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One might think that Stephen Spackman faces a personal quandary every day of his work life.
On the one hand, he's the software designer and behind-the-scene architect of one of the most advanced videoconferencing systems in the world. Above ground, the hardware used in McGill's Ultra-Videoconferencing project (headed by Jeremy Cooperstock, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and John Roston, director, Instructional Multimedia Services) put the "art" in "state-of-the-art."
Banks of 65-inch high-definition plasma screens, studio-quality speakers and the kind of high-definition cameras usually reserved for major broadcasting corporations provide users with a rich interactive visual, auditory and vibrosensory experience that is unparalleled in the world of videoconferencing.
Below the surface, thanks to the wizardry of dedicated Canarie lightpaths that are able to transfer a whopping four gigabits per second, lag time (the eternal bugaboo of videoconferencing) is so reduced that a cellist in Montreal can play a duet with a violinist in Victoria and barely miss a beat.
Make no mistake, this kind of souped-up system turns the heads of heavy-hitters like the U.S. military, multinational corporations and major Hollywood film studios.
On the other hand, Spackman is a technological Everyman, whose biggest dream is to "build and develop this type of application so that it is much less like rocket science and much more like something you put together over the weekend."
But this mix of elite technology and egalitarian ideology is not so incompatible as one might think.
For starters, on top of the shiny (and expensive) aforementioned hardware, most of the interface cards and network cards used in the system are available commercially. Even better, Spackman's Linux-based network transport software is both highly configurable and completely accessible (downloadable versions can be found at http://ultravideo.mcgill.edu).
The combination of high end and (almost) off-the-shelf material has already produced some staggering results. This past October, the McGill team's Shared Spaces demo was named Most Innovative Use of New Technology at the prestigious Supercomputing 2005 Bandwidth Challenge in Seattle. "Beforehand, people were wondering who we were and if we could deliver on what we promised," says Spackman. "Now we're at the leading edge."
While the McGill team has placed itself among the elite top four in the world for this type of research, it has done so all while keeping an eye on the all-important bottom line - a far cry from some of their competitors. "There is some of the really great research coming out of Japan, for example, where major corporations are willing to spend millions for specialized hardware. With us, businesses can go 'I have 20 thousand dollars. How far will that take me?' And the answer is, 'most of the way.' We are definitely high-performance at a lower cost."