An advanced videoconference system that combines multiple video streams to create a virtual workplace is now being used by New Zealand’s major universities.
The Access Grid is an open source research tool that combines a whole bunch of video streams in different sites and brings them to one collaborative space, says Nathan Gardiner, New Zealand coordinator for the Access Grid and IT manager of computer interface centre, the HIT Lab, at the University of Canterbury.
It utilises multicast traffic, a more efficient way of streaming video, says Gardiner, so a high speed network, such as the advanced research network KAREN, is required to have a meeting.
The Access Grid enables people in different places to meet in a “virtual venue”, says Gardiner.
“It works similar to what a chat room would do,” he says. “You log on and log into a venue server, and then inside the venue server there is a bunch of virtual rooms. So you can create your own virtual room if you would like to, or you could meet someone in a particular type of room.
“Multiple meetings can be happening all over the country at the same time.”
In contrast to familiar point-to-point services or ISDN-based teleconferencing between a small number of sites, the Access Grid scales to handle large numbers of participating groups, says Gardiner.
“Last year I participated in an international meeting where we had 100 different sites linked in,” he says.
The Access Grid also provides interfaces to grid middleware, enabling the creation of new tools for collaborative visualisation, data-sharing, remote control of instruments and interaction with other grid resources, he says.
The HIT Lab has been given some funding to do research around enhancing the software and to develop collaborative tools that can be added to the Access Grid programme, says Gardiner.
Jörg Hauber, a PhD student at the HIT Lab, is working on a new type of video conferencing that explores how to bring real documents into the virtual conferencing space, or use real objects to interact with virtual content. This interface uses objects and metaphors that are easy to use and understand, for example a magnifying lens to make things bigger.
“The Access Grid is like video conferencing on steroids,” says Gardiner. “Not only does it do video conferencing, you can also share your laptop screen, 3D models, data sets or other information, or share virtual meeting spaces. It’s unlimited as to what you can do with it.”
The Access Grid is used only by the universities at the moment, but Gardiner would like to think that other institutions, such as polytechnics, will get involved in the future.
The HIT Lab has been involved in setting up and supporting the Access Grid in New Zealand since 2003.
“Now we are looking at new avenues for Access Grid enhancements and also high definition — we are very keen to do further research into enhancing the quality of video and audio,” Gardiner says.