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March 24, 1997 1:45 PM ET
The next seat may be your own in cyberauditorium
By Renee Deger

  The days of ducking out of conference calls may soon be over.

PlaceWare Inc. today unveiled a Java-based platform that enables 1,000 or more people to attend live audio presentations on their desktops and interact with both the speaker and other people "seated" in the audience. And, the speaker can solicit responses from the audience.

PlaceWare is targeting its PlaceWare Auditorium to large corporations but will preview it this week at an open house during several 1-hour presentations for people with a Web browser who apply for a "sneak peak" password.

The server software that will enable people to create and host their own presentations will become available for trials in mid-April, said officials of the company.

Auditorium is the first product for the closely held company, based in Mountain View, Calif., that was spun out of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center last summer. Originally intended for chats on the Web, Auditorium found a more lucrative commercial use by tailoring the product so companies can host sales meetings or just-in-time training when issues erupt and numerous people, such as help desk personnel, must be briefed simultaneously, said Richard Bruce, president of PlaceWare.

A user attending a presentation will see any of several windows, one of which contains the presenter's slides and a scrolling text of the speech entered prior to the actual speech. The text may be removed if the user has audio capabilities. The user also can answer questions raised by the presenter in the form of polls and E-mail queries.

A window showing an auditorium floor is open as well, and a user can choose a seat and a color, search for other people in the auditorium and talk among the rows. The server records where in the auditorium the users are "seated" so assigned seats may be given, and departments can be seated in the same row for easier communications.

Auditorium seems to offer what the market for corporate training software has long been lacking, said Ellen Julian, an analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

"It combines a live instructor with a virtual classroom, so you don't have to restructure your schedule to be at a place at a certain time," said Julian. She added that the long history of the chief architects of the software is a plus for the technology since an intact team has been working on it for years.

The underlying premise of Auditorium is much like an offering by Centra Software, in Lexington, Mass., which uses different technology and targets any audience, whereas PlaceWare is focusing on corporations that want to link more than 50 simultaneous users. Bruce said the program, in fact, is not appropriate for workgroups or small sessions.

Future applications for such technologies could be extended to elementary and high school education as well, added Julian.

Hewlett-Packard Co. began using the beta version of Auditorium in August and branded it the HP Desktop Classroom, and added its own features. HP, which employs about 3,500 customer service representatives and about 350 engineers to support them, tailored the program so that everyone with access to the Auditorium has the capability to host presentations as well as attend them, said Bruce.

Intel Corp. uses Auditorium for occasional presentations on the Web and Sun Microsystems Inc. is examining an applications of Auditorium, according to PlaceWare. The Public Broadcasting Service is incorporating the program into its Web site as well, said PlaceWare.

"It's easy to build shared applications on this system," said David Nichols, a chief architect of the platform.

A programmer's package will become available on a select basis. The server program will be sold for $150 per simultaneous user and $300 per user with audio capabilities.

The company can be reached at www.placeware.com.

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