Thursday, February 11, 2010

Editorial: A Six Thousand Kilometer Non-CO2 Conference
(From the archives)

A recent discussion has come up in the context of our 2010 work program concerning your editor's long-standing unwillingness to hop on a plane, travel great distances to make a "cameo appearance", and then scurry back to his burrow in Paris. Since 1995 we have tried hard to maintain a consistent policy about this kind of travel, which you can find at However this does not mean that it is not possible to have some form of "hot" presentation and interaction on topics of high mutual interest without that dreaded trip to the airport. With a bit of preparation and at low cost, you can do an excellent job at creating a lively and engaging interactive low-carbon environment. Let's have look.

Draft videoconferencing debriefing notes of 30 June 2006

- Eric Britton, Paris, 12 July 2006.

The following describes a quite simple example of how low-cost high-brains videoconferencing can be made to work, based on a project that has just taken place. These notes were written up to report informally on how we handled the distance participation at a two part conference that took place last week between Easthampton Massachusetts and Paris France on global warming and climate modification.

The first half consisted of an in-place presentation by Professor John Maulbetsch which was sufficiently well informed, balanced and dramatic to make Al Gore look like the comics page. Scary stuff. The second half was led by me, and took a look at what we think can be done working from the bottom up – taking as a point of departure the specifics of transport in and around cities as set out in the New Mobility Agenda (full details at )

Our meeting lasted for about two hours including the questions and discussions, roughly equally divided between Easthampton and Paris. My travel costs were $00.00. Our communications cost were $00.00 I saved on the order of two tons of CO2 by staying at home. I was also able to eat dinner with my wife and sleep in my own bed. Highly sustainable.

Background note on videoconferencing organization begin here:

We have been using videoconferencing in our daily work since 1993. It has not been a straight line and about every eighteen months (sound familiar?) we seem to change technology. In the old days it was both hardware and software (via ISDN), but since IP videoconferencing came on line here (late 1999 in parallel with move from ISDN to ADSL), it has been increasingly about new and better software as it comes on line. From 2000-2004 we worked with a toolkit from, which was a bit expensive but gave us good quality connections and nice group work package (which we still have to duplicate). Since 2004 we have shifted to a combination of Skype and SightSpeed, which has in both cases the advantage of being free and of quite satisfactory quality (most of the time). For a historical note on our progress in all this, check out.

Our first “public videoconference” took place in 1995, with a seminar at University of Toronto. In 1996, at an OECD conference in Vancouver Canada (on the topic of "Toward Sustainable Transportation"). Since we have done at least one or two a year in places as distant as Bogota, Shanghai and Perth Australia, with the latest as presented here. As a result of this succession of projects and experiences we have developed a certain number of routines and work habits which I should now like to share with you.

The basic objective:
Our goal is to integrate the distant speaker/participant as seamlessly, efficiently and inconspicuously as possible into the full fabric of the conference, given what we have to work with. Please understand that despite what may seem like some considerably complexity, it is really no big deal and while it takes careful preparation it is well within the capabilities of just about any group with even a smidgeon of IP competence. (Which is to say that if we can do it, anyone can.) But careful about this: the devil is in the details.

Basically this works best if we establish three channels of IP communications. In this instance we combined two (free) SightSpeed video links and one (free) Skype voice link (the latter for discrete ear-to-ear communications and overall management and control purposes).

1. Video link 1: The first video link has as its objective to enable full participation (as possible) of the distant participant (in this case me).
a. At this end (Paris), I work and interact with the meeting via the webcam properly set up on a computer. This essentially is my "face to the meeting".

b. The second half of this link is a webcam placed on the speakers’ platform and aimed right at the audience, so that I can see them as I speak and judge their reactions with all that normally entails. (This camera/link is also very handy for the Q&A and discussions, allowing me to see the person making the point..

c. The speaker’s image (me in this case) is projected on a screen next to the podium -- and it is important that the image is of human dimension, bearing in mind the need for people at the back of the hall to see everything.

d. One nice option is to keep a smaller image up there when someone else is speaking, more or less exactly as if the distance guy were there on the platform, politely listening and not getting in the way.

e. When it is time for me to make my presentation, the image gets bigger, but should not be allowed to become a glowering Big Brother image.

f. By way of additional feedback, when my image appears there will also be the little ‘picture in picture’ image in the bottom right corner – so that the public can get an idea of what I am seeing. (I find this handy because I am a feedback guy, but if you don’t like it, well forget it.)

g. When there is a film clip or other presentation item to appear, these appear full size on the big screen, while my image as speaker is then reduced to a very small rectangle in the bottom right of the screen. (This retains the direct link between me and the audience, as they would have if I were up there on the podium during the projection.)

h. Questions from the audience: It will be important that the distance speaker can look at them both during questions and as he/she answers. Visual feedback in important.

2. Video link 2: The second video link provides my “chair in the audience”.
a. This camera provides a one way stream and is placed at the back of the hall (slightly raised usually to get a clear continuous shot of the action).

b. It provides both visual and sound feedback, thus permitting me to ‘sit in the audience’ and observe what is going on during the entire conference.

c. Incidentally for that to work well from here, I have to have, of course, to separate video and software/communications links on different computers. It is best to have the two monitors placed side by side so that the distance participant, in this case me, can get a full view of the goings-on without having to race or swivel from one computer to another.

3. Voice link: The third link is a simple Skype voice only connection which serves two purposes.
a. The main purpose is to roved a private voice only link between the distant speaker and the technician running the show in the conference area. Stuff happens, and this discreet private voice link permits us to problem solve without getting in the way of the rest. The technician usually is best served by a wireless Bluetooth headset.

b. It also provides us with a last chance emergency backup in case the video links go on the fritz. This has happened to us on two occasions, and happily both times we had backup so that we could at least get through the conference. You can never be too careful when it comes to technology.

4. Private Discussions: We also like it when we can organize the equipment to permit more private discussions at one or more points during the overall conference. This is not hard to do.

The idea is to create a space and invite anyone who has a private question to the distant participant to come forward to these small display (monitor) which we like to have placed on the speaker table, with the front camera pointing directly to the person wishing to initiate the exchanges. This can be very warm and really quite intimate, permitting the kind of more lively interactions that we traditionally have experience during coffee breaks and other less formal moments of the conference. Not hard to do and the great addition to the toolkit.

5. Watch out for: That’s about it, but here are a few other things it is good to keep an eye out for.
a. Lighting is critical. At both ends. It is worth worrying over to get right.

a. Sound too is critical and needs careful verification and fine tuning. Screeching speakers or interrupted transmissions are not fun.

c. The speaker should take the time to ensure that (a) his/her image is not too huge and(b) not centered on the screen. People quickly loose interest in talking heads. Best is to have a visually interesting background, good lightning, and to pop yourself a bit off center. As a rule, half of the image should be of something other than the speaker. Nice and unaggressive. Kind of like not shouting.

d. When any films or presentation items are to be presented, it is good to download them first and then play them locally. This saves precious bandwidth and removes one more potential source of problems.

e. Best if everyone clears off all other programs and possibly conflicting stuff, so that the conference will be uninterrupted.

f. Bandwidth. It is like they say: you can never be too blond or too rich. And you can never have too much bandwidth. Never.

5. Nice to have:
a. Orientable/zoomable cameras that can be controlled from this end. (Not a big deal and available at pretty low cost today.)

b. Ideally, the entire event will be recorded. And if appropriate streamed so that others who were not there but would have liked to be will have access at their convenience to the goings on.

c. We like to provide an on-line “Guestbook” for later comments and questions.

7. Take the time to prepare:
This is critical. If for any reason you do not adhere religiously to this process, I advise that you cancel the presentation immediately. Lots of small things can and will go wrong at first, so we must work them out way before the actual meeting. Unless of course we prefer to educate ourselves in public.
a. We recommend a full run-through session one week before the target date to be sure that we have everything in hand and properly adjusted. This also gives us a chance to make the adjustments or get what might be missing equipment or software well in time.

b. Then 24 hours before the broadcast, a full dress rehearsal: step by step, minute by minute.

c. Finally, one hour before conference start-up everyone shows up on both sides to est, confirm, fiddle if necessary, to make sure that all is in order.

d We then get a cup of coffee and talk about how smart we were to get it all straight well in advance. No pressure. Pure pleasure.

That's all there is to it. Do this and you are ready to roll. And you can do it! Be a hero. Tell your children what you did. They will love you even more.

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Paris. 11 February 2010
2006 was, in these terms at least, a very long time ago, close to three generations according to Moore's Law. Imagine what we are able to do today with a bit of ingenuity and the available low-cost or free technologies which will permit us to create a lively interactive environment as opposed to the usual talking head which almost invariably is not the most exciting moment of the conference of the day. Try it, you will like it. And so will our planet.

Eric Britton

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