Parents show off newborns in on-line press conferences

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TYLER – When does "Wahhhh" mean "I'm ready for my close-up"?

It's when new babies are introduced to colleagues, friends and relatives with a live Internet broadcast even before leaving the hospital.

A company called has created the technology used to produce Webcasts that are free for parents and their guests. The 30-minute Net conferences are being conducted from broadcast kiosks in the maternity wards of 38 U.S. hospitals.

East Texas Medical Center in Tyler is the first hospital in Texas to offer the service. Hospital representative Sidney Williams compares the baby press conference kiosk to a drugstore picture booth.

But instead of making still photographs, the kiosk broadcasts a conference that can be viewed on computer screens in full motion and real time.

Hospitals provide a high-speed Internet connection and pay a one-time equipment fee of $14,500 and monthly maintenance charges of $250, says Katherine Gebhardt, a spokeswoman.

"Because there are also revenue-sharing opportunities [the hospital makes $15 on each CD copy of the Webcast sold to parents], it's in their best interest to sign people up," Ms. Gebhardt says. The CD costs $29.99.

Hospitals are opting for the baby press conference kiosks to improve patient and community relations, says president and chief operating officer Lee H. Perlman.

Mr. Perlman says the earns its keep by selling baby-related items from its www.babypressconference. com site. The site also has pregnancy and parenting content provided by American Baby magazine.

The kiosk resembles an automated-teller machine. A black box, roughly the size of the shipping crate for a 15-inch monitor, rests on a workstation with a keyboard and mouse. Families use the keyboard to access the site but spend the remainder of the Webcast holding their progeny – not typing.

Families say they like the service because it is free and simple to use. Hospital administrators like the service because they don't have to operate the equipment.

"It's innovative. ... BabyPressConference operates the kiosk remotely," Mr. Williams says. According to press materials, the site is Microsoft-enabled, using Windows Media Player and BackOffice for the site's streaming media and back-end operations.

Users must have Windows Media Player or RealPlayer to view the Webcast. Media Player is already installed on Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows 2000. It's also free for downloading at the baby press conference site.

The company says that although you can view streaming media with a 28.8 Kbps modem, the faster the connection, the better. A Mac interface is in the works, the company says.

In mid-August, new parents Stephanie and Roger Godin held a Webcast with 4-day-old Ryan. Participants logged on to the baby press conference a few minutes before the chat was scheduled to begin.

The site is partitioned into individually framed areas. The center section, or frame, is the chat area. Participants type remarks or questions that are read by the new parents, who make voice responses.

Instructions at the bottom of the screen can be navigated without jumping from the conference or chat screen. A conference timer and the video image of the family appear in a window on the left side of the screen. Users can watch the Webcast, chat with participants and shop for toys simultaneously.

With a Pentium III processor, 64 megabytes of RAM and a 56 Kbps modem on the receiving computer, viewers could clearly see Ryan's chubby cheeks and blue pacifier, although the picture blurred whenever a family member moved suddenly. Once the camera refocused, the picture was clear again.

But with the 56 Kbps connection, the picture occasionally jumped and paused as the receiving computer collected and buffered data.

There was also a seven- to 10-second lag between questions typed by participants and the Godins' answers. The lag occurs because the video signal contains an enormous amount of information that has to be translated into digital data before it is sent from the kiosk modem.

The audio fared better than the video. Listeners could hear Ryan express his desire for lunch with a series of gurgles.

"It really is easy to use," Mr. Godin said.

Expectant families register at the Web site and provide the e-mail addresses of people to invite to the Webcast.

After delivery, the parents return to the site to schedule the Webcast. The company sends invitations and a password to participants via e-mail. Ms. Gebhardt says the Webcasts are secure from uninvited guests.

At the appointed hour, the family logs on at the kiosk and answers questions posted by participants – just like a chat room.

Company officials say that the key to a smooth event is registering early – three or four months before delivery. Webcasts are archived on the site for two weeks.

Mr. Perlman got the idea for BabyPressConference while eating dinner with a colleague.

"We had no idea that the experience, the interaction would be at the same magnitude as a physical encounter," Mr. Perlman says. "Geography is dispelled by the Internet.

"This is what the Internet, the technology was created for," he says.

Nancy Schaadt is a free-lance writer in Dallas.

Cutline: New parents Stephanie and Roger Godin with 4-day-old son Ryan.