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Microsoft NetMeeting and the Role of Internet Conferencing for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Users

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Introduction
Overview of the Features of NetMeeting
How Can the Features of NetMeeting Be Used?
How Can NetMeeting Benefit Users With Other Disabilities?

Introduction

For years now, computer networks such as the Internet have been carrying text-based messages around the world. Most often, these messages take the form of electronic mail, though real-time chat programs are also used. As the quality and speed of computer networks increase, so do demands for higher levels of interaction that include voice, graphics, and video exchange in real-time. This growing trend toward richer communications via computer is known as Internet Conferencing.

Microsoft NetMeeting delivers a complete Internet conferencing solution that combines all of these features and more. It provides a powerful, integrated package that offers standards-based data, audio, and video conferencing. Users of NetMeeting can communicate and collaborate with other users in real-time over the Internet or an intranet. Third-party vendors can use the NetMeeting platform to integrate its conferencing features into their own products and services.

While some may believe Internet Conferencing presents new challenges for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, Microsoft believes it can create unique, new opportunities. Internet Telephony, a subset of Internet Conferencing, is now no longer restricted to voice communications. It comprises a variety of rich multimedia communications, which combine the power of the PC with the global reach of the Internet to allow individuals to interact as never before. For individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, Microsoft NetMeeting can serve as a valuable tool to help communicate more effectively with others in the workplace, the classroom, and the home.

NetMeeting delivers the following key benefits to individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing:

  • Richer real-time communications. Individuals are no longer limited to just text-based communication. With NetMeeting they can now communicate using multimedia graphics and text.

  • Multipoint communications. No longer are individuals limited to communicating with only one other person. Users of NetMeeting can communicate and collaborate with multiple users simultaneously. Instead of two people talking with the TTY, you can have several talking together with NetMeeting.

  • Improved communications. The chat capability of NetMeeting offers bi-directional communications that is faster than that available with a TTY device, and that lets you save conversation transcripts for easy review, editing or re-use.

  • Go anywhere portable communications. With NetMeeting on your laptop computer and dial-up access to the Internet, you can travel and communicate at any time anywhere around the world. Now you can communicate in real-time with family, friends, and colleagues without them needing to purchase a TTY device.

  • Works with existing hardware. NetMeeting is designed to work with PC hardware you have today - it requires a minimum of a 486-based PC. The data conferencing features of NetMeeting require no additional hardware. NetMeeting supports standard modems, so the user can take advantage of the latest modem advancements. Generally, TTY-compatible modems lag considerably behind the state-of-the-art in modem technology.

Overview of the Features of NetMeeting

NetMeeting delivers a rich set of data conferencing features that allow users to communicate with text and graphics based on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) T.120 standard for multipoint data conferencing. Multipoint means that two or more people can connect together to form a conference, where they can all interact. Some key advantages of the use of data conferencing to communicate is that there is no additional hardware that you need to purchase - you don't need a sound card, microphone, or speakers, and you don't need a video camera, - and it works well over a dial-up modem connection to the Internet. The data conferencing tools that NetMeeting offers include the following, each of which is described in more detail below:

  • Text-Based Chat

  • Electronic whiteboard

  • Native Application Sharing, allowing users to share applications running on one computer with others in a conference for real-time collaboration

  • File Transfer

  • Video Conferencing

The information in this section provides a brief overview of the data conferencing features of NetMeeting. More detailed information can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/.

Text-Based Chat

The chat feature provides real-time text communication across the Internet, a corporate intranet, or a school network. With it, two or more users can gather together as part of a virtual meeting and send text messages to one another, allowing communication in real-time. The contents of a chat session can be saved as a transcript for easy review, editing or re-use. For an individual who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, the chat feature serves as the core means of communicating through NetMeeting. It can allow more flexibility and independence than a TTY because:

  • It can transfer information at a greater speed.

  • It allows simultaneous communication with multiple users.

  • A NetMeeting user can interact with anyone who has access to a computer and modem, improving communications with others, whether or not they are deaf.

  • Chat can be used in conjunction with the other features of NetMeeting to greatly expand the communication possibilities beyond the use of text alone.

Electronic Whiteboard

The electronic whiteboard capability in NetMeeting lets users share, draw, and annotate images with other people as part of a virtual meeting. Rather than communicating via text alone, the whiteboard can allow you to visually communicate about common topics and ideas. For example, you can show pre-existing drawings or pictures while chatting, and create ad hoc diagrams in real-time. It helps you get your ideas across when words alone are not enough.

Native Application Sharing and Collaboration

NetMeeting enables users to share a Windows-based application with other participants in a conference, allowing them to view the same application information on their screens. They can collaborate by making changes to shared information. For example, the native application-sharing feature of NetMeeting allows users to share a word processing application to collaboratively edit the same document at the same time. Traditionally, electronic mail has been used to send documents to different people to obtain changes. However, this process is very repetitive and often takes longer than working on the document simultaneously. Since virtually any Windows-based application can be shared for real-time collaboration, NetMeeting also serves as a valuable aid in situations such as distance learning and technical support.

File Transfer

NetMeeting provides a convenient method of sending files to other conference participants. During a conference, a user can send one or more files to all participants in the conference, or to a selected individual. For example, simply dragging and dropping the desired file into the NetMeeting window will send the file to all participants. This can be useful after making changes to a shared document using the native application-sharing feature. The final version can be sent to all conference participants before concluding the conference.

Video Conferencing

NetMeeting also offers video conferencing capability over the Internet or an intranet. If a camera is connected to your computer, the video conferencing feature allows another person in the conference to see you. You don't need a camera on your computer to see video that is sent by another user. The performance and quality of the video will vary depending on the speed of the PC, type of video camera, speed of the network connection, and amount of network traffic. You will probably find video performance inadequate for transmitting sign language over a dial-up modem connection, but you may find the performance reasonable over an intranet. Over a dial-up connection, you can still use the video capability to enhance your communications by being able to see the person you are communicating with. You can even copy a video image to the clipboard to paste into another Windows-based application (e.g., the Whiteboard in NetMeeting).

How Can the Features of NetMeeting Be Used?

The combination of the features of NetMeeting can provide enhanced communication capability in a variety of environments, including at work, in school, and at home. This section provides a few sample scenarios and usage suggestions to understand the power of NetMeeting. The uses described for one environment may have similar utility in other parts of one's life, and the examples presented in this section are by no means exhaustive.

NetMeeting at Work

NetMeeting can be used to enhance communications in the workplace, making all users more productive. Examples of how it can benefit individuals with disabilities include:

  • Virtual meetings. Arrange virtual meetings quickly with one or more people in the same or different offices without having to worry about special accommodations.

  • Enhanced teamwork. Collaborate with others no matter where they are, or how they communicate. For example, a lawyer who is deaf can collaborate on a legal document with another person who is in a different city, whether or not that person is deaf.

  • Remote training and distance learning. Participate in training from a remote location and save transcripts of chat sessions and whiteboard images on your own computer. The native application-sharing feature can be used to conduct presentations or product training sessions.

  • Technical support. You can assist others, or receive assistance, in setting up new software or learning a new feature in your old software using the native application sharing of NetMeeting.

  • Customer support. Exchange real-time information with organizations or services that do not have a TTY, without having to use a telephone relay service. The time lag involved in translating from TTY to voice and back again can be reduced or eliminated, and problems of accuracy in communication can be improved. This may be especially helpful during the discussion of certain subjects, such as technical, medical, or job-specific matters, when the relay operator may not be familiar with the terminology involved.

NetMeeting at School

NetMeeting has tremendous potential for helping to improve communications at school. For example:

  • Virtual training. Students can participate in virtual discussions, real-time exercises, and distance-learning scenarios with other students or with the teacher.

  • Real-time collaboration. Students can collaborate together with other students to work on a common project, or collaborate with teachers directly for special education needs.

NetMeeting at Home

At home, NetMeeting helps improve communications between family and friends over the Internet. You can connect with people you know to:

  • Keep in touch with friends and family. The real-time chat feature helps you keep in touch with family and friends, whether or not they are deaf. You can even communicate more effectively than using a telephone by using the chat feature in conjunction with the whiteboard to share a picture you took with a digital camera, or scanned into your computer with a desktop scanner.

  • Talk to several people in different places at once. You can conduct a virtual family reunion, or communicate with friends and family dispersed geographically.

  • Use the Internet to communicate with businesses. You can communicate in real-time with businesses using NetMeeting to conduct transactions or to obtain additional information. For example, you could use NetMeeting to communicate with your doctor, or with the customer service desk of a business to obtain assistance.

How Can NetMeeting Benefit Users With Other Disabilities?

NetMeeting's features are also useful for people with other disabilities. Some benefits include:

  • The ability to quickly establish accessible virtual meetings, classes and discussions to bring people in different locations together who otherwise would not be able to meet in person.

  • Real-time voice communications can be used to enhance text communications and collaborations. This allows you to speak to another user over the Internet with voice as an alternative to using chat.

  • Users who are blind or deaf-blind, and others who rely on screen reading software and/or Braille displays, can use the collaboration features of NetMeeting. Because of the way NetMeeting displays information to the screen, however, such users must be the ones who open the document or application on their own computer and share it with others in the conference. In this way, their software is directly monitoring the application in question, and detecting changes that are made.

  • NetMeeting has full keyboard access, and thus is navigable by people who don't use a mouse. For example: to take control of a shared application without a mouse, a user can press any key on the keyboard; if somebody is in control of an app while you're collaborating, pressing ESC will remove you from collaboration mode; a user can switch between local and shared applications by using the ALT-Tab task switch sequence, etc.

How to Obtain NetMeeting

NetMeeting is a core component of Internet Explorer 4.0, and will be incorporated into future releases of the Windows operating system. In addition, you can download NetMeeting from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/.

The Microsoft Internet Locator Server (ILS) provides a dynamic directory service that may be deployed on the Internet or a company's intranet by a network administrator to make it easy for a community of NetMeeting users to find and connect to each other. While you can use one of the many servers currently deployed on the Internet, setting up your own ILS may make it easier for people in your organization to find and connect to each other. The ILS runs on top of the Microsoft Internet Information Server. You can find additional information about ILS and download it from the Internet at no charge from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/.

For Additional Information

For additional information about NetMeeting, the features it offers, and how others are using it, visit http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/.

For more information about how computers can benefit people with disabilities, and how Microsoft products and services are helping make this possible, visit www.microsoft.com/enable/.

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