Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Multi-point Videoconferencing Gateway (#4 CGIAR Strategic Technologies Series)

Over the years, videoconferencing has evolved from a bandwidth-consuming unreliable technology to one that consumes less bandwidth and is much more stable. Video has become more and more utilized as bandwidth has increased and prices have come down. As part of the Strategic Technologies for the CGIAR in 2010, Multi-point videoconferencing gateway ranked 4th place.

The simplest and easiest Video conference to use is point-to-point, but there is increasingly a need in the CGIAR to easily set up meetings with multiple locations (multi-point) for the purpose of communication and collaboration.

Before I go into the multi-point videoconferencing gateway topic, I would like to provide an introduction to the types of videoconferencing that exist today and classify them in two main types: Formal and Informal including a list of the tools that are currently supported in the CGIAR centers.

Formal Videoconferencing:

Integrated Videoconferencing Rooms

Integrated Videoconferencing RoomIntegrated room conferencing systems are group conferencing systems most often used in conference rooms, board rooms, or classrooms with multiple participants. This type of system usually consists of a centralized location for the codec and associated hardware. The main camera, displays and peripheral video sources are usually permanently mounted in the main conferencing area. Seven centers in the CGIAR have these facilities in-house, and these are mostly used to make point-to-point videoconferencing, although three centers have devices that support multi-point. With this type of setup, usually it is imperative to  have audio/video specialists present at all times to ensure technical support on both ends for a successful videoconference.

Set-top or appliance Videoconferencing System

Set-tops are complete videoconferencing systems designed to sit on a monitor. They are useful in small conference rooms and other small group venues. Set-top video communication systems are often maintained on a cart, making it possible to roll them around for use in different rooms. Approximately four centers in the CGIAR have these facilities in-house.

Issues with low-bandwidth and connectivity locally or in the remote site is one the biggest barriers that are faced with this ‘formal’ type of videoconferencing. However, there are more advantages of using Videoconferencing because it helps us to:

  • reduce travel costs (and our carbon footprint)
  • improve use of executive time and speed up decision-making
  • enable top management to quickly and effectively communicate with staff sitting in multiple locations
  • provide an effective way of delivering cost-efficient trainings/seminars to individuals without the requirement to consistently travel to central locations and create a medium for conducting interviews

Informal Videoconferencing

Informal videoconferencing are those where you can connect to a virtual conference/meeting from the office using your desktop/laptop, without the need of mobilizing the audio/video technicians to help you get setup.

Desktop/Laptop Videoconferencing Systems

Desktop/Laptop videoconferencing systems bring video communications into your personal workspace. This technology can deliver full-motion videoconferencing from your PC and usually involves having a local webcam and headset.

Skype – is one of the most popular ‘informal’ desktop audio/video conferencing client tool used in the CGIAR today.

Last year I wrote a post comparing Skype and Google Talk. After almost a year after writing that post, Skype is still very strong to be able to make multi-audio conferences and call landlines and mobile phones at low-rates, but I really like Google Talk to communicate with my colleagues.

Google Talk/Google Voice – This week, to my surprise, Google announced they are now supporting phone calls to any phone in the USA and Canada for free (at least until the end of this year) directly from the Google Talk client in GMail and provide low-cost international calls, but this service is  currently limited to users in the United States.

Although this is still not working on our CGX 2.0 Google Apps implementation, this service can be tested in your personal GMail account for now (if you are in the USA), but I can’t wait to have this feature on CGX 2.0!

Web Conferencing Systems

Web Conferencing is where a presenter can deliver a presentation over the web to a group of geographically dispersed participants. The terms ‘web conference’ and ‘webinar’ are used interchangeably to refer to the same type of service.

In it’s simplest form, the presentation is not interactive. Participants can see what’s on the screen but cannot make changes. More advanced systems allow the presenter to share applications or their entire computer desktop with participants and even take control of the remote computer over the Internet. Unsurprisingly when used in this mode, the web conference is usually called an “application sharing” session or “Desktop Sharing” facility. Web conferencing systems vary enormously in terms of cost, complexity and functionality. There are already 6 CGIAR centers that offer a subscription to web conferencing systems such as Cisco Webex , GoToAssist or GotoMeeting.

If you do not have any subscription and want to setup a quick and basic webconference, you can use DimDim which is free for webconferences with up to 20 people.  We have used DimDim in the ICT-KM program to provide virtual trainings and presentations to centers and it’s quite reliable.

Multi-point Videoconferencing Gateways

Multi-point Videoconferencing involve three or more different locations. Normally this setting is quite costly because it requires high availability of bandwidth and investment in equipment to support a multi conference. High costs are mainly the reason why this topic has been in stand-by for some CGIAR centers, but recently there are many alternatives that can be explored to enable this service for the CGIAR centers.

The most popular videoconferencing gateway providers are:

Vidyo – Vidyo is a video communications provider that allows people to connect to a videoconference through the office, from home or while travelling through the Internet or any IP network. The Vidyo gateway would allow us to use our existing legacy equipment: Polycom, Tandberg or other MCU–based systems existing in the CGIAR today to interoperate with a new H.264/SVC system.

Nefsis : Nefsis provides a  distributed cloud to have quality multi-point video conferences including video, audio (VoIP), and sharing.

Aethranet – Meetin Video: The Meeting Video multi-point service from Aethranet allows you to participate in a virtual meeting from your PC with a webcam and have some people connect through a 3G mobile phone, and some people participating in audio mode only which is an interesting option since not everyone has the same technology and capabilities.

Vivu videoconferncing room

Skype multi-video conferencing – given that almost 80% of the ‘informal’ videoconferencing in the CGIAR centers is done through Skype, it may be interesting to explore a  multi-point gateway selected for the CGIAR that can work with Skype. The Skype Vivu plug-in can be used as an alternative to to allow multi-point video with Skype.

Nothing beats face-to-face meetings in some cases since the ‘human’ touch is still very important, but there are many situations in which Videoconferencing and/or Webconferences are options that should be considered to save time, money and contribute to the environment.

Definitely there is no one-size fits all when talking about Videoconferencing, but an important premise for the centers to enable multi-point videoconferencing successfully is to ensure:

  • good Internet bandwidth in HQ and in our regional offices
  • accessibility to cost-effective equipment

We are currently working on an ICT Roadmap for 2011-2013 together with the CGIAR IT Managers that will be finalized by November 2010.

Given the collaborative nature of the new CGIAR Mega Programs, which will increasingly require our researchers\staff to easily collaborate and communicate with each other and their partners anytime, anywhere; Multi-point videoconferencing is clearly one of the topics that will be considered in our future ICT Roadmap.