Saturday, August 8, 2020

Hacking the Virtual Hackerthon

Greeting from the Virtual Hackathon on Fighting Pandemics. This is organized by the Australian National University Humanitarian Innovation Society (ANU HISoc), with the Clinton Global Initiative University and IBM. We have had an introduction from the organizers at HISoc, and a design thinking workshop from IBM. I will be talking about better logistics at 2:15pm. The opening sessions used Remo Conference, and I am impressed that the organizers have been able to get it to work so well, but Remo needs improvements to be usable for education.

Remo Conference

Remo Conference
Remo Conference

Remo Conference (Version: 2.13.5) takes the "conference" part of video conferencing more literally than other products, with an interface which looks like a conference room floor plan. Participants can be pre-allocated to tables, with a tiny picture of them, labeled with their initials, around the table as if seated. Spare space at the table is indicated by empty chairs. Those at a table can see and hear each other with the video windows appearing at the top of the screen. Participants can move tables by double clicking on another. Some tables may be reserved for MCs and a help desk. The MC can call all participants to a presentation, at which point the table conversations shut down and a large window opens for the presenter. When in presentation mode Remo Conference looks much like any other webinar product, with a presentation window, chat, Q&A and Raise-Hand functions.

The room metaphor is a good idea, but Remo's implementation takes it a bit too literally. One problem is that when the participants arrive there is no sound and no welcome. I spent a lot of time trying to work out why my audio was not working, but it was just that no one was talking: we were all waiting for something to happen. It would be useful if there was some sort of avatar to show us to our seats and some sort of background hum of the crowd. 

Also the fixed room layout does not make best use of screen space. When at a table, having all other tables displayed is a waste of space. It would be better if the interface zoomed in. There is a text chat window, but I could not find a way to resize it, so it obscured things I wanted to see. However, the largest problem is the video does not work well on a slower link.

This is my fourth attempt to use Remo. The first two times I did not manage to see or hear anything. The third time it worked, sort of. This forth time it is usable, but only just. The problem is that like many video conferencing tools, Remo have assumed the user has high speed broadband. As a result on my low speed connection Remo barely works, at the best of times. This is unfortunate, as Zoom have shown this does not need to be the case: Zoom adjusts well for a lower speed link. In Zoom, if I make the window smaller the resolution of video reduces and with that the data transmitted. This doesn't happen with Remo. Even if I minimize the window, so no video is visible, Remo still uses more than 1 Mbps, whereas Zoom uses much less.

The video data use in Remo seems to vary depending on the resolution the video participant is transmitting. During this week's CBRIN First Wednesday, everything was working okay with Remo, until the MC appeared. At that point I saw a blurry closeup of their face frozen on screen. Then a pre-recored YouTube video started and worked fine, but before then end this was interrupted by the MC again as a huge still image. What appears to have been happening was that the MC was in HD video which my system could not cope with. The YouTube was low resolution and worked fine, but was interrupted by the HD again before it could finish playing.

All this discussion of low resolution may sound irrelevant to those with high speed broadband: why not just spend a few dollars and get decent broadband? I could do that as I am relatively well of, and live in a first-world city which pioneered fiber to the node decades ago. But many people can't afford, or can't get, high speed broadband. 

For-profit companies can simply ignore customers without high speed broadband, reasoning these people don't have enough money to be worth worrying about. As an educator, it would be unethical, and perhaps unlawful, to discriminate against students in this way. So when COVID-19 hit I decided to forgo the high speed broadband I had access to and instead make do with a high latency low speed 4G mobile broadband connection My connection works at around 1.5 Mbps, which is is part of the ANU Recommended student system requirements.

If a service doesn't work on low speed broadband, then some of my students, who are now scattered around the world, may not be able to use it. Although Remo recommends a minimum of 8 Mbps, it just about works at 1.5 Mbps. I suggest the developers implement video bandwidth adjustments, like those in Zoom, to make it usable for those who can't afford, or can't get, high speed broadband.

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