Dialogue Café

dialogue cafeI was over at the University of Northampton running a Research Data Management Training for Librarian’s training session with a colleague yesterday. We were in the library and I spotted the Dialogue Café. This is a “a global non-profit initiative that uses high-end video conferencing technology to enable video conversations between diverse groups of people from around the world so that they can share experiences, learn from each other and collaborate to make the world a better place“. Apparently it is a way to provide students and staff of the University with an access to a network of over 4000 likeminded organisations and communities across the globe and the opportunity to share, learn and contribute to the work of others. The main technology used is Cisco TelePresence.

The Dialogue Café is the world’s first open videoconferencing network specifically designed for civil society. There are Dialogue Cafés all around the world: in Northampton, London, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Lisobon, Ramallah (Palestine), Cleveland (US), Paris and Wroclaw (Poland). They have a Flickr site with images of people using the cafe, and are also on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Flickr

What a great idea! I wish I’d had something like this when I was a student, it would have really helped with some of the projects I worked on!

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Multistage Acting

I’m currently away in Porto, Portugal for ECLAP 2013, the 2nd International Conference on Information Technologies for Performing Arts, Media Access and Entertainment. The conference aims to provide a forum in which individuals and institutions carrying out innovative research in the performing arts can share findings.

One particular presentation, on multistage acting, might be of interest to the readers of this blog because it could easily be adapted as a remote working tool. The presentation entitled Multistage: Acting Across Distance was delivered by Fei Su of the High Performance Distributed Systemsgroup (HPDS), University of Tromsø, Norway. He and his team have been looking at ways of enabling actors in different locations to act and interact together on one stage. Enabling acting across distance support interesting new performances but can also make it possible for actors to rehearse together when not physically in the same place.

Multistage acting - image courtesy of

Multistage acting – image courtesy of Fei Su, University of Tromsø

Enabling multistage acting is not straight forward and requires having hardware and software systems in place, setting up radio and wired networks, organising sensors to capture the actors and computers to receive and analyse the data. The main hardware used are kinect motion sensing input devices designed by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 console. The separate stages must then be ‘bound together’. The main challenges are dealing with delays (distance always causes some delay in video streaming) and issues with causality (an event must happen before it can be observed and reacted to – so more delays). There are times when synchronisation is critical, for example if actors are dancing together, and times when it isn’t so critical. The research team are working on masking the effects of the delays using the idea of a ‘remote handshake’ as a test. The process is helping them ascertain how much delay is acceptable.

The research project still has a way to go before all the tools are ready to be delivered but I think it will be an interesting one to watch.

Very Virtual: Kaltura Education Video Summit

Unfortunately I missed the Kaltura Education Video Summit virtual event a few weeks back due to other commitments, but after a friendly email inviting me in I decided to take a look at what was still available.

The home screen with embedded video and virtual hostess

The home screen with embedded video and virtual hostess

The first annual Kaltura Education Video Summit has been billed as the most comprehensive conference dedicated to online video in education, learning, and training. It looked at ways to harness video to improve teaching, learning and training and offered those attending the opportunity to network with the world’s leading education video experts, connect with peers from leading educational institutions and enterprises around the world.

Kultura teamed up with InterCall, industry leaders in virtual environments and webcasting, to provide a really innovative virtual event.

The conference is structured round the main hall (home area), which offers links to all the talks, resources and sponsors.

Virtual exhibition hall

Virtual exhibition hall

You can take a tour around or create a virtual agenda, which will help point you in the direction of interesting sessions.

Blackboards’s interactive Booth

Blackboards’s interactive Booth

This year’s summit had 3 different tracks:

  • The Future of Education
  • Video in Education
  • Enterprise Learning, Training and collaboration
Sharon Flynn, Assistant Director, CELT at NUI Galway, presenting

Sharon Flynn, Assistant Director, CELT at NUI Galway, presenting

Each offered interesting presentations on high-level areas such as open and online education, alongside practical talks on areas such as discussion in the classroom, MOOCs and use of YouTube. Some of the talks are more traditional presentations while others are panel sessions and discussions. As well as attending talks you can take a look around the virtual exhibition hall or sit and have a chat with fellow delegates in the networking lounge. You can then pop all the resources and business cards your collect in to your virtual brief case. And of course everything can be shared via Facebook, Twitter or email. You can even upload your own resources and share these with delegates that you meet.

Networking Lounge

Networking Lounge

All pretty impressive stuff! Surprisingly next year’s video summit will be a physical event!

Are you Beaming?

Robothespian, used as a beaming avatar (Photo: Tim Weyrich, UCL)

It’s a common problem…you’re somewhere and you want to be somewhere else. Remote workers deal with this issue all the time, and so does the rest of the world. However video conferencing is still not really there when it comes to getting the virtual to replicate reality.

Enter beaming technology. It allows you to tuck your children in from a thousand miles away or chat to a client from the other side of the world.

Beaming technology is defined as:

digitally transporting a representation of yourself to a distant place, where you can interact with the people there as if you were there. This is achieved through a combination of virtual reality and teleoperator systems. The visitor to the remote place (the destination) is represented there ideally by a physical robot.

The idea has been developed by Computer scientists at UCL and the University of Barcelona as part of the BEAMING project with recent results published in PLOS ONE journal last week. The team refer to it as a form of augmented reality, rather than virtual reality. In beaming the robot or avatar interacts with real people in a real place, it’s not another SecondLife. It has the potential to transform video conferencing and possibly even revolutionise the way we carry out international business. The BBC news article on beaming offers more suggestions for how the technology could be used including improving morale of military forces through allowing them to speak to love ones and, the not so positive use of ‘virtual crime’.

Professor Mandayam Srinivasan, author of the paper from the UCL Department of Computer Science and MIT, said: “Beaming is a step beyond approaches such as video conferencing which do not give participants the physical sensation of being in the same shared space, and certainly not the physical capability to actually carry out actions in that space.

OK, so it’s already been said…but “beam me up Scotty!”

Top 3 Ways to Successfully Video Conference from Your Mobile Phone

Jonathan Trent has written a guest post for us on two of my favourite things: video conferencing and smart phones! Jonathan works as a writer and Internet marketing specialist for NextUC – hosted Microsoft Lync solutions. When not at work, Jonathan enjoys reading tech blogs, social networking, and playing the guitar.

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For several years, it’s been obvious just how powerful and efficient of a tool video conferencing from a mobile phone could be in business, but until recently, there hasn’t been sufficient technology to make it a viable option. Smartphone performance in the past was often iffy as connection problems led to meetings filled with requests to repeat this sentence or that.

We’ve now reached a point, however, where mobile video conferencing can reliably be used in business communication. Still, there are some things of which you should be aware in order to have the most successful video conferencing sessions.

The Right Connection

While mobile speeds do continue to increase, if you want to be sure of a solid, reliable connection, use Wi-Fi whenever possible. This has at least two advantages. First, it will have a more consistent connection. Don’t be afraid to use your mobile network when necessary, but no matter how fast your 4G connection is, Wi-Fi will normally still result in fewer interruptions in the stream even at higher resolutions. Second, you won’t have to use up as much of your data plan if the meeting begins to run long.

Image credit: Freedigitalphotos.net

The Right App

Don’t limit yourself to device specific apps. FaceTime may be a quality app, but unless you are absolutely positive that everyone else involved in the conference is an avid Apple user, you should consider some other, multi-platform options.

Video conferencing is supposed to drive productivity by joining users together over different geographical areas. You need to be inclusive of a variety of devices so the experience can be shared by as many people as possible. There are some device-agnostic solutions out there for the general public, like Skype and Google+ Hangouts, as well as some business video conferencing solutions when you need more robust controls and options.

The Right Etiquette

While video conferencing has been around for a while, for some reason many people forget some of the basics of proper etiquette during a call. It may simply come from using our phones as the camera and having to hold it up the entire conversation. Whatever the reason, there are some important things to remember to get the most out of your next video conference.

  • Don’t move around. The view from moving handheld cameras can make people sick.
  • Speak clearly and use a normal tone. You’ll be tempted to speak loudly and slowly, but you should trust your smartphone and app to pick up your conversational tone.
  • Body language matters. Remember that the point of video conferencing is to be seen as well as heard.
  • Find a quiet area that doesn’t produce many echoes, and mute when you’re not speaking. You should also avoid sunlight glare through windows.
  • If you’re addressing someone, use their name so it’s clear that this is for them.
  • Avoid dragging on the conversation. Check to make sure your point was made and understood and then move on. Don’t waste your data.
  • Don’t just set the phone down when you aren’t involved with a portion of the conference. The view of your ceiling will be considered less than professional.

You may not have to be in the office to take part in an important conference, but you will need to connect with the most effective and professional way possible to successfully participate. Check your connection first and make sure your appearance is acceptable through your camera, and you can confidently sign into your next meeting with your own mobile device.

The Secrets of Large Skype Meetings

Since late last year the UKOLN remote workers have been having a weekly (Tuesday morning 10am) Skype ‘catch up’. Ed Bremner, one of my UKOLN remote working colleagues, was the originator of the ‘catch up’ idea.

Ed and I worked together on the IMPACT project where Skype telcons were a daily activity. During this time he built up a collection of tips to ensure a happy telcon for all, and he’s sharing them with us.

Ed is a veteran home worker having worked for himself and in consultancy roles for academia and the museums, libraries, archives and galleries sector for many years. Ed works in the field of technical imaging, media production and online learning. Currently his work includes projects with the ISC at UKOLN, the University of Bath and an associate lectureship at the University of Plymouth. He works from home on the banks of the Tamar River in South East Cornwall and dreams of the promised advent of ‘superfast’ broadband to all of Cornwall. Contact him via his web site, Twitter and Instagram.

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For the remote worker, attending meetings can often mean a great deal of very time-consuming travelling, followed by a short meeting and then a second dose of frustrating travel again, leaving us exhausted and potentially unproductive. It is therefore not surprising that we are often the first to ask our colleagues whether some of these meetings would or could be better held online.

Online meetings, or tele-conferences are not always popular with many staff who associate them with bad experiences of being clustered around a small speaker on the table, trying to make sense of the garbled noise echoing around the room. But things have changed and now with improved VOIP technology and more available bandwidth, online meetings using Skype have become a regular part of our working lives. It is true that there is still some reluctance to this, with many people considering that although one-to-one calls work well with SKYPE, larger meetings are far from satisfactory.

The truth is that Skype can work well for larger telecons, but that you all have to know how to get the very best out of Skype to make them work.

I have broken down what we learned from these telecons into a few sections:

Technical:

  • Use the most up-to-date version of Skype. Updates are pretty regular and often deal with possibly security issues, so it is imperative to make sure you have the latest version.
  • Video and screen-sharing works well for one-to-one calls, but currently you have to upgrade to Skype premium to use this functionality in groups – avoid media and video in group calls.
  • Reliable Skype meetings depend on good sound quality, so always use a good microphone, preferably in a headset. You may find that good laptops give acceptable sound quality from their internal mics and speakers, but only if you are in a room by yourself without any background noise and especially nobody else on the same call as you. Headsets that connect via USB tend to be much more reliable and easier to set up. Keep the headset mic about an inch from your mouth. If you have it too close, it will pick up your breathing and make you sound like a ‘phone-stalker’.
  • Don’t group together and share a mic or use conference mics/speakers, they are hard to work very well and you lose the advantage of seeing who is speaking. One person per account works best.
  • Maximise your bandwidth and if possible connect to your network via cable rather than wi-fi .
  • Call quality is dependent on the bandwidth available to the computer than convenes the call and how powerful it is. This is normally someone sitting on an institutional internet backbone, but surprisingly these can sometimes suffer from very heavy traffic and a personal account using ADSL can actually give a better connection.
  • According to Skype the limit of numbers on a Skype call is for 25 audio connections and 300 instant messaging connections. In reality the maximum will depend on the available bandwidth to the convenor and the power of their computer.
  • Skype is very memory hungry. If you leave it on, you will need to restart your computer every now and again to stop Skype hogging too much memory. If you are convening a call, it can help to restart your computer before you call and make sure you don’t have too many other programs working at the same time.

The UKOLN remote worker group on Skype (as seen from Marieke Guy's machine)

Personal Etiquette:

  • Always mute your mic when not talking, especially if you are also typing or want to talk to someone in your own room.
  • When you first come on line, say hello and if it is a big call, give your name, so the convenor knows you are connected.
  • When the call finishes, always remember to check that the convenor has closed the call and if not disconnect yourself.
  • If you have other topics to discuss with someone in the meeting, don’t stay on the call, but close the call and start again.
  • Do have and use a good Skype avatar image. On large calls, not everyone may know what you look like and the Avatar is a big help in improving communication.
  • Watch who is speaking by seeing their avatar ‘flash’, and if you want to talk to one person in particular, start by saying their name. If it is off-topic, could it be done better by IM?
  • Start Skype at least 5mins before the call and mark yourself as ‘online’.


Running Skype Meetings:

  • Create a Skype group with all participants in it, this is useful for instant messaging, to re-connect and run further meetings.
  • Larger Skype meetings work best if they are kept pretty formal and stick to a known format, with agenda. You certainly need to have a ‘Chair’, ‘Secretary’, and ‘Convenor’, who invites everyone and deals with any connectivity or technical issues.
  • 5 minutes before the call send an instant message to the group with a reminder that the meeting starts in 5 minutes. This IM should include links to any necessary papers or presentations. It is also possible to send these files via SKYPE if this is easier.
  • Larger meetings may benefit from a quick round of introductions.
  • If you wish to send any messages outside the normal flow of the meeting, use the instant messaging, either to the whole group, a sub-set or an individual.
  • If you are using any plugins, such as Mikogo, then the convenor should make everyone has the required software and it works.
  • Chair:
    • Don’t be suckered into worrying about fixing other peoples technical problems – this is not your responsibility.
    • Start on time, be firm and keep everything on time. People timetable telecons much closer than real-world meetings and if you go late, they will drop out of call.
    • Before you move on, be sure that all interested parties are happy with a decision and understand it fully. Without body language, it is much harder to notice when someone dis-engages from the conversation.
    • Minutes Sec:
    • Do turn off your mic, when not talking! Headsets are better at not picking up the noise of typing.
    • If you want to record the meeting, for which there are many tools, do tell everyone first.
  • Convenor:
    • Make sure you have already got the contact details of everyone before the meeting
    • Contact everyone by IM 5 minutes before the meeting to remind them of meeting and make sure they have all the necessary papers.
    • Take responsibility for decisions regarding call quality. If you want to re-establish the call, it is up to you.
    • Keep your cool! If you are having technical problems, try and fix them without disturbing the meeting too much. Use IM to contact everyone when needed.

Taking it further:

  • On the whole, if you want to do anything more ‘advanced’ in your meeting, you may well be best off using other software more designed for webinars rather than meetings. For instance both Blacboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect will allow you to share a presentation, or video; however if these are not available, there are a few things that you can do to extend your use of Skype.

When it goes wrong:

For group Skype calls to work well the convenor needs good bandwidth and a powerful computer. If you are having problems with a call, it often helps to just restart the call and try again. If that doesn’t work, stop the call, restart your computer and try again. Failing that, see if there is anyone else who has better bandwidth than you or has a less congested network and a more powerful computer.

The 10 Commandments of Video Calls

Video calls – If you work from home then you won’t be able to avoid them, if you work (anywhere) you probably won’t be able to avoid them for much longer. We all have to get our head round how to make effective video calls.

Chris Lee has written his top 10 tips when it comes to making video calls. Chris is studying for a BA in Music, and spends what little spare time he has musing about everything from philosophy, to economics, to developments in technology. This post was inspired by a recent, awkward Google+ Hangouts conversation, and the subsequent thoughts about how to get the most out of video conversations. He maintains a blog (somewhat sporadically) at —(p)latitudes.

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With the recent advent of Skype, Google+ Hangouts, and business video conferencing¸ the way we communicate with friends, family, and even business partners around the world is changing. Though highly beneficial mediums (no travel expenses, access to local resources, ability to include others in the conversation, and so on), they can take a bit of getting used to for the inexperienced user.

I’ve drafted up “10 Commandments of video calls”, which will hopefully lead to a smooth video call, regardless of the context. Disclaimer: Given the modern subject matter, I’ve dispensed with the ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’: apologies if this makes the commandments seem less authentic!

1. Give your equipment a test-run before the conference

There’s nothing worse than getting caught off-guard by technology and software you’re not familiar with, or by a connectivity problem. To make sure this doesn’t happen, have a practice run in which you can get used to setting up and using your microphone, monitor, and headsets, and ensure you check all devices are connected and that the internet connection is working correctly before starting the call.


It can sometimes seem more complicated than it is!

2. Dress appropriately for the occasion

If you’re preparing for a business based video conference, the expectation of what you should wear will probably be similar to a face-to-face business meeting. This means smart, clean business attire. Creases still show up over webcam! If you’re preparing for a more casual call with friends or family, your options are less restrictive, although remembers it’s unlikely anyone wants to see you in just your underwear!

3. Try to sit still

A webcam will amplify movement and sound made by participants on both ends and lag in the video stream may cause the screen to freeze. The best way to avoid becoming a messy blur is to remain as still as possible during the call, and ensure the lighting is optimal.

4. Optimise the lighting and environment

Talking to an ill-defined shape is less appealing than talking with the well-defined visage of a friend / family member / business contact. Ensuring the lighting is correct will prevent the former, and will improve the quality of the whole conversation. Some good tips to achieve optimal lighting include not having a window or bright light in shot, and not having your face lit from below (unless you want to look like a character from a horror film).

5. Speak clearly!

Bandwidth discrepancies between participants may create a delay in video and audio on one or both sides of the conversation; allow for this when waiting for a response. If you don’t receive a response straight away it’s more likely that a short delay is occurring somewhere in the connection than your remark has been ignored.

6. Keep it short and sweet

As with a face-to-face conversation, long sessions without a break can grow boring and it’s likely that participants on both sides will become distracted. Regular breaks and a conversation that’s as short and focused as possible are a great way to avoid this pitfall. A good way to gauge this is how frequently awkward silences occur (and how awkward they are).

Keep an eye on the time!

7. Position yourself well

Sitting around three feet from the webcam portrays a feeling of interest on your part, while also maintaining the sense of personal space (still a factor to consider despite the fact participants may be hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other!) While your friends and family may be more interested in your appearance than business partners, a close up view of your face filling up their screen may be off-putting.

8. Maintain eye contact

As has been mentioned previously, rules of face-to-face conversation still apply; keep eye contact during the conversation. This means looking at the webcam rather than the monitor image, and while this may feel unusual at first, you will become accustomed to it quickly.

9. Increase font size for on-screen conversation

Any on-screen text used to compliment the video conversation should be of an appropriate font size to avoid tiring the eyes of the reader.

10. Check comprehension during the conversation

Make sure everyone is following the conversation while it is in progress. Video calling technology is not yet a perfect system and sometimes bugs in the call can cause participants to miss part of what has been said. Answer questions and address any concerns that may arise in order to avoid this causing problems.