Access Grid Videoconferencing
Rating: 2 WaterTowers
The Access Grid is loaded with features and capabilities for collaborating, for free, with remote colleagues. Unfortunately, it is a bit complicated to install and use, and, in fact, I have not yet been able to get two way video and audio. As a comparison, every commercially available videoconferencing application I have tested worked with minimal effort.
AG brought me back to the old days of videoconferencing where you could spend days getting things to work correctly. I will spend a bit more time to hopefully find out the problems, but, not a whole lot more.
Is this something GrandMa can use? Absolutely not.
But , if you are a researcher with plenty of expertise and resources…..AG should be great for you!
When I was working at ESnet, Access Grid (AG) rooms started popping up in many locations served by ESnet.
The AG rooms were high level rooms run by a dedicated operator. They provided a videoconferencing “experience” unequaled by the H.323 rooms available at the time.
AG was (and I suppose still is) very much like “Telepresence” (as it is currently defined) is today, but, on steroids. The AG rooms gave you multiple, moveable, high quality video windows, application sharing, and a host of other features.
Very cool…and people loved it.
Today, the AG is several years older, at least two generations of software more mature, and I see it now works on the desktop (and it is multi-platform). Interesting. This may be a perfect time for me to get my hands dirty and see how the AG has evolved over time.
Going into the test I was told that the AG software has a host of features including:
1. It is FREE
2. Multicast capable (meaning it can be seen by many people with very little impact on the network bandwidth). NOTE: If you are on the public Internet multicast is not available to you. That is ok, the AG software works over the Internet as well (in a mode called “unicast”).
3. Multiplatform. Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix. I can only test the Windows version from home.
4. Desktop sharing (multi resolutions)
5. Multicast recording of the videoconference
6. HDTV streaming (but only if you have TONS of bandwidth…this will be changed in the future)
8. Distributed PowerPoint
Downloading and Installing the Application
Downloading the application was straight forward. But, I had to ask which version I should download (maybe this should be made clearer, or, maybe I am just dense).
I downloaded Access Grid bundle (includes required dependencies) from this web site.
I assumed that “includes required dependencies” meant “all the stuff I need to make it work” . It is an executable file that my computer warned me could be harmful, but, I downloaded it anyway (63.2 Meg). I trust the AG folks. 🙂
The first thing I discovered was that I was transported back in time to when I was fairly new to videoconferencing.
The AG software is based on the very first software used for video and audio over the Internet called VIC and RAT. These are part of the original MBone tools.
Without getting too detailed: RAT is the Robust Audio Tool while VIC is a videoconferencing application developed, originally, at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (where ESnet is headquartered, how cool is that!).
VIC and RAT are both being updated regularly, and provide some very unique and powerful capabilities not found in H.323 based applications. They are not interoperable with H.323.
You can start to see that the AG application is a bit more complicated than your average commercial videoconferencing application. To add to that, a program called “Python” is also needed.
A quick Google search on Python tells me that this is “a dynamic object-oriented programming language that can be used for many kinds of software development”.
Ok, cool…. sure hope this all works.
Making a Call
After the installation process has completed, I was ready to make a call.
I had to “unblock” Python in my Windows firewall, ok, I’ve had to do that many times with other products and I had to fill out a form with my name, etc.
Then I made the call. And saw this.
Hmmmm, it told me I was not in a Venue (note that there are many venues around the world).
I did some menu surfing to see if I might be able to fix the problem and found out that “Multicast” was the default, so I changed that to “unicast” (under the “Tools” menu). Still nothing. I need to think a bit more…
Ahhh, here we go. I needed to click the “Go” button. Duh. I was expecting to be connected automatically, or at least to find a “Call” button. Go works…..and I was in the Argonne Lobby! 🙂
Long Story Shortened
After a few more problems, including the one shown below.
I spent some time the next day making calls and, meeting with some success, I met with Jeremy on a venue.
He tried his best to help, but, ultimately we were unsuccessful, or rather, only partially successful establishing only one way communication.
If there were more people in the venue, you would see them below Jeremy. And better yet, you can click on the videos of each of those people and have them all in a separate window.
Our Connection Problem
I could see and hear Jeremy just fine (video and audio quality were both very good). But, he could not hear or see me.
Chat worked great and I would send Jeremy a question via chat, and he would answer me by talking.
We spent a good deal of time trying to understand where the problem might be. I rebooted my computer, I rebooted the AG application, I turned off my firewall (NOT something I like doing)…..nothing worked.
I could have looked at my Netopia DSL gateway, but, I do not have a firewall operating on that and H.323, ooVoo, etc all work fine. Besides, if it was my firewall, I would not see or hear Jeremy (the point of a firewall is to block incoming signals), and it did not appear to be their firewall, so I was a bit stuck.
This will have to wait for a resolution…
If you are at a University or Research institution with the need to use the Access Grid, this tool, with sufficient time, effort, and expertise, should serve you well. I know it will because I have experienced the full richness when I was at ESnet.
If you are the average corporate user, telecommuter, or casually talking with family and friends, the Access Grid tool is definitely NOT for you.
I will spend a bit more time trying to get two way video working and update this blog if, and when, we get it going. But….being back in the old days when this stuff was hard to do is not something that appeals to me.
Thanks to Jeremy and Borries for all their help!