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Connecting the classroom of the future

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It may be that videoconferencing in the classroom has been waiting on its iPod moment. Vidyo wants to be the company that delivers the experience.

Online video classrooms, telepresence, remote learning. These trends are supposed to transform education. Yet, how often do students actually use videoconferencing in the everyday learning experience?

Skype is free and omnipresent but limited by quality and scalability issues. That's no knock on Skype. It's a free service (unless you go the premium route) and dependent on the Internet connection that's available.

Major telepresence systems, meanwhile, are expensive to deploy and are often tied to hardware in a single room. The cost and lack of flexibility make them less than ideal for many educational environments.

Vidyo has a different approach. "We're not connecting locations anymore. We're connecting people," says Amnon Gavish, vice president at the "personal telepresence" company, based in Hackensack, N.J.

Vidyo's videoconferencing technology is accessible on any device, provides high-quality service even over a public Internet connection, and includes lots of bells and whistles such as customized views and social networking integration. It works because Vidyo has built its system around scalable video coding (SVC).

Gavish describes SVC as a video layering technology. Depending on the user's Internet connection, Vidyo sends a specified number of layers of encoded video. The stronger the connection, the more layers of video are delivered, resulting in a higher-resolution picture. "What scalable video coding does is adapt to the network conditions continually during the call, and does not require any processing in the infrastructure," Gavish says.

Because the Vidyo solution is software-based, there's no dedicated private network necessary; no proprietary hardware required.

It may be that videoconferencing in the classroom has been waiting on its iPod moment. In the same way MP3 hardware didn't become popular until Apple introduced its music player, educational institutions may be sitting on their heels with video technology until there's a solution compelling enough and easy enough to make incorporating it into lesson plans irresistible.

Arizona State University and Smithsonian connect Panama researchers with students using Vidyo.

Vidyo has found that university departments rapidly increase videoconferencing usage in the months after signing up for the Vidyo solution, and Gavish has some great stories about how the technology is playing out in the classroom.

Arizona State University has established the "Ask a Biologist" program, where K-12 schools can sign up for a video session with university scientists. A medical school in Chicago is using Vidyo to let students witness live surgeries. And a company in Australia has made Vidyo the basis of a remote learning program designed to teach students in Asia how to speak English.

At a direct-to-consumer level, Vidyo is the underlying technology for video chat in Google+ Hangouts and for Nintendo's Wii U Chat application. You can see the company listed in the product credits, if you look closely enough.

Recently, Vidyo announced a new agreement with Internet2 and the NET+ program. The deal offers Vidyo technology as a subscription service to Internet2 member universities. Ironically, users don't need the high-bandwidth capacity of Internet2 to use Vidyo, but the association between the two organizations does help with security and identity management. And from a university standpoint, all of the infrastructure and and hardware maintenance is handled.

"Within a couple of years there will be 200 million end points ... with high-definition videoconferencing," Gavish predicts. Universities and other educational institutions may very well be at the heart of that trend.

(Images courtesy of Vidyo)

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure