The JUCC Video Collaboration - The Video Task Force

by Joe Chow

The Joint Universities Computer Centre (JUCC) is a cooperative effort on the development of information technology and services among the Computer Centres of the eight government-funded tertiary institutions in Hong Kong. As an active member, the Computing Services Centre (CSC) has participated in many joint functions. Video collaboration is one of the major roles in which we work together for video broadcast and video conferencing services over our highly integrated data and video network.

Several years ago, JUCC's Video Task Force (VTF) was established within the JUCC organization. The aim is to enable collaboration among institutions for better video service solutions. As one of the important investments, the VTF had purchased a most powerful machine, called the Accord (now becomes PolyCom) Multi-Point Conference Unit (MCU). This MCU enables multiple participants in a single or multiple video conferencing session(s).

In order to provide a better video conferencing solution, the MCU has recently been upgraded to support the latest video protocol called H.264. The H.264 video compression enables video conferencing users to experience either significantly improved video quality at the same bit rate, or current quality at approximately half the bit rate required previously. For example, a high-quality H.263 encoded video in 768Kbps is achievable using H.264 at 384Kbps. Another benefit of this new standard is the greatly improved performance over network errors. What this means is that when a video data loss is caused by network errors, the video quality will degrade gracefully instead of breaking up completely, rendering the video image unusable like the previous standards. This error tolerance is very important especially when the Internet is used as the communication channel where transmission errors due to data collision are considered normal.

Although a better video conferencing quality may result by adopting H.264, one criterion must be fulfilled. In order to use H.264, all video conferencing equipment involved in a conference must support this standard or else the system will automatically be switched back to an older standard, say H.263. As H.264 is relatively new, most of the old video conference equipment either does not support it or need to upgrade their firmware in order to accommodate this feature. In view of this, the CityU has recently upgraded the video conferencing equipment to support this standard.

To promote the usage of the MCU, JUCC had organized regular functions, for example, a recent seminar called the "Joint Universities Video Conference 2004" (JUVC 2004) was held on October 15, 2004. A similar event held for the second time not only demonstrated the power of the MCU, but also verified the latest video technology development over the network infrastructure. As a hot subject in the academic field, remote teaching using video Web casting was the theme of this year's JUVC event. Four speakers were invited to present various related topics. These included "Virtual Integrated Teaching & Learning Environment (VITLE)" presented by Hong Kong Baptist University (presentation held at HKBU), "Navipresenter - Web Colloration System" presented by Ultra Active Technology Ltd. (presentation held at HKU), "Centra: Real-time Interactive e-Meeting System" presented by EZY-Tech Ltd. (presentation held at CUHK) and finally "Integrated Rich-Media Conferencing - Secure Voice and Web Conferencing for Cross-Organiztion and Cross-Border Collaboration" (presentation held at CityU). Instead of moving from one location to another, audiences can simply sit in the different venues set up by the 8 JUCC institutions and be able to enjoy these seminars by looking at the screens where video and audio were delivered from the presenters in various locations using the MCU. The success of these seminars had proved that it is possible for potential users to make use of the video conferencing technology in their work.

Apart from organizing similar events regularly, the JUCC's VTF also participates in the MegaConference, a truly interactive global event being held every year where all presentations take advantage of the interactive videoconferencing, presenting from multiple locations. Last year over 187 institutions in 28 countries participated remotely in this grand video conferencing event. This year, more than 300 institutions had registered to join the event on December 9, 2004. Like before, the CSC had set up a venue within the university for those who would like to participate and witness this grand event.

Behind all efforts, the CSC's most important aim in this area is in fact to promote users' awareness of multi-media technology in teaching, learning and research work, as well as to join forces with the other institutions by sharing our resources and experiences.