Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Video conferencing for better virtual organisations

A few of the Akvo team using EVO during a meeting.

I work in a virtual organisation, called Akvo Foundation. The Economist describes virtual organisations as having “an almost infinite variety of structures, all of them fluid and changing”. Some virtual organisations have no or few employees, others have no offices, premises or physical assets, some are not even formal organisations but groups of organisations or people working together. Akvo technically has no office and no staff, but we are 12+ people who work for Akvo and some of us sit in offices. (I did describe how this works in some detail in an earlier post.) This can be somewhat of a challenge at times, especially when you can’t see each other face to face.

Several in the Akvo team have worked together previously in other organisations. Ten years ago we had people in San Francisco and Stockholm at times, and we used AXIS web cameras and speakerphones to get something which resembled a video conference. The hardware was relatively expensive and the result was not great. But it made a difference to be able to see the people you were talking to, despite the video quality being really poor most of the time. In fact, it made such an impact on us that I have been hunting for the perfect “virtual office video wall” tools ever since. With a vision of having a video wall which constantly shows the other offices.

Since we started Akvo in 2007 we have been using iChat and Skype for video conferencing. iChat when you need 2-4 computers hoooked up and Skype when you only want to do two computers. Our experience with this is somewhat mixed. iChat, which we use with AIM accounts (as we don’t have to pay for them) often has trouble with the central servers for setting up standard text chats, but we feel that the user interface for the chat client is better, than say Skype, so we persist in using it. iChat often also has trouble setting up video connections, which I think is related to the uPnP services in the routers we are using. It is not surprising that Apple seems to have decided to retire the iChat software and replace it with Facetime instead, which is now available on both the iPhone/iPad/iPod Tourch and in beta on the Mac. Skype tends to be more reliable, but alas, is only available on the Mac for two party conferencing today. (Skype is beta testing multi-part video calls at the moment, but alas, it is only on Windows.)

So on and off I have been looking at a number of different alternatives, most which were not really very attractive for a small non-profit like ours. Many video conferencing systems cost an arm and a leg and require dedicated hardware, like those from Cisco and Tandberg. Others want a monthly services fee for a service which often isn’t better than Apple’s iChat, which is free.

One intriguing alternative was AccessGrid, which is open source software used by a number of academic institutions for large scale video conference solutions. However, AccesGrid isn’t really suitable for us, as you need multi-cast capability at every node to really take advantage of the tools AccessGrid offers, which the ISPs we use don’t offer. There are multi-cast bridges you can use, and recent versions of AccessGrid have unicast tools, but they are not ideal. Add to this that the AccessGrid development for Mac OS X is rather slow to put out functional versions, which is our main desktop/laptop OS at Akvo, this turned out to not be an attractive solution.

Recently we have been using EVO from Caltech. EVO is free, runs on a number of different operating systems (it is developed in Java) and can do multiple party video conferencing. I don’t actually know of how many, but we have been connecting up to seven nodes so far. Echo cancellation for audio in EVO isn’t great, so we are using Skype for the audio part of a meeting. EVO has a text chat function too, but we didn’t like it much. In fact, we are using iChat for the text back-channel, Skype for the audio and EVO for the video section. It is kind of messy, but it works. Every morning one of us creates a new private “room” in EVO for Akvo (they last until midnight unless you extend them for 24 hours, but then they go away). We log in with three dedicated computers every morning. One in the Akvo Hague office, one in my home office and one in the Akvo London office. Each computer has dedicated monitor for the video conference. Anyone else in the team can check in at any time, either just looking or also turning on their camera as well. It is a bit like someone coming up to the meeting room you are in and looking through the door.

It actually makes a big difference to our virtual office environment, where I can just glance over at the big screen, which I have at one end of my office, and see if the Dutch contingent has gone for lunch yet or if they are still working. It changes the dynamic how I interact with my colleagues a lot, in a positive way. It is easier to understand that someone is busy and doing good work, when you can actually see them. However, I don’t think it is the same for all of us. Generally our programmers could have EVO on and running most of the time, but they tend to only use it during our weekly meeting. I also turn the big monitor off quite a lot, even though I leave the camera running, as a way to not be distracted by what is going on in my peripheral vision when I am working on something.

But overall, adding a permanent video feed to our virtual office has been a positive step forward. If you have colleagues you work with a lot, but would like to see more often, I would recommend that you experiment with it. The only thing you need is a computer with a webcam (any recently new Mac has one, and you can buy one for a PC for 30 Euro). EVO is free, for now.


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Filed under: ITC technology