Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can you hear me? Can you see me?

Yesterday, I spent from 2-10.30pm in the Faculty in a video-conference with Columbia and Göttingen.  (It was for a volume on the sections of Diogenes Laertius book 9 devoted to Pyrrhonism.)  It didn't start well: the Faculty's Computer Officer and I had set up a (very) new Skype-enabled Smart TV in one of the Faculty's lecture rooms but it turned out that my electronic key would not let me in to that particular room on a Saturday.  Fortunately, that could be sorted out remotely after a quick phone call.

The Smart TV...

But then, when the call came in from Columbia, we found out that this TV, although it has a Skype application built-in, won't do video conference calls.  Conference calls are OK; video calls are OK but not video conference calls.  Drat.  Another phone call and the Computer Officer rushes in to let us into another room and set up a camera and mic for a computer attached to a video projector.  Now we could in principle do what was needed.  (The TV will be fine, I think, for one-to-one Skype-ing.  We have to do that a lot more now for e.g. interviews for graduate admissions.  And it must be better not to have a couple of us peering down a tiny laptop webcam at a poor student.)

So, at last we had a functioning system.  But then we discovered that Skype-ing like this is fine in principle but difficult in practice.  Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, the service became more patchy.  Perhaps as more people get up at the weekend and turn on their computers, the bandwidth gets clogged; perhaps if one of the participants is on WiFi rather than an Ethernet connection, things are delayed; perhaps the computers just get clogged up with long video calls.  Anyway, there was a regular need to ask people to repeat points or questions, the picture froze every so often, and we ended up having to reboot all the systems every hour or so.

Fortunately, things got better later on.  By 10.30pm, just when I was flagging, the connection seemed to improve.

What did I learn?  When it works smoothly, this is an excellent means of talking to people around the world and not much worse than being in a room together.  But it is not yet reliable or, at least, the connection it requires is not yet fast enough and reliable enough to make long conferences hassle-free.  I did, all the same, enjoy the experiment and I am glad I'm not rushing back from NYC today to teach on Monday.  I did, by the same token, miss out on a trip to NYC, but that's also rather better for my carbon footprint.

Give this a couple of years and I reckon it will be much better.  You might think it a shame if it cuts down on global academic travel, but it will also mean we talk much more to more people in more places.

1 comment:

RJR said...

Have you tried Google Hangouts? I think you could all do it from your laptops, no special equipment necessary. If you try it I'd be interested to know what you think. I don't use video chat but I can imagine that in some situations it would be useful.