Tag Archives: Mirial

TxDLA: Skype vs. Standards-based VC: The Showdown

Here are links and resources for my second TxDLA presentation today (Skype vs. Standards-Based VC: The Showdown):


H.323 Desktop VC Options (a few… please comment to add more)

Hybrid / Cross-Over Solutions

  • Vidyo (send a link to anyone to join your VC; also connects to H.323)
  • Blue Jeans Network (connect Skype, phone, H.323 etc. all in the same conference)

Previous Blog Comparisons

Please feel free to comment, add additional resources, or share different views!

The VC Continuum I Recommend to My Schools

As we end this week of talking about desktop VC, I thought it might be helpful for me to share the continuum of videoconferencing that I recommend to the schools in the two counties that I serve. This may be helpful to know the perspective I’m coming from when I evaluate desktop VC.

I’ve made a more generic overview of the videoconferencing continuum before, but here’s what I recommend to my schools.

What We Have Already

Remember we have:

  • 70 Polycom Viewstations and VSX 7000 endpoints; 1 LifeSize 200 installed last week; 1 Polycom QDX  6000 installed last fall
  • Tandberg infrastructure: MCU, Gatekeeper, IP-ISDN Gateway, and Tandberg Management Suite for scheduling

I still have about another 20-30 schools in my service area that don’t have VC in their school building.

How We Use VC

  • We do about 700-900 videoconferences a year.
  • All our videoconferences are with standards based H323 units.
  • 60% of them are with other schools – collaborative projects etc. 59% of those are out of our service area; 45% of them are out of state; 5% are out of the U.S.
  • 15% of our VCs are with content providers: zoos, museums, GNG, NASA, etc.
  • 15% of our VCs are ASK programs: interviews with authors or specialists: either ones we run for our schools or TWICE ASK.
  • The last 10%  are meetings and professional development, mostly within county or content we get from the state.
  • Many of the teachers just walk into the room to do the VC. The call has already been set up by me or the VC coordinator in the school, and presets are already set if needed. All the teacher has to think about is the muting and unmuting if they are in a multipoint, and the presets if their class is presenting or participating in an ASK program, and of course preparing their students on the curriculum side. Often I’m listening to the VC so if something goes wrong, I can fix it for the teacher.

Ideally a VC cart

Most of our equipment was purchased with grants. When that is possible, I prefer an installation that includes:

  • The H323 videoconference system: LifeSize, Polycom, or Tandberg
  • HD if it can be afforded
  • A sturdy but lightweight cart
  • A 37 to 50 inch monitor
  • A document camera
  • An Avermedia QuickPlay to connect the computer in via S-Video (yes, yes, I know, lower quality, but guaranteed to work with anything we connect to) or any other method that connects the computer that is NOT H.239/People Plus Content/DuoVideo
  • In our latest installation we also had a DVD/VCR, but I wouldn’t recommend that now. My schools never use it.
  • If possible, installed with an IP address NATed. In only one district do we have a firewall traversal unit, and we’re trying to make it work without it because the extension dialing is such a pain.
  • 3 years maintenance on the VC system at least! Usually my districts can’t afford maintenance after the grant runs out, so if we’re using a grant we always do 3 years maintenance. I also strongly urge any districts buying their own unit to buy 3 year maintenance on it.
  • This list is about $7000-9000.

Next Best, Mobile Within the District

Two of my districts were not eligible for the latest RUS grant. When we switched from ISDN to IP in 2005, their PictureTel Concordes were obsolete.

  • These two districts have a Polycom VSX 7000 in a box.
  • It connects to the TV in the classroom or a projector.
  • If a document camera is needed, it is borrowed from elsewhere to use with VC.
  • The district tech moves it from school to school, and updates the network settings as it moves.
  • This setup is just the codec only. So it could be as low as $2000-5000.

Next Best, Buy Old Units

  • In a couple of my other schools, they purchased refurbished or gently used VC systems. In one case from eBay. In the other case from their network services provider which had some extra Polycom Viewstations kicking around. (Another place would be The Videoconference Store, which sells used systems.)
  • Both of these scenarios use existing TVs/projectors/carts.
  • This setup could cost around $1000-$3000.

Interactive 21st Century Classrooms

That brings me to the next scenario: 2-5 school districts that have or are purchasing interactive whiteboards and installing them in every classroom. Each of these districts sees the value of VC as we use it in the curriculum. They all have teachers who are tired of getting the cart to VC in their classroom or going to the library or fixed room. (Kind of funny really. I remember when they were tired of busing to the high school to VC.)

These districts COULD spend their funds to upgrade their existing system to HD. But the possibility of VC in every classroom is intriguing and tempting.

  • Whiteboard plus short throw projector means the display is already there.
  • Some of these teachers are already doing Skype on their interactive whiteboard. So why not H.323 also!?
  • It needs to cost the same or less to put VC in every classroom than they would spend to upgrade their carts to HD and 50 inch LCD monitors.
  • H.323 standards based videoconference is a must.

This is one of the main reasons I’ve been investigating desktop VC (in case you missed the posts, so far I’ve looked at Mirial, Vidyo, and Polycom CMA Desktop. In the future, also need to look at Tandberg Movi and LifeSize Desktop at least).

Desktop VC On a Cart

Finally, the other scenario is for our private schools and districts that don’t have VC yet, but definitely want it. They aren’t eligible for grants – not poor enough or not rural enough or not a public school. But they also don’t have enough funding to buy the ideal VC cart or even the refurbished units. They need something under $500.

  • They could use an existing laptop and projector cart (many of them are sharing the projector in the school this way already).
  • Plus a webcam for $100-ish.
  • Plus a microphone for $150-ish. (I’ve tried out the Clear One Chat in a classroom situation with very poor results; next I’ll be trying the Phoenix Duet.)
  • Plus $120 for Polycom PVX or something similar with one of the other options that I’m exploring.
  • HD is NOT essential as their projector and laptop are probably older anyway.

So, that’s where I’m coming from as I evaluate desktop VC. I’m trying to get more VC to my schools. More H323 VC!

What do you think? Is this similar to what you recommend to your schools? What would you add or change? Please feel free to comment!

Thinking About Mirial Softphone

As you know, I’ve been on a journey to figure out how to get videoconferencing in the 21st century classrooms in our county. Last fall, on a recommendation from a blog commenter, I started experimenting with Mirial Softphone; a desktop VC tool.


I was initially interested in Mirial over Polycom PVX as a desktop stand alone tool for these reasons:

  • I didn’t have to make any network or firewall changes and it worked. So easy!!
  • It works on the Mac (Polycom PVX is PC only).

In addition,

  • It registered to my GK, and can do H.239.
  • It connected fine to my Polycom endpoints and Tandberg bridge.

Cons / Issues

  • One of the first issues I ran into was how to buy Mirial. With a school account it would be hard to buy something online from Europe that was in euros! I did, however, find a reseller in Michigan. I also found out that you have to buy it in packs of 3; and that it would be 3 Mac licenses or 3 PC licenses; but not a mix. This complicates things a bit.
  • I tried this out on three of our school networks. On two of them it worked great; no configuration needed for the firewall. On the third network we were stuck. Could not get it to work on the network without going through the hoops that we’d do for a full videoconference system (NAT, etc.).


I like Mirial for schools that are Mac based and are “on their own” – i.e. no regional videoconference support. I have connected to several schools who have a Polycom PVX “cart” with a laptop and projector, varying qualitys of web cam/PTZ camera, and a microphone. Mirial seems to be the best way that I’ve seen for doing this type of installation with a Mac.

Server Based Desktop VC

I’m just starting to learn about the advantages of server based desktop videoconferencing. The more I read; the more I realize that the cost is a huge factor. If we were to install standalone desktop VC (Polycom PVX or Mirial) in all the 21st century classrooms, the cost would climb very quickly. However, with server based desktop videoconferencing, many of the cost models are set up by concurrent videoconferences; NOT by the number of computers with the software installed. In places with regional videoconference support (like my area and my schools), it seems much more cost effective to go the server route. More on additional options (i.e. Vidyo and Polycom CMA Desktop) in future posts.

For now, though, one last tidbit from my email today: a Wainhouse Research Bulletin quote:

Milan-based Mirial released ClearSea, a new client-server desktop videoconferencing solution supporting both PC and Mac users as well as H.323 room systems. Features include a centralized directory, user group management, integration with Active Directory/LDAP, full remote configuration and upgrade of desktop clients. The port-based licensing and the possibility to download unlimited copies of the client makes the product extremely scalable without the need to worry about unused accounts. ClearSea provides the ability to connect the local (on-LAN) and remote (off-LAN) desktop users across their firewalls and to their SIP or H.323 legacy conferencing room systems, without the need of any external gateway or bridge. The product also embeds a video IVR to call users by extensions and an “autoscan” feature for finding existing room systems.

So, it seems clear that there are very interesting and promising developments in H323 desktop videoconferencing. Stay tuned for more reflections in future posts.

Still Thinking about VC in the Classroom, Skype etc.

The saga/conversation/thinking continues…..

Mirial: Desktop H323 VC from Italy

This morning I downloaded Mirial, a 30 day trial version, (recommended on a comment yesterday) and got excited about the possibilities of getting VC in our “21st century classrooms” around the county. We have several teachers with “tricked out classrooms” who also love VC but want it in their classroom. I haven’t tested too much yet, but so far:

  • The download and install was easy.
  • I didn’t have to make any network or firewall changes and it worked. But I can only dial out (so far).
  • It’s 165 euros which seems to be about $250 US. Now how to buy it?
  • It registered to my GK, and can do H.239.
  • It connected fine to my Polycom endpoints and my Tandberg bridge.
  • It doesn’t work with a firewire camcorder on the Mac yet (bummer).

I’m seriously thinking of getting a classroom to try this out for a year….

Teacher: H323 is better than Skype

Then this afternoon, in a collaborations workshop for Tech Camp, I had a teacher who has Skype and has connected to Mexico. But she says “this is way better” pointing to our VSX7000 set up. She doesn’t have access in her building, but plans to bus the kids here to participate in VCs!!!

So there’s another perspective to compare to yesterday’s.

Bottom line as a VC coordinator for my schools, I need to be able to have a variety of solutions to meet their needs!

Future of VC in Schools

Today I’m pulling another comment out to make it a full post. This one is by Craig Mollerstuen from GCI, Alaska. Craig has been involved in VC for as long as I can remember, champions educational use in Alaska, and has served the NECC sessions with VC support for several years. He commented on my question, “what do you see as the future of VC in schools?” Here’s the full comment:

There are lots of different ways to look at this, from community, technology, equipment, pedagogy and other perspectives.

1) Community: Individuals vs. Groups

Skype isn’t optimized for groups where H.323 systems have been. One can connect a good camera (firewire camcorder) and echo canceling speaker/microphones (Phoenix Duet, etc.). But that have very low usability compared to an integrated appliance with high quality, pan/tilt/zoom cameras and good quality microphones with echo canceling built in.  Group ease of use goes to the incumbents.

Individual ease of use goes to Skype (and other desktop solutions.) This is because of the H.323 protocol. It is easy to make a high quality H.323 application (for Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) but the protocol sucks. It dies across firewalls.

Individuals are also looking for low bandwidth and high quality solutions as they are often “on the move.” Such solutions typically use adaptive encoding which H.323 doesn’t (easily) support.

For groups we accept high bandwidth requirements because we want significantly higher resolution (larger rooms) and we can typically afford to put more bandwidth into a limited number of fixed locations.

2) Protocols – Standard vs. Proprietary

In general, schools would do well to use VC equipment that supports open standards. Standards eventually lead to wider adoption, greater choice and lower cost. However it takes FOREVER for standards to develop and often we can’t (or don’t want to) wait.

Because of it’s reliance on proprietary protocols, there has been many fewer devices that support Skype. And it is hard to find a Skype MCU.

3) Point-to-point vs. Multi-point

We need to be able to do both point-to-point and multi-site conferences. Solutions that are only point-to-point don’t provide sufficient flexibility for education.

Multi-point conferencing needs to be easy to use. Today’s audio conferencing is a good model, dial a number, enter a code and you’re in the conference.

4) Pedagogy – Video conferencing vs. Web conferencing.

This isn’t really pedagogy, but I’m using the term to describe the gulf between “on-line” conferencing and “video” conferencing today.  We need video conferencing to support some of the really great tools that are available in “on-line”/web conferencing environments (chat, polls, forums, breakout rooms, etc.)

And “on-line” environments need to support better and higher quality audio and video, more video and audio streams and group environments.

So… What is the future of live Conferencing in education?

Long term, I can foresee technology that supports the gamut of teachers and teaching styles, learners and learning styles and content types.

Eventually we will have a conferencing protocol that will replace H.323, SIP, Skype and the rest. It will support multiple audio, text, video and content streams from each endpoint.

We’ll see conference servers that support the new protocol (and that can transcode the old protocols) and support a variety of endpoints (analog, wireless, audio, digital, video, room, desktop, appliance, etc.)

Care will have been given to the user interface, ease of use and to pedagogy. We’ll be able to have multiple PTZ cameras in the classroom, audio mics for teachers and students, content from multiple sources (computers, lab equipment, off-net, etc.) so that we don’t have to limit what we are sharing from the “classroom”.  (Develop an open API so that people can develop content widgets.)

Responsible learners will be given the flexibility to choose the streams that they want to view and hear. Learners who need more direction can be given fewer choices and more structure.

And we’ll get all this in a low cost, easy to use, high bandwidth environment with good professional development.

In the near term, we need:

  1. open standards and protocols
  2. conferencing that adapts to low and high bandwidth environments
  3. transport that traverses the net as easily as HTTP
  4. professional quality equipment for content providers, appliances for theatres, classrooms and desktops and software that runs on our computers (fixed and mobile) as endpoints.
  5. We need academics to study and solve the technology problems
  6. We need practitioners to study and solve the practice problems
  7. We need industry to build high quality and low cost solutions

Products like Elluminate, Mirial and Vidyo are good “next steps”. There is still lots and lots of room for improvement and advancement.

Cheers, -Craig-