Face time across the miles

Virtual meetings come of age with Access Grid, improved webcasts

by Bob Henson

If you couldn’t make it to Boulder for the seminar by Howard Bluestein (University of Oklahoma) on 17 November—or if you live in Boulder, but you missed it—all is not lost. Bluestein’s talk on mobile Doppler radars and tornadoes is one of several NCAR seminars now available through archived webcasts.

A confluence of bandwidth and better software has brought the promise of virtual scientific interaction down to earth. Jerky videos and fuzzy PowerPoint slides are giving way to smoothly coordinated audiovisual fare. The steady growth of the Access Grid is allowing several UCAR members to collaborate in multi-site meetings that are truly interactive.

Seminars on line

At the UCAR members meeting last October, the attendees asked NCAR to explore collaboration options through Access Grid and video conferencing techniques and by webcasting its many seminars. Now, with a high-priority mandate and support from NCAR director Tim Killeen, these technologies are proliferating.

When a seminar is chosen for webcasting, the speaker is videotaped and her or his PowerPoint slides are matched to transition points in the talk. This process can take a technician several hours, depending on the talk’s complexity. Each webcast is posted within several days after the seminar. A new UCAR Web page consolidates links to these and other webcasts.

Viewers who access a webcast see the speaker on one side of their monitors and the PowerPoint visuals, at relatively high resolution, on the other. Users with a typical university bandwidth can expect good-quality audio and video.

For now, archived webcasting is the preferred mode for broadcasting NCAR seminars, because some technical issues with real-time, interactive webcasts haven’t yet been solved. “Webcasts in general aren’t designed to be interactive,” says Eron Brennan, head of multimedia services for UCAR’s Information Technology group. However, he adds, that could change as the technology continues to evolve.

Access Grid takes off

While webcasts reach huge numbers of people, a more specialized and interactive type of Internet broadcast is making inroads with UCAR members and affiliates. Through the software- and-hardware environment known as the Access Grid, people at dozens of institutions can see and talk with each other while viewing the same materials online. These features are most vivid with the wall-sized screens and table-mounted microphones typical of rooms like the VisLab at NCAR’s Scientific Computing Division.

Access Grid

Vanda Grubišić (below) presided over the grand opening of the ACES VisLab at the Desert Research Institute. People from several dozen Access Grid sites joined the party. (Photos courtesy DRI.)

However, universities are finding that the Grid can work well at a range of facilities and institutions. More than 200 research and education institutions worldwide are now part of the Access Grid community. Among them are the Desert Research Institute and Nevada’s state universities in Reno and Las Vegas, all linked through a new VisLab at DRI (see photos). The three Access Grid nodes are part of an NSF-funded program at the Nevada institutions called Advanced Computing in Environmental Sciences (ACES).

vanda grubisic

Vanda Grubišić

“We’ve used the Access Grid node in our VisLab for lots of interesting things,” says ACES coordinator and VisLab director Vanda Grubišić. For example, DRI scientists recently collaborated on a manuscript with colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, revising text and graphics in real time over the Access Grid. This autumn, faculty in Reno and Las Vegas will join NASA scientists on line to team-teach a course in astrobiology.

“The Access Grid technology is far more reliable than before,” Grubišić says. Better networking is also helping, especially in solving what Grubišić calls “those last-mile connection problems. It’s not enough to have big cities connected, or even a good line coming to a switch somewhere in town. It’s important that those last few hundred feet to your location also be up to date.”

At Howard University, NCAR worked with software provider inSORS to help establish an Access Grid node last year. “It’s been great. We use it roughly two to three times a week,” says faculty member Everette Joseph. Much of that use comes from regular meetings of a five-year NSF-funded collaboration called Linked Environments for Atmospheric Discovery (LEAD). The node at Howard also provides two computer science interns with a real-world training opportunity, says Joseph.

howard university

At Howard University, students Ayana Williams and Jason Smith and professor Everette Joseph (left to right) participate in a weekly meeting of the LEAD meteorology group via the Access Grid. (Photo courtesy Howard University.)

Another new arrival to the Access Grid in 2004 was Millersville University. Students and faculty on campus in Pennsylvania interacted last spring with NCAR scientist Christopher Cantrell as he delivered a seminar from Boulder. “It allowed us to participate face to face with Chris and the Mesa Lab audience as if we were sitting in the auditorium,” says Millersville’s Richard Clark. The group also participates in LEAD, and it’s planning a joint Access Grid seminar with DRI.

“We enjoy using the webcasts that are being archived at NCAR,” says Clark. “But the ability to interact in real time with the speaker and the audience makes Access Grid a much more attractive option than the static webcast. It is more than a sense of being there—it is being there.”

New nodes and niches at NCAR

The days of routine real-time Access Grid seminars from NCAR may not be far off, according to Brennan. His group is now working with vendors to retrofit the Mesa Lab’s main seminar room, and eventually the main Foothills Lab auditorium, along these lines.

eron brennan

Eron Brennan is NCAR’s point person for interactive multimedia, including the new facilities taking shape on NCAR’s Center Green campus. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Meanwhile, all NCAR divisions and institutes, along with UOP’s Unidata Program Center and UCAR’s Multimedia Services, have at least one of their own Access Grid nodes. Most are designed to serve a handful of people in an informal setting. “They’re really just computers with a camera and a couple of microphones attached,” says Brennan.

The new ease of setting up basic nodes made it possible last summer for an injured student to keep in touch with his peers at UCAR. Atzel Drevon, a protégé in the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program, broke his leg only days before he was planning to leave Puerto Rico for Boulder. Already equipped with a webcam and other technical aids, Drevon worked with NCAR’s Darin Oman to arrange a virtual defense of his summer research proposal via Access Grid.

Access Grid

Two of NCAR's pioneers in Access Grid technology are Tim Scheitlin (left) and Darin Oman from the center's Visualization and Enabling Technologies Section. Along with keeping NCAR's first Access Grid node going, Scheitlin and Oman assisted Howard University and the Desert Research Institute as they installed their own nodes in 2004. (Photo by Lynda Lester.)

As much as the Access Grid has grown at UCAR—more than 200 local participants took part in meetings last fiscal year, saving many thousands of dollars in potential travel costs—even more growth is on the way. A major addition now being built at UCAR’s Center Green campus will help make the site a true conference venue. By the end of 2005, a new 60-person meeting and seminar room will feature up-to-date webcasting technology. A smaller 12-to-15-seat room will be equipped with Access Grid and video conferencing systems, making it a collaboratory on par with the Mesa Lab’s VisLab. In addition, the main CG auditorium—UCAR’s largest, with a capacity of up to 390 people—will be equipped with Access Grid technology as part of a remodel now under way.

Brennan can’t wait. “For the first time, we won’t be trying to retrofit rooms that were made for film, slide, and overhead projectors,” he says.

Also in this issue:

Going to extremes

Up close with Caribbean cumulus

A sabbatical at the foundation

New division directors at NCAR

Slick roads meet their match

President’s Corner - India in 2005 and the legacy of MONEX

Science Bit - Liquid at work on Saturn’s largest moon

UCAR Community Calendar

ACES Visualization and Enabling Technologies Section acess grid webcasts