The IT Collaboratory is filled with monitors, wires and students working on large computers. For someone who knows little about technology, it is quite overwhelming but the layout on one of the monitors is more accessible. There are different windows with high quality video of different sections of campus. One window is larger than the others, but the videos slowly transition from one to another.
The layout is familiar and can be found outside of this lab too; there are monitors located around campus that connect to the network of videos and eventually the team working in the lab hopes that these stations will be connected to each other as well. “The goal is real time collaboration,” explains Gurcharan Khanna, the director of Research Computing and the one in charge of the development of this project: the Global Collaboration Grid.
The grid is a video conferencing network for the RIT campus that hopes to expand to others, including RIT’s campuses in Dubai and Croatia as well as Gallaudet University. There are traces of the Global Collaboration Grid for students to see all around the school. There are monitors in the Center for Student Innovation, NTID and the Idea Factory of the Wallace Library where you can watch high quality video of the locations around campus with cameras. These stations are meant to make video conferencing more enjoyable and collaboration amongst distant partners more attainable.
Quality is Key
In order to achieve real time collaboration, Khanna and his team of student workers have been working to reduce lag and improve video and audio quality for the past seven years. Recently, they have been looking into HD audio and beyond but for Khanna, “Video is the highest impact part of it.”
Currently, they are experimenting with 4K video, which is four times bigger than an HD screen and used for digital cinema presentations in movie theaters. “There is even 8K video now so the technology keeps changing, but quality is very important so we want to show people that this is possible,” says Khanna, “If we show them the quality that’s possible for real time collaboration, maybe they will want to use [the Global Collaboration Grid] for a class or for a multi-campus gaming event or whatever it happens to be, but people aren’t always aware that they can do better.”
Khanna acknowledges that there are many other forms of software for video conferencing, but he believes that the Grid’s quality is what helps to set it apart: “It is so easy to do, but the quality is what makes the difference.”
The team is constantly working on improving the software for the Grid as well: “We originally used a program that was developed through Argonne National Laboratory,” says Khanna. “We didn’t originate it, but we’ve added to it and enhanced it.”
Now, they are looking for more ways to improve the software while keeping it open source to encourage outside contribution. One of the students workers developed software to improve the display for video conferencing, “and then we released it under a public license so that’s out there in cyberspace where people, if they want to contribute to that, they can. So if we do develop something, we make it available.”
In addition to encouraging contributions to the project by keeping their software open source, Khanna hopes that more people will get involved by finding additional uses for the technology. “If it doesn’t get used, it’s not useful.”
So far, they have found uses for the grid within many different departments. For instance, a few pathways classes have been held at the Center for Student Innovation where students from this campus could talk to a class from the RIT campus in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The library has also used the grid to connect to the campuses in Kosovo and Croatia in order to explain the uses of the library to the students there. The Biomedical Photography department and NTID have used the grid to host speakers from off campus.
Although there have been many uses for the Global Collaboration Grid, there have been some projects that the team has attempted that have not yet achieved complete success. The equipment has been set up in many places both on this and other campuses but not all of the stations have been connected to the network.
Another project that the Global Collaboration Grid team attempted was to connect the biomedical photo students here to the operating room in Rochester General Hospital, a partner with the biomed photo program that has allowed students to take photos in the room in the past. However, there are some privacy issues with this plan that have not yet been resolved.
There are other regulations regarding privacy that are taken into consideration with this technology around campus. However, since the network is private (it is only broadcast within RIT and the cameras are used for live interaction rather than recording), it has not posed too much of a problem.
Privacy is not the only issues that the team faces either; staff cutbacks have been made due to decreases in funding. “There are lots of issues and usually it’s not just any one of them, it’s usually a human issue,” says Khanna. “Who has the vision? Who really wants this? Who’s going to support it? So I’m always really glad to find someone who really wants to use it.”
To set up additional stations, they generally need a partner who is interested in using the technology. “My goal is really just to get people to think about it,” says Khanna. The team is working to improve the technology and providing the infrastructure for other people’s uses.
“One of my visions was that a student could just walk up to any one of [the stations] and it would be on and they could talk to a student at any other one of these,” says Khanna. They were able to set this up for Imagine RIT but he hopes that eventually it will be a more permanent option and that the grid will be connected with other campuses as well.
Once this is set up, Khanna has many ideas for where to take the technology from there: “I have visions of it being much more dynamic. You could have the videos dance around and be integrated into other types of special effects but that takes time so this has been years in the making and it will take more.”
There are many other possibilities for the Global Collaboration Grid due to the plasticity of the software. “The software we use is pretty much unlimited because it’s kind of a toolbox,” explains Khanna. “There’s a video tool and audio tool, there’s a remote desktop tool, and we can mix and match them according to our needs.” With all the ideas as well as the enthusiasm of both Khanna and the student workers, the grid will continue progressing for many years to come.