30 June 2006

A Six Thousand Kilometer Non-CO2 Conference

Videoconferencing debriefing notes of 30 June 2006

The following notes were written up to report informally on how we handled the distance participation at a two part conference between Easthampton Massachusetts and Paris France on global warming and climate modification. The first half consisted of an in-place presentation by John Maulbetsch which was sufficiently well informed, balanced and dramatic to make Al Gore look like the comics page. Scary stuff. The second half of the presentation was led by me, and took a look at what we think can be done working from the bottom up – taking as a point of departure the specifics of transport in and around cities as set out in the New Mobility Advisory and Briefs for which full details are at http://www.newmobilityadvisory.org.

The meeting lasted for about an hour, equally divided between Easthampton and Paris. My travel costs were $00.00. Our communications cost were $00.00 I saved on the order of two tons of CO2 by staying at home. I was also able to eat dinner with my wife and sleep in my own bed. Highly sustainable. Eric Britton, Paris.

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The idea here is to see if I can ‘debrief’ you in a page or two with some reactions and thoughts from this end on our shared session the other day, with the idea of eventually getting this into a form that reflects your comments, etc. and will be useful for future sessions. So here below I will mix what we did and what I think we should do to get best mileage out of these tools in eventual future sessions (of which there will surely be many):

Background note on videoconferencing from here:

We have been using videoconferencing in our work daily here since 1993. It has not been a straight line and about every eighteen months (uh huh) we seem to change technology. In the old days it was both hardware and software (via ISDN), but since IP videoconferencing came on line here (late 1999 in parallel with move from ISDN to ADSL), it has been increasingly about new and better software as it comes on line. From 2000-2004 we worked with a toolkit from Polycom.com, which was a bit expensive but gave us good quality connections and nice group work package (which we still have to duplicate). Since 2004 we have in our open work shifted to a combination of Skype and SightSpeed, which has in both cases the advantage of being free and of quite satisfactory quality (most of the time). For a historical note on our progress in all this, check out. http://ericbritton.org/htdocs/general/eb-examples.htm#it.)

Our first “public videoconference” took place in 1995, with a seminar at University of Toronto. In 1996, at an OECD conference in Vancouver Canada (on the topic of Sustainable Transportation ;-). Since we have done at least one or two a year in places as distant as Bogota and Australia, with the latest at Williston last Saturday. Over this time we have developed a certain number of routines and work habits which I should now like to share with you.

The basic objective behind all this:

The goal is to integrate the distant speaker/participant as seamlessly, efficiently and inconspicuously as possible given what we have to work with. Please understand that despite what may seem like some considerably complexity, it is no big deal and while it takes careful preparation it is well within the capabilities of just about any group with even a smidgeon of IP competence. (Which is to say that if we can do it, anyone can.)

Basically this works best if we establish three channels of IP communications. In this case two SightSpeed video links and one Skype voice link for discrete ear-to-ear communications and overall management and control purposes.

1. Video link 1: The first video link has as its objective to permit as full participation as possible of the distant participant (in this case me).

a. In this case it consists of a SightSpeed camera placed on the speakers’ platform and aimed right at the audience (so that I can see them as I speak).

b. The speaker’s image is projected on a screen next to the podium -- and it is important that the image is of human dimension, bearing in mind the need for people at the back of the hall to see everything.

c. One nice option is to keep a smaller image up there when someone else is speaking, more or less exactly as if the distance guy were there on the platform, politely listening and not getting in the way.

d. When it is time for me to make my presentation, the image gets bigger, but should not be allowed to become a glowering Big Brother image.

e. By way of additional feedback, when my image appears there will also be the little ‘picture in picture’ image in the bottom right corner – so that the public can get an idea of what I am seeing. (I find this handy because I am a feedback guy, but if you don’t like it, well forget it.)

f. When there is a film clip or other presentation item to appear, these appear full size on the big screen, while my image as speaker is then reduced to a very small rectangle in the bottom right of the screen. (This retains the direct link between me and the audience, as they would have if I were up there on the podium during the projection.)

g. Questions from the audience: It will be important that the distance speaker can look at them both during questions and as he/she answers. Visual feedback in important.

2. Video link 2: The second video link provides my “chair in the audience”.

a. This camera provides a one way stream and is placed at the back of the hall (slightly raised usually to get a clear continuous shot of the action).

b. It provides both visual and sound feedback, thus permitting me to ‘sit in the audience’ and observe what is going on during the entire conference.

c. Incidentally for that to work well from here, I have to have, of course, to separate video and software/communications links on different computers. It is best to have the two monitors placed one next to the other so that the distance guy, me, can get a full view of the gongs on without having to race or swivel from one computer to another.

3. Voice link: The third link is a simple Skype voice only connection which serves two purposes.

a. The main purpose is to roved a private voice only link between the distant speaker and the technician running the show in the conference area. Stuff happens, and this discreet private voice link permits us to problem solve without getting in the way of the rest. The technician usually is best served by a wireless Bluetooth headset.

b. It also provides us with a last chance emergency backup in case the video links go on the fritz. This has happened to us on two occasions, and happily both times we had backup so that we could at least get through the conference. You can never be too careful when it comes to technology.

4. Watch out for: That’s about it, but here are a few other things it is good to keep an eye out for.

o Lighting is critical. At both ends. It is worth worrying over to get right.

o Sound too is critical and needs careful verification and fine tuning. Screeching speakers or interrupted transmissions are not fun.

o The speaker should take the time to ensure that (a) his/her image is not too huge and(b) not centered on the screen. People quickly loose interest in talking heads. Best is to have a visually interesting background, good lightning, and to pop yourself a bit off center. As a rule, half of the image should be of something other than the speaker. Nice and unaggressive. Kind of like not shouting.

o When any films or presentation items are to be presented, it is good to download them first and then play them locally. This saves precious bandwidth and removes one more potential source of problems.

o Best if everyone clears off all other programs and possibly conflicting stuff, so that the conference will be uninterrupted.

o Bandwidth. It is like they say: you can never be too blond or too rich. And you can never have too much bandwidth. Never.

5. Nice to have:

a. Orientable/zoomable cameras that can be controlled from this end. (Not a big deal and available at pretty low cost today.)

b. Ideally, the entire event will be recorded. And if appropriate streamed so that others who were not there but would have liked to be will have access at their convenience to the goings on.

c. We like to provide an on-line “Guestbook” for later comments and questions.

6. Take the time to prepare:

o We recommend a full run-through session one week before the target date to be sure that we have everything in hand and properly adjusted. This also gives us a chance to make the adjustments or get what might be missing equipment or software well in time.

o Then 24 hours before the broadcast, a full dress rehearsal: step by step, minute by minute.

o Finally, one hour before conference start-up everyone shows up on both sides to make sure that all is in order.

o We then get a cup of coffee and talk about how smart we were to get it all straight well in advance. No pressure. Pure pleasure.

And you can do it! Be a hero. Tell your children what you did. They will love you even more.


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