For most Internet users, one-to-one videoconferencing and audio-conferencing (VOIP) functionality will be handled increasingly by software solutions like Yahoo IM, Google Talk, and Skype. With the recent merger of Yahoo IM and MSN IM, along with the upcoming release of Longhorn, I would wager Microsoft may attempt to capture a larger part of this marketshare in upcoming months with a new product release. From what I understand from the international students I know, Yahoo IM is very dominant now in Asia. It seems logical that Redmond would want to expand their share of IM and videoconference marketshare, which is bound to grow by leaps and bounds in the years to come.

Some videoconferencing software products like iChat AV are already permitting multiple-party videoconferencing. However, the quality of those multi-party connections is inherently limited by both the host system’s hardware speed and it’s available bandwidth/connectivity speed to the Internet. What I am addressing in this post is not ONE TO ONE videoconferencing applications, but rather ONE TO MANY AND MANY TO MANY videoconferencing (multi-point videoconferencing) that can be used in educational, instructional settings.

XMeeting is an open source video conferencing software project for Macintosh OS X that is developing VOIP as well as Internet-based videoconferencing software. The College of Education at NC State is one organization that has experience using one of the project’s software programs, OPhoneX. Unlike the current version of iChat AV, OPhoneX allows users to videoconference with the H.323 codec standard. H.323 is currently the most widely used standard for traditional videoconferencing (with iTV room equipment versus desktop or laptop computer equipment.) XMeeting is the replacement for OPhoneX based on a new architecture, and a preview version is now available for download.

On the Windows and Linux sides, GnomeMeeting is a comparable open-source project for H.323 videoconferencing like XMeeting. For Windows users only, Microsoft NetMeeting is a H.323 software program, but is apparently no longer supported by Microsoft and fraught with problems and limitations. Commercially, users for about $150 can purchase Polycom’s PVX software and use a webcam and microphone to join a H.323 videoconference. This is using a software encoder for the videoconference, Polycom also sells their ViaVideo product which does the same thing but with hardware encoding (but at a steeper price.)

Macromedia Breeze (when properly installed) allows users on either Windows or Macintosh computers (I am not sure about Linux) to participate in a web-based videoconference using the camera and microphone attached to their computer. Breeze is not using H.323, but still belongs in this conversation because it provides similar functionality.

The reason software solutions that “speak H.323” are very important is that we are quickly approaching a digital environment in which any videoconference endpoint can become a video production studio. Commercial solutions like the Codian IPVCR and the Starbak INV support this type of endpoint video publication functionality. With either of these tools, H.323 videoconferences can be streamed live (webcast) to users located anywhere on the planet, as well as made available for later on-demand streaming. The VBrick MPEG-4 network video appliance has similar functionality, but is currently focused on delivery of static video (not videoconferencing.)

These sorts of developing technologies are extremely exciting. The retail prices today of a 5 port Codian IP VCR is approx $30K, the Starbak INV is approx $40K. Those are today’s prices. Like other technologies, tomorrow’s products will be more powerful and cost less.

Viewing devices like the iPod video permit users to download static content and view it asynchronously. (Users time and place shift, deciding where and when they want to view content.) That is useful and “cool,” but from an instructional perspective not sufficient. We are living in the era of “publish at will” for text and audio. Multiuser videoconferencing and video publication for on-demand delivery (archival) and webasting “at will” is here also, but not free yet.

Functionally this means that with access to the above equipment (a Codian IPVCR or Starbak INV) an instructor with a reasonably fast connection to the Internet anywhere on the planet can synchronously videoconference (show up and throw up) with students in other locations on the planet. By itself, that may not sound too exciting. But as another choice on a growing menu of pedagogical delivery and interaction options for F2F instruction and distance learning, this is a very exciting development indeed.

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