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Microsoft's Surround-Sound Meeting Plans

Microsoft has a prototype camera that can keep everyone in the room in the Web conference picture.

Microsoft is showing around a prototype product, called the Ring Cam, designed to make Web conferences more like face-to-face meetings. Combined with Web-conferencing software that Microsoft acquired this year, remote-meeting participants would be able to view and hear a live, 360-degree image of participants in another location.

Few details are known about when products might result from the prototype. A Ring Cam--actually multiple FireWire cameras--would stitch together images from its surroundings. Software would isolate the audio and image of whichever participant is speaking, says Amit Mital, general manager of Microsoft's real-time collaboration unit. That technology likely would be incorporated in Microsoft's Office Live Meeting 2003 service, which is based on products it acquired with the recent purchase of PlaceWare Inc.

Microsoft's challenge is to integrate the real-time technologies it's developing--instant messaging, presence awareness, team workspaces, and now Web conferencing--over the next several years, Mital says.

Some IT execs and managers who gathered at Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif., campus to see the first public demonstration of the concept were at least curious about the trial balloon.

Harvey Peters, an application specialist with Safeway Inc., said he wanted more details on Microsoft's collaboration plans. The grocery retailer is preparing to use Web conferencing and instant messaging to communicate with its stores, suppliers, and customers.

Mital is more definite about plans for Live Meeting. It will be a component of efforts, including phone-and-PC integration, one-click calling commands, and point-and-click conference calling. The software also is expected to let callers schedule conferences, create team work spaces, and automate the process of creating searchable notes.

An early version of Live Meeting is being used among Microsoft employees, he says, and that use is doubling about every two weeks.

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