It is probably a couple of decades now that videoconferencing (VC) technologies have been commercially offered and used in universities across the globe. Earlier systems used normal telephone lines, and later came digital phone lines (ISDN). The ISDN type is still in use in some places, it is fairly expensive to use. First, you need a dedicated line which cost monthly to keep and then you pay by the hour of usage and you pay long distance if it is so. Things have changed a little. With widespread availability of IP networks, unlike ISDN, we now have everything is needed to make audio-video calls from anywhere, virtually at no cost to the user. All you need is your computer, network connection, a webcam/microphone, and a software client that uses either H323 or SIP protocol.
Here is the confusing part for some: Today, there are many shades of what may be considered VC. Videoconferencing has become a generic term for anything that includes an audio-video transmission. This introduces some challenges for various users who like to collaborate with others across the systems. There are many services available, some for free some for a fee. And of course, just about every single one of these systems use a proprietary encoding method that makes it harder to talk to each other, if not impossible.
Videoconferencing demystified: Technically speaking, videoconferencing or VC in short refers to a set of technologies that work with well known and well established standards for communications across various platforms. These standards could be any of H323, SIP or the older H320(ISDN) with the later requiring a bridge to communicate with the other two. The most recent and promising standard is Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). In SIP system, you need a registrar or directory system that provides a unique and universal address for you, just like an email. You simply login and you are available to receive calls and to make calls.
Why you should consider using videoconferencing? The reasons are quite simple: A VC system saves you from traveling when it is inconvenient to travel, it is quite cheaper to meet “virtually” than the cost of flight+drive+hotel, it is greener(if you care), and it is a lot more convenient to arrange meetings with remote colleagues on a short notice. Let’s say you are going on sabbatical but need to keep close touch with colleagues who are working a shared proposal, or a student that whose work you were going to review as an external examiner is having his/her defense when you are away. To attend these events beside using email, your choices are, potentially, to fly across the globe for a two day round trip(not likely to enjoy the time at the airport these days), use the technology to attend your event remotely, or not to attend the event at all(some of you may prefer this one). To attend virtually will cost you 1-3 hrs of your time while sitting in your home office, and it can accomplish the purpose of a meeting a lot more than you might think.
So what system should you use? In an institutional environment interoperability and being cross-platform become the key factors in choosing a system, and that is where products that are based on H323 and SIP standards have a clear and significant advantage. Products such as Skype, Yahoo, and Google are great tools as long as everyone is using the same system. But the variety of systems and their proprietary technologies just becomes an obstacle in using them. Also, in a professional institutional environment, systems like Skype don’t quite scale up or pass the various requirements, such as security concerns.
In UW, we have been experimenting with a desktop VC system called Movi. Movi is based on Tandberg infrastructure. On the front end, all you need is a computer, a webcam with microphone, and the client software that will be distributed according to a licensing scheme. This is a SIP based VC system, as such, you will be given a personal address similar to email address. (I.e. firstname.lastname@example.org). Then, other users using H323 or SIP clients will be able to reach you at your station and have an audio/video call and share a presentation if you need to . It can be as simple as that. In our current trials we have been using Windows client and we are hoping to receive a Mac version soon. Also, we hope to provide a way of facilitating multi-party conferencing as well, though, this last one is on our wish list. We are perusing this last item through two different methods: The first option is to have a service provider such as ORION to offer this as a service, the other option is to have our own MCU hardware which is a substantial cost up front, we will have to wait and see how this goes.
We know UW campus is spreading across the province and the globe, we need to look forward to find a new channel for connecting with our satellite offices other than traveling every time, or accepting limited functions of telephone. The premise here is quite simple, we can attend meetings more often and easier if it is virtual.
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