Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Unfriendly Skies

One of the side effects of being a Harvard faculty member and being chair of HITSP is traveling for teaching and collaboration around the world. In 2007, I've flown about 400,000 miles. This morning, on my way to give a keynote my flight was cancelled for no apparent reason. Every other flight to my destination was overbooked. The combination of high fuel prices, heightened security concerns, overbooked flights and surly airline employees makes flying a truly unpleasant experience. I finally asked the airline folk to consider other airports within 60 miles of Boston, then drove to Providence, went standby on several connecting flights and arrived on time to my keynote.

Days like today make me believe we should stop most travel to out of town meetings and shift to web-based collaboration tools. As I mentioned in my earlier blog entry , I'm testing these tools as part of an evaluation of flexible work arrangements. Today's experience motivated me to test video conferencing solutions.

I tested the following

Windows - Polycom PVX software, using H323 and SIP teleconferning protocols over IP.
MacIntosh - Xmeeting, an open source H323 and SIP teleconferencing tool
Ubuntu Linux - Ekiga, an open source H323 and SIP teleconferencing tool.


My first observation about video conferencing is that poor video can be tolerated, but audio must be nearly perfect for the technology to be useful. Polycom has figured that out, and seems to preferentially use available bandwidth to ensure the quality of the audio. I used the windows-based Polycom PVX software to connect via H323 to a MacIntosh running Xmeeting. It worked perfectly, offering 'good enough' video from my desktop Logitech Fusion camera and headset microphone. The MacIntosh side provided barely passable audio and passable video. iChat via IM seems to provide much higher quality audio and video on a Mac than the Xmeeting H323 approach. IP-based teleconferencing worked on these machines without any configuration hassales or configuration incompabilities. My experience with H320 ISDN teleconferencing which requires a series of digital telephone lines is that it can be quite finicky. Typically when I do ISDN teleconferencing, the engineers on both sides of the call need 30 minutes to ensure equipment compatbility and get the connection working. I've had many ISDN teleconferencing presentations fail completely, be interupted mid presentation and have variable quality during the course of the call.

My second experiment involved connecting a MacIntosh running Xmeeting with an Ubuntu Linux laptop running Ekiga. Although bandwidth should have been sufficient, I found that the Linux laptop did not perform the audio or video tasks well. This could have been because the laptop has low powered graphics hardware and only a 1.06 Ghz core solo, however, many other folks I've spoken with with have found that Linux does not seemed to be an optimal platform for high end real time audio/video applications at this time.

The bottom line of these experiments is that PolyCom seems to really have a business quality desktop teleconferencing solution that enables me to connect with collaborators using H323 protocols. Xmeeting came in second place, offering barely passive audio quality and passable video quality. Ekiga was not usable for business purposes, although it may suffice for casual chat.

The big question is whether or not the video is even necessary. Maybe a still photo and crisp bidirectional audio is sufficient for a meeting. The technology is ready to replace airline travel with desktop teleconferencing, but our business culture is not. We want to be about to reach out and touch the speaker, even if it means traveling thousands of miles and enduring the pain and expense of domestic airlines. As oil prices continue to rise and as climate change accelerates, it may be that economic and social forces will align to minimize physical travel and encourage us all to use low cost bandwidth from the comfort of our homes and offices instead.

The positive aspects of H323 was that the standards were mature, I did not encounter any firewall issues, and cross platform communication worked among all the computers and operating systems I own.

The downside is that it uses bandwidth for video that may not be truly necessary. My next step will be to explore the collaboration tools such as Webex, Adobe Connect (used to be Macromedia Breeze), and Elluminate to determine if audio plus shared presentations/whiteboards is a better fit to meet the needs of my road warrior travel schedule.

11 comments:

John Norris said...

As a point of comparison, it might be interesting to check out HP's Halo. While it might not fit with what you need to do, it may help answer some questions as to what you might expect from other systems.

The article "Edgeline Technology Announcement" at http://tinyurl.com/2plcjq indicates there is one in Boston.

Robert Horn said...

I've been experimenting to learn what works and does not work in the SDO process. One thing that has been clear is that audio quality is more important than video. The worst problems are the combination of meeting room with individual audio. This is a serious problem in all but the best prepared rooms. Either the individual loses or the meeting room loses.

The kind of meeting and its purpose also matter greatly. The nature of the interactions and their purpose must be understood.

A primarily one way conversation (such as a lecture or status report) is easy to adapt to electronic meetings. For many, it is more important to have the presentation than speaker video. So a combination of presentation with well synchronized voice works quite well. But if two way conversation is also needed (e.g., question and answer session), electronic is far less effective. Also, if the real goal is to set the stage and mentally engage the audience, electronic is much weaker. The disengaged remote listener can easily tune out and leave. The disengaged audience member can be attracted and engaged much more easily, because leaving involves social criticism.

So far, the effective uses have been for document preparation, where the document is past the brainstorming and initial definition, and where there is little negotiation needed. In this case, having the synchronized presentation and voice together for 60 to 90 minutes works. The document must be prepared and distributed in advance. Reviewers need time to review, and need to be able to skip around in their personal copy while the document is being reviewed. I find that canceling phone calls because the document was not distributed helps. Then all edits and notes about edits must be visible to reviewers. Side notes by the editor are ineffective. The reviewers need to see and agree that the note is roughly correct. The meeting chair must also ensure that this does not degenerate into editing the editorial comments.

There are meetings that do very badly on telephone. These usually involve establishing social ties, negotiation, brainstorming, and multi-person conversation. The "being trapped" is also needed for some of the less pleasant grunt work meetings, such as the final detailed line by line review of technical specifications.

The meeting chairman has a much higher workload for tcons. Agendas are much more critical. Controlling talkers, disrupters, etc. is much harder over the phone.

molly said...

Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional is so reliable. You get a dial-in number, and the recent service pack update makes it's screen sharing capabilities the fastest around! http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro/

janster said...

John:

Great blog and I can understand your frustrations. WebEx offers has a solution that is optimized for healthcare providers (http://www.webex.com/enterprise/healthcare.html) and you can take a free trial at www.webex.com/ft

Jan Sysmans

Robert Horn said...

I see you are being hit by advertising responses. The social nature of the meeting takes precedence. Then you worry about the software tooling. Some meetings do fine with voice along with ready access to an FTP/HTTP server. Some need synchronized presentations (like Webex, et al). Some need real video. The two things that I've found most critical among tools are:

a) platform universality - a weak point for most tools, but I refuse to exclude someone from the SDO process just because they use platform X.

b) Internet connectivity requirements - many people are in transit, in hotel rooms, on trains, etc. You have to decide what level of connectivity speed and latency you will require. The higher your requirements, the more you exclude the world. I routinely have transoceanic participation. I occasionally have in transit (airport waiting room or train) participation. Demanding short latency or high bandwidth would exclude them.

John Halamka said...

I'm conducting a pilot of Adobe, WebEx and Elluminate at Harvard right now. More about that in the blog soon.

Thanks to all for their comments

jessica lipnack said...

I alluded to this in a reply to an earlier post. We did research with a bunch of virtual teams, pub'd in the biz journal of record. In brief, barely a third used videoconferencing even when their companies had invested heavily in it? Why? First, you still have to travel to the videoconf facility; second, it's not searchable; third, it's hard to see all those faces and share docs; fourth, fifth, sixth...you've already stated.

OK, so desktop video? Other than VSee, which has developed compression algorithms that allow high-qual signal via low bandwidth, and is extremely good, the technology really isn't there yet. And how many faces can you get on the screen without looking like a truly silly version of Hollywood Squares (silly enough)? And you still have the problem of not being able to look at docs together with all those faces staring at you.

I agree with those (I think you were el primo here) who say that the mix of conf call with screensharing (Webex-y or anything, doesn't really matter) is more than good for getting real work done. And the teams we surveyed did too. Four out of five used this combo to great success.

That said, there's nothing like a good 'ole 1:1 videoconf via IChat for us Macophiliacs. Quality is incredible but...you still can't pass a cursor back and forth and edit something together.

HorseLuvR said...

I just saw a demo of Cisco's Teleprescence product and was blown away...if they can get the price down, or set these up in key metro areas and charge for a per use...we would hardly ever have to fly the unfreindly sky's again. This technology was thougt out taking the human element into consideration. Very kewl stuff, lifelike in every way...really. Wish I could afford one in my home office. But then again...that would be the end of doing early morning conference calls in my underwear.

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Football Matches said...

I agree with those (I think you were el primo here) who say that the mix of conf call with screensharing (Webex-y or anything, doesn't really matter) is more than good for getting real work done. And the teams we surveyed did too. Four out of five used this combo to great success.

Recep Deniz MD
DoktorTR.Net