Blog from Nov 15, 2011

If you've ever used or thought about room based videoconferencing systems in the past half decade, you've probably gotten frustrated. These setups are expensive, somewhat proprietary despite their support for open standards, shockingly frustrating to use, and often end up as wall decoration in conference rooms where they are rarely, if ever, turned on. Contrast that with the relative simplicity of Google Video Chat, Skype, or any of the other web conferencing services, and you might conclude that the era of the video conferencing unit has passed.

Here's the thing though - the idea of a reliable appliance that sits in the conference room just waiting to open up your meeting or seminar to your colleagues in the wider world is awfully appealing. And high definition video conferencing (when it works) is a better experience then computer based video conferencing. The question is: how can we make that experience more reliable and make the technology more useful?

To answer this, IT is launching a new initiative around video conferencing. It's based on two simple goals:

Video Conferencing is Easy to Use
It's simple to attend any meeting anywhere, and share your meeting with others.

To help achieve these goals, we've working on the following:

Video Conferencing Is Easy To Use

  • Crisp, clear instructions in the conference rooms for self service.
  • Similar units in major conference rooms, all updated and supported centrally.
  • Help on demand, just from calling the helpdesk.
  • Training opportunities when you want them.

It's simple to attend any meeting anywhere, and share your meeting with others.

  • Evaluate and possibly deploy cloud-based service to connect your browser/computer to video conferencing units. (Currently evaluating ClearSea and Bluejeansnetwork).
  • Deploy LifeSize Streamer - which allows you to stream (one way stream) from any LifeSize equipped conference room to the internet to share your meetings with others.

Let's examine that last point for a second. Let's say you're having a seminar in 50b-4205. You have a colleague at CERN and a colleague at FNAL that would like to attend too. Let's imagine that they want to see the seminar, but don't necessarily need to "be seen" or interact. With our new streaming service, you'll be able to set up a stream from the video conferencing unit in the conference room and share the link with your colleagues - all very simply and with little or any prior coordination.

This is cool, but the goal above that is even more important. It should be really easy for you to participate in a video conference from your desktop or laptop. Surprisingly, the interface between these devices and room based video conferencing isn't usually very simple or effective, and requires comparatively expensive software licensed on a per user basis. However, new developments in this market are very exciting. The two products above take different approaches to bridging the world of computers/mobile devices with video conferencing units. We hope to be able to report more about what we've found in the next few weeks.

Videoconferencing has the potential to improve collaboration and reduce our carbon footprint, so we want to get this right. We'll be updating the blog as we continue to consider how best to offer these services.

Until then, let us know - what can we do to improve your experience of videoconferencing at LBL?

Note: No doubt someone will say that the remote desktop/laptop problem has been solved by EVO/Koala. The problem is that this tool isn't really that easy for non-technical people to use. We have recommended it for years as the good free alternative to connect to H.323 and SIP, but it remains a complex tool with a UI that's easy to be put off by, and an install process that's anything but straightforward.

Russ Pond is the new DOE (and Berkeley Lab) Account Manager for the Government Enterprise Division at Apple. He and Ron Ustich (continuing on as our primary systems engineer contact) attended the Nov 14 Mac User Group Meeting and then visited staff in the IT Division.

Future presentations and webinars concerning iCloud, mobile device management options, high performance computing initiatives, and workstation management were discussed.

For those of you who use iPads at work, this link might be of interest.