A sophisticated telepresence suite or modern high-definition (HD) video conferencing room may dazzle executives, but those systems often require IT support on both sides of a session and their complexity can intimidate rank-and-file end users. Traditional video conferencing failed one university that sought to connect its students with remote researchers in Panama. Instead, users turned to flexible and portable desktop video conferencing over Wi-Fi.
What we're doing would typically require tens to thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and we're doing it with laptops on consumer-grade [Internet] lines.
Charles J. Kazilek
Director of Technology Integration and Outreach, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University
"[Video conferencing] is no longer an event—it's a way of life," said Charles J. Kazilek, director of technology integration and outreach in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU). "[Users] can interact and do things so much faster now than they could before [with room-based systems]."
ASU recently began a five-year partnership with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama's jungles and with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Initially, Kazilek planned to use the college's 90 legacy Polycom and Tandberg video conferencing rooms for collaboration and multipoint HD video conferencing between scientists and students.
But researchers in Panama—studying rainforest insects and plants on a small island off the country's Pacific coast—were unable to bring specimens into the video conferencing rooms to share with students and other scientists, Kazilek said. Users in Panama also demanded more flexibility and independence, complaining that the legacy Polycom system at their lab required them to book a session with IT several days in advance, making ad hoc meetings difficult.
Instead of bringing the jungle to video conferencing, users wanted to bring video conferencing to the jungle.
"The project that came to us was to link [students to] the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute down in Panama and not just [link them] into the rooms," Kazilek said. "We had to get [video conferencing] out into the field, and of course that was going to be problematic."
Desktop video conferencing goes beyond the desk, into the jungle
Skype's free desktop video conferencing software, which recently added multipoint video capabilities, seemed like an affordable solution that would be universally available to users around the world, Kazilek said. But security requirements at the Smithsonian, which is funded by the federal government, forbade Skype traffic on its network, he said.
Enterprise desktop video conferencing software vendor Vidyo Inc., which claims to deliver multipoint "personal telepresence" with a router instead of a bridge, caught Kazilek's eye after he watched a YouTube video that well-known tech blogger Robert Scoble had shared on his Twitter feed. Having been disappointed many times in the past by desktop video conferencing vendors, Kazilek was skeptical of Vidyo's claims.
However, the high quality video that Vidyo claimed it could deliver—up to 1440p—in a secure environment and over the Internet via wireless LANs or 3G/4G cellular networks prompted Kazilek to explore the solution further.
"It seemed too good to be true," Kazilek said. "A lot of [desktop video conferencing vendors] had promised what Vidyo is doing and didn't deliver."
After six months of testing Vidyo with students on campus, scientists in Panama and partners at other research institutions, Kazilek said the desktop video conferencing software has exceeded his expectations in terms of quality and enabled users to be more independent in when, where and how they use video to collaborate.
Scientists in Panama bring their laptops, webcams and noise-cancelling headsets with them—as far as their Wi-Fi network extends—to share live video of plant life and insects in the jungle. By aligning the webcam with a microscope, students at ASU also use the desktop video conferencing software to share their work with the researchers abroad or students and faculty at ASU's other campuses, Kazilek said.
"When I went to show it to our dean ... his post-doc [student] happened to have a newly-discovered species underneath the microscope, and the resolution was so good that the dean said, 'Is that a new species?'" Kazilek said. "What we're doing would typically require tens to thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and we're doing it with laptops on consumer-grade [Internet] lines."
Although Vidyo's desktop video conferencing software can support transport over 3G, Kazilek said the resolution and frame rate degrades significantly, making for a poor experience. However, other participants with better connections on a multipoint call aren't "penalized" for the 3G user's poor bandwidth, he said.
Kazilek recently tested desktop video conferencing over 3G. It cut the mobile Vidyo user's experience from 60 frames per second (fps) to 7-8 fps, but other participants in legacy Tandberg and Polycom rooms received the mobile user's video at standard-definition and HD quality, he said. Audio quality remained high.
"3G works, but it's not something you'd want to do every day," he said. "I think when [cellular networks] get to 4G, you're not going to have any issues at all."
Flexibility of desktop video conferencing enables more collaboration
The portability of desktop video conferencing on laptops will also be introduced into the Smithsonian's outreach programs with local public schools to enhance students' participation and quality of experience, Kazilek said.
Vidyo's desktop video conferencing software also interoperates with the legacy Polycom and Tandberg systems the school has already invested in, he said. Kazilek has also used Vidyo's software to outfit conference rooms with what looks like traditional room-based video conferencing by connecting a 42-inch, 47-inch or 55-inch screen to an Apple Mac mini running the client.
In addition to internal meetings, those desktop-turned-room video conferencing setups will also enable ASU to accommodate more guest speakers from overseas; during a recent seminar the school brought in a researcher from Norway via desktop video.
Faculty are also using portable webcams and Vidyo software within ASU to virtually bring large groups of students into small labs that otherwise couldn't fit 150 students, Kazilek said. And even if those labs were big enough, students who were further away from the speaker could not see and hear everything as well as students standing close by, he said.
"[The experience] is interactive now," Kazilek said. "The student thinks it's just a video until the video starts talking back to them."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.