, checking out hairstyles or other exposures. Sort of an online focus group, one-way mirrors and all.
Yes, lurking is here. It's a legitimate option with CU-SeeMe, videoconferencing software that offers the first glimpse of the medium the Internet may become. It is not yet widely used in the advertising world-at least not that we've discovered so far-but its potential is worth noting for a couple of reasons, aside from the obvious being able to do desktop teleconferencing.
Then again, there are other, less obvious applications to be found. Our old friend Peter Farago at Farago & Associates in New York, for example, calls the slow, "frame-deficient" delivery "pretty crappy. It's at the MacPaint stage. This is not about watching 'Cheers' on the computer." Yet he sees a tremendous potential, particularly when it comes to human behavior and what part advertisers can play in that eternal mystery. Farago points to a straight-up business use of CU-SeeMe at a trade show in Las Vegas, where he was among 34 participants who hooked their servers together to "narrowcast" Bill Gates delivering the keynote address. Each server was capable of hosting 50 participants. "It was viewable wherever you were living," Farago says. "It was color. It looked great. People stood around looking, and it was like watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon."
On a more basic level, for nearly a year Farago has been experimenting with CU-SeeMe technology to facilitate interaction in what he calls the Guinness World Bar. It's basically a bar on a video server, complete with graphics of beer taps. "It's an experiment based on observation," he claims. "On AOL, 67 percent of the people are in the chat rooms. They're there for the oldest and most interesting human function." To find a date, he means, elaborating on middle-aged farts who live out their fantasies in text.
Add video to the intrigue, and what happens? Somebody thinks he sees a breast in a window, and people start taking their clothes off. Really. "People aren't using it to do business. They're using it to mate, to entertain themselves," Farago says. "What should advertisers do? They should just facilitate the process."
At this point in his experiment, Farago has been granted use of a brand name and hr created a demo to describe the concept. As far as the working online bar is concerned, he says the audio is not great-people can, and do, choose to type their comments rather than converse directly-and some have to settle for lurking. But the technology's potential is potent, at least for the imaginative.
Furthermore, it's affordable. Most videoconferencing systems require elaborate setups on both ends, perhaps even dedicated rooms, as well as heavy-duty phone lines. With CU-SeeMe, the software itself is cheap-free, actually, if you download a rudimentary version from the Internet. The commercial version, called Enhanced CU-SeeMe, is available from White Pine Software for $69.
It's also accessible. You can use it on both Macintosh and Windows systems with low-bandwidth Internet connections and a 28.8 modem, or even a 14.4 if you only want to talk. It doesn't require expensive compression/decompression (codec) boards, and a $99 Connectix camera will suffice to get your mug on the screen.
Participants can be visible, hidden or lurkers (yes, they're called that, they being the camera-less). Up to eight remote video windows can be open on the screen, so you can see eight participants at a time, although as many as 50 to 100 can participate in a conference. According to White Pine's PR chief, Tracy Specht, you can point to someone (the participants appear in a band across the top of a screen), click, and have a private conversation.
Granted, the quality is somewhat crude. The shareware version is available only in b&w, and even with the color version, your visual correspondent may resemble a clown with Tourette's. At best, the frame speed, using a Connectix camera, is 15 fps.
As usual, you have to choose speed or quality. The lowest-speed modem may deliver only one or two frames per second if the visual quality is 100 percent. The windows are small, one square inch; make them larger and the image falls apart.
The audio, however, is real time; market research shows unequivocally that videoconferencees can't handle jerky sound, says Specht. "But we're still talking videoconferencing for under $500," she adds, estimating half a million users can hook up.
Paul Pashibin, VP-technology at Colle & McVoy, Minneapolis, says he uses CU-SeeMe in a business capacity, but in a personal sense. The agency has a higher-end videoconferencing system, called Eris, which runs off ISDN lines and can be wheeled into any staff member's office for a digital face-to-face meeting with a client. Ads can be reviewed on screen, files can be zapped back and forth, and changes can be made instantaneously.
White Pine's version of CU-SeeMe also contains a whiteboard application, which allows multiple users to collaborate on documents. But Pashibin uses the software primarily to go online to discuss technology issues with others in his field. It is not yet ready for prime client time. "It's for hardware and software questions," he says. "It's another support medium." But he agrees with Farago about its viability and he remarks on the progress made within the last six months; progress that clients and agencies should be watching closely.
"Everything I see on the Internet is going toward TV," he says. "There are already huge test markets in New York, Orlando and France, with Internet channels. It's a matter of what we'll be watching, in our homes, on a screen, in