Videoconferencing options at Oxford

For audio and video conferencing there is a range of options from simple low-cost desktop solutions to more sophisticated facilities:
  1. Skype - This is often the simplest and cheapest solution for a small event. A simple headset mic for input with a laptop hooked up to a projector and speakers for output.
    http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/voip/skype.xml
  2. For a conference consider a pre-recorded video by a speaker who cann't attend, perhaps in combination with Skype for the Q&A session
  3. WebEX - a more feature-rich version of Skype for which the University has a support service. It works very well for live web conferences with multiple participants. WebEX works through a browser and has an automatic booking scheduler that emails a URL to all participants. WebEx can allow all participants to share a presentation, a chat window and even to see a remote computer's desktop. Licence costs £300 pa for one account. Someone in your department may already have an account.
    http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/webex/faq.xml
  4. Videoconferencing at the University's Media Production Unit (MPU) - room hire, technical setup and tests are handled for you and it is very high quality, but there is a charge and you would need to host the event at the MPU facilities.
    Media Production Unit (MPU)

Read on for lots more information about videoconferencing.

1. Some background

In its most basic form videoconferencing is the transmission of synchronized image (video) and speech (audio) back and forth between two or more physically separate locations, simulating an exchange as if the two (or more) participants were in the same physical conversation.

The first public videoconference was held in April 1930, between AT&T headquarters and their Bell Laboratory in New York City; microphones and loud speakers transferred the audio, while, under a blue light, the images were captured and transmitted as the participants looked into photoelectric cells. This pioneering event emphasised the benefits of face-to-face conversation at a distance.

Any videoconferencing installation must have a few basic components to succeed:

  1. Camera (to capture local video).
  2. Video display (to display remote video)
  3. Microphone (to capture local audio)
  4. Speakers (to play remote audio).

In addition to these more obvious components, a videoconferencing suite generally includes a codec ("COmpressor/DECompressor"), a user interface, a computer system to run on, and a network connection.

There is a Video conferencing service, suitable for interviews and meetings based at the University Media Production Unit, 5 Worcester Street. Tel 01865 289980. See Media Production Video Conference service. Various departments also have suitable video conference facilities. See here

2. Types of videoconferencing

Videoconferences can be:

  1. Point to point (directly linking two sites).
  2. Multi-site (three or more sites).

These refer to the number of sites linked by the conference, not to the number of people participating. Multi-point conferences can link all sites equally, or can be a main site linked to remote sites. The type of link used can affect the efficiency and therefore quality of sound and vision.

There are two main types of videoconference:

Desktop PC conferencing using a software package over the Internet (IP) network and Webcam. Standalone systems with built in camera, designed for room based meetings using the Internet (IP) or ISDN network

Desktop IP videoconferencing

Desktop IP videoconferencing uses the Internet to link desktop computers running videoconferencing software. The advantages are:

  • It is cheap. You need any PC, an Internet link, a USB video camera and microphone, and special videoconferencing software (also fairly cheap).
  • It is accessible: you can videoconference from your own desk, at any time.

The disadvantages are:

  1. Sound is usually acceptable (often best with headphones ) but the picture is often poor quality.
  2. Time needs to be spent setting up the correct settings, particularly audio
  3. You are dependent on an Internet connection, which can be slow.
  4. It is not suitable for medium or large groups of people to use, gathered round a PC, say a panel of people in a job interview situation.

Examples of IP based conferencing include:

Skype ( PC/Mac)
http://www.skype.com/

Skype is a popular package for keeping in touch with international colleagues. It needs to be configured to disable peer to peer sharing of files and to minimise disruption to the University network. (Skype policy)

WebEx
OUCS is trialing a web conferencing service for large online meetings - see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/webex/ for more information
Ichat AV
http://www.apple.com/ichat/ Ichat is bundled with MacOSX . It requires registering a .Mac or AIM account

3. Standalone videoconferencing systems

Standalone videoconferencing systems, where the camera and audio are built-in to a small console that sits on a monitor or TV, now use standard IP network connections and offer a high quality, simple to use service. They allow monitors and extra cameras, microphones and PC equipment to be connected and controlled very easily. They are very easy to set-up, reliable, with no specialist knowledge need to use and are controlled via a simple handheld pad. There is a Video conferencing service, suitable for interviews and meetings based at the University Media Production Unit, 5 Worcester Street. Tel 01865 289980.

The advantages are:

Widely available in Higher Education Institutions and Worldwide. ( see http://www.ja.net/services/video/ High quality sound and vision, as built-in electronics cancel any audio echo. Smaller systems can be used as a portable "box" which can be used in any room with an IP connection and TV monitor or video projector. Suitable for meetings with many people due to the high quality video and cameras

The disadvantages are:

Equipment can be expensive, starting around two thousands pounds for a basic system. Often have to travel to a room where the system is based Difficult to share PC material

In addition, dedicated departmental or institutional videoconferencing suites in HEIs are likely to have some or all of the following:

  1. Visualiser (or document camera): used like an overhead projector, can deal with slides or paper.
  2. VCR connected to conference so that video tapes can be shown.
  3. Monitors: large monitors used to present the main picture to participants, smaller monitors to present other views or line up pre-set shots.
  4. Projector and screen: can provide a large image, especially useful for large rooms and lecture theatres.
  5. Computer and scan converter: allowing computer images to be sent across the videoconference network.
  6. Data conferencing software. Runs in parallel with the videoconferencing session: allowing participants to share data and applications between sites.

The following Oxford University departments are equipped with room based video-conferencing:

  • Media Production Unit (Central video-conference service)
  • Chemistry
  • Economics
  • Physics
  • Said Business School
  • Rothermere American Institute
  • Oxford Internet Institute
  • University Offices
  • Educational Studies

Contact an IT officer in the department for further details.

Manufacturers of standalone conference systems used at Oxford:

4. Links

4.1. General Overview

  1. University of Oxford Video conferencing service based at the Media Production Unit, 5 Worcester Street. Tel 01865 289980
  2. http://www.ja.net/services/video/vtas/ An extensive site published by the Video Technology Advisory Service (VTAS) (a support service provided by the JANET) that includes an introduction to videoconferencing, and many important resources relating to Higher Education.
  3. http://www.ja.net/services/video/jvcs/ JANET Videoconferencing Service (JVCS). An extensive introduction to videoconferencing that covers a wealth of pertinent subjects.

4.2. Guides

  1. http://www.ja.net/services/video/vtas/productevaluations/index.html Evaluations of ISDN/IP videoconferencing products performed by Video Technology Advisory Service (VTAS) advisors.