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 travel time and costs, 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 costs were astronomically high. But with faster data lines, you can buy good quality teleconference video at a fraction of the cost. And with the "fat-pipe" bandwidth now being laid, videoconferencing will become nearly as easy and inexpensive as long-distance phone calls are now. Here's a look at the 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 Videoconference rooms are designed for group discussions, distance learning, and any lecture-style meeting format. Features often include document cameras and remote-controlled cameras with zoom lenses that allow viewers to determine the picture. 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, 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 this field. 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 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 stand-alone, non-Web-based systems range from $500 to $5,000--but, again, prices are likely to decrease.

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. 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 often is a problem. Even at its best, Web video is substantially less crisp than broadcast video.

Web Conferencing Web systems are usually point-to-point applications similar to telephone calls., providing--together with many online collaboration tools such as WebEx (www.webex.com) and NetMeeting (www.netmeeting.com)--not only video but a range of collaboration tools. These include document sharing, desktop sharing, presentations, interactive white boards, and more.

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.