Impressed by a demo last year, HealthCare Compare, a cost-management service, decided to test linking the company's two offices -- one in Chicago, the other in Sacramento -- by video. Using special electronics, not only could people at one site talk with people at the other site; they could see them as well.

Is it working out? "Our folks found that the quality of communication is significantly improved when they can see each other," reports delighted executive vice-president John Krakauer. "They pick up facial expressions and really feel they're in touch." Not only has office-to-office travel been markedly reduced, but the company intends to set up a sales program in which prospects brought to one office will hear a pitch from the other, via video.

Videoconferencing may not be much of an advance over a simple conference call, yet not long ago businesses were willing to pay as much as $500,000 for videoconferencing installation, plus phone charges of up to $1,500 an hour, to be able to confer by image as well as voice.

But now they don't have to. In a low-end pricing play, PictureTel (508-977-9500) recently introduced a complete, if basic, videoconferencing system -- including camera, monitor, control unit, and electronics module -- for less than $20,000. The price undercuts the industry leader Compression Laboratories' (408-435-3000) cheapest system by a good half. Together with the fact that charges for simply dialed coast-to-coast videoconferencing calls have fallen to a mere 25¢ a minute, the comparatively modest costs are expected to entice small business into the picture.

But stay tuned for yet lower prices. Not to be outflanked, Compression Labs promises a $15,000 system by 1992's end.

-- Robert. A. Mamis