Thursday, April 16, 2009

Widespread, affordable video conferencing

I seem to have a thing with video conferencing lately, but you really can't get more AV than interactive moving pictures and voice. Videoconferencing is a great way to bring distant experts in to interact with your class without paying for a plane ticket and a hotel room or to have a similar class at another institution collaborate or compete with your class. One objection I  hear often is that the expert or other institution doesn't have access to a video conferencing set-up. There are ways to do effective video conferencing over the internet with inexpensive cameras and free software. 

Obviously, the expensive, installed specialized video conferencing systems are going to have some advantages, but the free and inexpensive systems can provide a usable interactive experience.

The first thing you need is a video source for your computer.  Web cams are available for $35 that provide a picture just about as good as the average camcorder, as well as  having a microphone that can pick up anyone in an average sized classroom if they speak up. (Many of the computers in the classrooms at UW Oshkosh have a camera built-in) The limitation is that they're pretty wide angle (hence have to be fairly close to the person in the picture), and don't have zoom capability.  That really doesn't make too much difference if a distant individual is the main focus of the presentation and it's not necessary for them to get that good a look at your class. If they need a better look to converse with an individual, that person could come up to the front of the class. I've been the distant presenter in situations like this where I was seeing a room full of people and I had no trouble recognizing that the audience got a joke or seeing that a person near the back had a hand raised. Some camcorders can deliver video directly to the computer and there are also under $100 dollar devices that allow you to bring the video from any camcorder into the computer to take advantage of the higher quality video and zoom lenses.

The service most people recognize for this function is Skype. Skype will make a video call from any internet connected computer to another, for free, to anywhere in the world. It does require a fairly fast connection, at least on the order of DSL.  I have made calls to individuals in Korea and Hawaii, and to universities in India, Germany and Peru. To use Skype each party has to register and get a username.  Then you simply enter your distant party's username to make a call.  There's also a text chat accompanying the video calls in case you have trouble with the voice during the call. I have never had such trouble, but occasionally a new user will have their preferences set up incorrectly.  Skype is probably more well known for voice calls.  Their profit making activity is to make calls from a computer to normal phone lines for a fee, presumably for less than normal long distance.  With video calls, Skype can only make connections between two individuals, although up to 10 people can conference with audio only.

I often get asked about video calls to multiple individuals.  Up til now, the only option was iChat, the instant messenging application on the Macintosh, but of course, that meant both parties had to have a Macintosh.  iChat would allow calls to up to three other individuals.  Just within the last week, I  discovered a service called Tokbox  that allows you to connect up to three other people. Tokbox is based on the Flash player that is almost universally installed on both Macintosh and Windows computers and operates directly in a browser window just like a web site. The host must register and start a session.  Then a special URL is sent to the other users by email.  When they click on the URL, Tokbox connects them to the session. One minor limitation with Tokbox is they don't handle echo cancelling very well.  If everyone on the call is using open microphones and speakers you can hear yourself repeated with a  slight delay.  In the worst cast scenario, this could start the painful howling of feedback.  The solution is for everyone to use headphones, but in the tests we have done, the "echo" was only slightly annoying.

Tokbox is also a classic example of a "mashup," a service where two or more internet services are combined. In a Tokbox call you can also share a video on YouTube or a slide presentation (e.g. PowerPoint) on SlideShare with everyone in the call. Tokbox also includes a text chat window.

(Later edit:)  Wouldn't you know, about two hours after posting this I found out about ooVoo, which offers a similar service, although it works as a separate Java based application, which incidentally, didn't work when I installed it on my Macintosh running the latest system software)

On-line meeting software can also involve a video connection and send it to more than three others at a time, but this blog has gotten long enough and I'll cover that in another post.

Readers from UW Oshkosh are welcome to contact me for equipment loans and to make sure your classroom computer is set up to use video.

Desktop videoconferencing is really not a new innovation.  At the grand opening festivities of the IDEA Lab in 1996, our featured speaker came to us via CU-SeeMe, an early free video conferencing program which featured a black and white, 160 x 120 pixel image. Primitive as it was, the speaker and audience made a connection that wouldn't have been as rich with audio only. (CU-SeeMe is still available)

Although not quite up to the standard of dedicated Polycom and Tandberg multi-thousand dollar systems, desktop video conferencing can provide nearly as effective a connection and make it available to a much, much wider group.

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