Video link pulls strings together

Violinists 5 km apart play duet, using medium 'faster than the message'

Irwin Block
The Gazette

Don't expect Jeremy Cooperstock to show up for all his classes at McGill University next semester.

Not in the flesh, that is.

The assistant professor at McGill's Centre for Intelligent Machines plans to teach some classes from home -- in real time -- thanks to ground-breaking research by a university team he heads.

The team has developed and fine-tuned a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system that was displayed yesterday to about 200 computer and fibreoptic networking experts at a colloquium at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales.

In what was described as world premiere, two violinists about 5 kilometres apart -- one at HEC, the other at McGill -- played a duet by baroque composer Andreas Lidel.

The miniconcert was of performance quality, although viola player Monica Guenter could be seen grimacing on one occasion, apparently unhappy with static on the audio.

Violinist Nathan Picklyk said the 15-millisecond delay in the audio was next to negligible, though he noted slight delay in the video as he concentrated on his partner, as one does in a duet.

"It was fine, very manageable, and I felt comfortable," he said.

Cooperstock, who teaches in the department of electrical and computer engineering, had no misgivings about the system's immediate potential.

"Now I'm going to teach some of classes (in human-computer interaction) fromhome, starting next semester," Cooperstock said after the experiment was declared a success and broadly applauded by the researchers in the hall.

Cooperstock said the experiment will have practical applications soon, but warned that "most of us cannot afford this, yet yet."

Still with better computers and fibreoptics, it won't be long before near-real-time videoconferencing becomes fairly common and, for example, sound engineers can co-ordinate Internet recording sessions with musicians spread out in faraway locations.

Cooperstock said such a system could have applications in the health field -- for example, by hooking up city doctors with those in isolated locations to help with a diagnosis.

Or it could be used to communicate with far-flung native communities, with help from interpreters, he said.

The key is to use a hand band-width network.

For example, the fibreoptic lines in yesterday's experiment carried about 600 million bits of information per second, compared with about one million bits on a typical high-speed Internet service like Sympatico.

Marshall McLuhan's 1960s dictum said the medium is the message, Cooperstock told his audience.

"I say, the medium must be faster than the message."