Fiber-to-the-jungle

Arizona State University and the Smithsonian bring classrooms to the rainforest

Arizona State University and the Smithsonian Institute are using a fiber-to-the-jungle connection to provide distance learning that could include extending lectures into the rainforest via Wi-Fi connections.

A bigger picture of videoconferencing

The Internet-based connection would terminate on Barro Colorado, an island in the middle of the Panama Canal's Gatun Lake which the Smithsonian has managed since 1924 and where it now runs its Institute of Tropical Research.

The fiber runs beneath the lake, which was formed by damming the Chagres River to create an open segment of the canal. A feature formerly called West Hill remained above water and became Barro Colorado.

The fiber link terminates at Smithsonian buildings on the island, but there are plans to extend the connection outside using Wi-Fi, says Charles Kazilek, director of technology integration and outreach for ASU's School of Life Sciences.

When the school established a relationship with the tropical institute, Kazilek was charged with finding a way to connect classrooms with scientists in the field and with other classrooms. In addition, the technology he chose needed to tie the university in with K-12 public schools in Arizona for distance learning.

He chose Vidyo, which specializes in videoconferencing gear that dynamically chooses the connection with each endpoint that yields the best image for the quality of the network.

Key to the decision was that the VidyoGateway server that sits in an ASU data center can establish connections with the Smithsonian's Polycom teleconferencing gear, so there is no need to invest in new equipment in Panama. The gateway can connect ASU's existing Polycom and Tandberg videoconferencing room systems into conferences.

Also, the VidyoGateway can connect with laptops that have video cameras, making it possible for users to move around and conference in with classes in Arizona as long as their machines have a Vidyo software client installed, Kasilek says.

These laptops could be equipped with Wi-Fi so scientists in Panama could lecture to classes directly from the jungle, where they could show the plant and animal life they are talking about, he says. "We can run experiments on how much Wi-Fi can do in the jungle," he says.

Equipment as simple as off-the-shelf iMacs supplied with headsets or speaker phones can serve as endpoints, according to tests he has carried out. He envisions scientists taking this simple gear up into the jungle canopy on cranes to show students what goes on there.

To help support outreach programs to Arizona K-12 schools, ASU plans to buy a cart of Vidyo equipment that can be dropped at the schools to set up a distance-learning classroom, he says. The cart contains a Vidyo HD projector, a laptop, wireless microphone and cables for power and Internet connections - everything needed to support a remote classroom environment.

The ASU-Smithsonian program is ramping up next month with a dozen or so graduate students conferencing with researchers on Barro Colorado in preparation to visiting there during the winter break, he says. The program will be fully running Jan. 1.

He says the Vidyo system cost less than $40,000. Vidyo clients cost $5 per seat and peripherals such as headsets and speaker phones cost less than $200 each, he says.

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