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Exploring the Future of Collaboration Technology in Research and Education

Oct 31, 2017, by Ben Fineman
Tags: 2017 Technology Exchange, Events, Frontpage News, Video, Voice & Collaboration

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Internet2 Technology Exchange in San Francisco with about eight hundred of my closest friends from the research and education community. While the topics are diverse – advanced networking, security, identity, and webscale cover a lot of ground – there was an overarching trend around one of my favorite topic areas, which is the future of collaboration technology. 

Learning How to Implement Virtual Reality 

Photo of TechEx 17 attendee using VR demo

The week started on Sunday with the Implementing Virtual Reality (VR) for Education tutorial hosted by Chris Collins from the University of Cincinnati along with myself. This tutorial addressed not only the basics (like how to conduct a virtual field trip using Google Expeditions), but also advanced topics like developing your own VR content, using VR/AR to improve real-time collaborative experiences, and future network requirements of pixel-perfect VR (spoiler alert – looking forward to 40Tb). While lots of current best practices were shared, since this is a new space we're all figuring it out together – so we continue to encourage any interested universities to join the conversation with our Metaverse Working Group.

What's Next for Video Collaboration?

The program for the main part of the conference was packed full of great track sessions, but two stood out in particular in the collaboration space. First was "Beyond the Brady Bunch: What's Next for Video Collaboration?" which had a panel of experts from Zoom, Cisco, and NORDUnet. We've been using video conferencing software for a couple of decades now, but the basic format hasn't strayed far from the classic Brady-Bunch-style wall of talking heads. So where is the technology going in terms of taking us to the next level? 

  • Nitasha Walia from Zoom shared her perspective around mobility (mobile first is key), artificial intelligence (see Zoom's upcoming automated transcription), and facial/emotion recognition. 
  • Neal Tilley from Cisco continued the conversation about facial recognition (automating A/V tasks but also behavior and engagement tracking), and raised some good points about how having a cohesive collaboration environment is important (not just what happens during the meeting, but also before and after) as well as starting to use VR and AR in productive ways. 
  • Finally, Erik Kikkenborg from NORDUnet kept us grounded by reminding us that standards and interoperability are still a challenge, and the best collaborative experiences today only happen when everyone is on the same platform.

  Photo of the Cloud Video Panel at TechEx 17
Image Credit: Internet2

The Impact of Virtual Reality on Campus IT Architecture

We wrapped up the last afternoon of the conference with a session on "The Impact of Virtual Reality on Campus IT Architecture". I was joined again by Chris Collins and added Kevin Ponto from the University of Wisconsin, who collectively brought some great "in the trenches" campus perspectives. 

  • Kevin is doing some serious research on applications of VR/AR (just look at this list of publications) and shared some points not only about how the technology can be applied, but also considerations for networks (VR/AR needs both high bandwidth AND low latency) and data management (adding positional data to every pixel increases visualization data exponentially). 
  • Chris shared her experiences as the founder and Director of UC’s Center for Simulations & Virtual Environments Research, including discussions of how to design campus spaces for VR and AR, ranging from temporary demo areas to permanent VR labs. 
  • And finally I got to get up on my soapbox again regarding the unprecedented bandwidth implications of VR/AR as well as some thoughts on how we might manage the massive future compute demands by leveraging the cloud and distributed render.

  Photo of University of Cincinnati Center for Simulation and Virtual Environments
Photo Credit: University of Cincinnati Center for Simulation and Virtual Environments

Looking to the Future with Cisco Emerge

I stayed in the Bay Area an extra day to visit our friends over at Cisco Emerge, where they are working on emerging collaboration technologies. I have to say it was pleasing to spend a week discussing how these technologies are evolving, and then cap it off with a visit to a lab where some smart people are working to put these ideas into real solutions. A few of their non-NDA projects:

  • SparkVR is the first collaboration-focused virtual reality application I’ve seen that effectively blends users in VR, video, and audio only. The blending of the virtual whiteboard with the physical Spark Board is particularly compelling – it’s kind of magical watching someone drawing on the whiteboard in a virtual conference room and seeing it appear on the real board next to you. Also, the ability to stick important files to the wall of a shared team space gives a viscerally satisfying feel to the traditional “shared file repository” functionality.
  • TeamTV takes the virtual water cooler idea to the next level with basically an always-on TV channel for your distributed team, complete with news ticker. As someone who works with folks stationed all around the country, I understand the benefit of having non-intrusive, persistent presence. 
  • MONICA is the logical next step in the conversations we’ve been having using artificial intelligence for business productivity. It's much more than just voice control for the office - think more along the lines of a virtual team member, following along with all your conversations and meeting, taking notes, and keeping track of documents. Asking MONICA, "what were my action items from the meeting with Neal last week" and getting a useful response will become a game changer for the before and after parts of the collaborative experience, where we have some big gaps today.

  Photo of Cisco VR demo
Image Credit: Cisco Systems

Final Thoughts

Collaboration is the foundation upon which research and education is built, and collaboration technologies have enhanced our ability to accomplish these missions together on a global scale immeasurably over the past decades. I believe we're at a tipping point where this confluence of technology – virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and advanced networking – is poised to deliver upon the promise of creating collaborative experiences that are better than being there. And I can’t wait to see how we’ll be performing our work together in the future – hopefully I'll see you in the Metaverse, or at least at Educause this week!