Video technology is finding its place among virtual meeting tools, from Web meetings to teleconferencing to webcasting. And for good reason: Video lets participants see facial expressions, which convey much more than disembodied words ever could. It brings virtual meetings to life.

Besides saving attendees the wear and tear of traveling (especially for short meetings of one day or less), the benefits of virtual meetings are many: increased efficiency (often video meetings are more tightly scripted); increased reliability (no flight delays); easy recording capabilities; and improved communication over standard audio conference calls.

At one time, the only means of videoconferencing was via satellite, and the costs were as astronomically high as the satellites themselves. But with the advent of faster data lines, you can buy good quality teleconference video at a fraction of the cost. And with the "fat-pipe" bandwidth currently being laid, videoconferencing will eventually become nearly as easy and inexpensive as long-distance telephone calls are now.

Here's a look at the range of videoconferencing options available today, and what's coming around the bend.

Satellite Broadcast If you have large audiences in many locations and need high-quality video, you may want to take advantage of the full broadcast quality that video satellites offer. The video signal is uplinked to a geo-stationary satellite, where it can be broadcast over a very large area. Each downlink must have a satellite dish receiver. But because of the major production equipment, staffing needs, and satellite time involved, this option can easily cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Videoconference Rooms For a less expensive alternative without compromising too much quality, try videoconference rooms designed for group discussions, distance learning, and any lecture-style meeting format. Features of such rooms often include document cameras and remote-controlled cameras with zoom lenses, which allow viewers to determine the view. Good quality video can be distributed via a company local area network, ISDN line, or T-1 or T-3 high-speed lines.

If you run a lot of these meetings, you might consider installing a videoconference room of your own. Today's prices range from $10,000 to $40,000 per installation--but they are dropping. More than 6,000 public sites are available at an average room rental of about $200 per hour. Kinkos Copy Centers (www.kinkos.com) is one of the leaders in providing public rooms. For a full directory of videoconference meeting sites, visit the GVCNet Knowledge Base at www.gvcnet. com.

Desktop Systems Desktop units used at a workstation or desk are best suited for one-to-one applications, similar to a telephone call. These units work over local area networks, ISDN lines, standard telephone lines, and increasingly, over the Web. Costs for standalone non-Web-based systems range from $500 to $5,000--but prices are likely to decrease substantially in the next few years.

Your computer, and ultimately your cellphone, are the future of videoconferencing. A meeting will be just a click or a button-push away at your desktop--and eventually, wherever you are. With the advent of DSL (digital subscriber lines) and cable modems, companies are making major strides in this area.

The big pluses are convenience and a very low cost--just one computer and a $70 video camera can get you started. But low-quality transmission on a small screen can be, and often is, a problem. Even at its best, Web video is substantially less crisp than broadcast video--and small, grainy, jerky images are common.

Web Conferencing Web systems are usually point-to-point applications similar to telephone calls. This technology, together with many online collaboration tools (such as WebEx, www.webex.com, and NetMeeting, www.netmeeting.com), provide not only video but a range of collaboration tools, including document sharing, desktop sharing, presentations, interactive white boards, and more, that can reach increasingly larger audiences.

Things are rapidly changing in this area. Computer processors continue to quicken, image compression to increase, and high bandwidth options to simultaneously improve and cheapen. New online collaboration tools are also being developed. Very soon, the quality of Web-based videoconferencing and collaboration will improve and gain popularity as meeting tools.

While virtual meetings will never replace face-to-face contact, enhancements in the various technologies described here will continue to make them an indispensable communications tool.

Tips to Take Away 1. Videoconferencing offers the best of both worlds-- It enables you to meet with people around the world without the travel time and expense while retaining those very important nonverbal cues.

2. With the latest high-speed data lines, good quality teleconference video is available at a fraction of the cost of satellite broadcasts-- But if you have large audiences in many locations and need high-quality video, you may want to take advantage of the full broadcast quality video satellites offer.

3. Web systems provide not only video but a range of collaboration tools--Sites such as www.webex.com and www.netmeeting.com offer a range of teleconferencing collaboration tools, including document sharing, desktop sharing, presentations, and interactive white boards to reach increasingly larger audiences.

4. Your computer, and ultimately your cellphone, are the future of videoconferencing-- A meeting will be a click or a button-push away at your desktop--and eventually, wherever you are.