Monday, May 3, 2010

Science Discovery and Advanced Networking 1.5 Miles Below the Earth's Surface

The Spring 2010 Internet2 Conference was superb! I have witnessed the increase in quality and diversity of the Internet2 conferences over years, and hope that I have contributed to these changes, too. Fact is that Internet2 events are larger and more diverse, and that they now include not only educational and research institutes but also government and health organizations as well as growing international attendance. Polycom’s participation in these events has also increased over time. In addition to numerous presentations I have given (links are below in the ‘Speaking Engagements’ section), we have done amazing demos, including the TPX three-screen telepresence system that we built at the Fall 2009 Internet2 Conference, as part of the telepresence interoperability effort. The spring event last week gathered 700 participants and was another excellent opportunity to experience collaboration tools with video capabilities, including Polycom CMA Desktop and PVX soft clients, while Polycom HDX equipment was used in many sessions to connect remote participants from all around the world.

But nothing can compare to the astonishing video and audio quality used to connect LIVE both the former Homestake gold mine near Lead, South Dakota and the office of the Governor of South Dakota to the conference hotel Marriot Crystal Gateway in Arlington, Virginia. All attendees gathered in the big ballroom for the general session "Science Discovery and Advanced Networking 1.5 Miles Below the Earth's Surface" which focused on the plans to convert the Homestake mine in South Dakota into a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab (DUSEL), where physicists, biologists and geologists could research fundamental questions about matter, energy, life and the Earth.

It looks like every kind of scientific research would benefit from the underground lab, for example, geologists want to study the rocks and figure out why there is no more gold in the mine, while physicists want to study neutrino and dark matter, and hide from the cosmic radiation that seems to screw up a lot of the experiments. Whatever they end up doing in this lab, it will result in a lot of data that has to be transported to research institutes around the world over a very fast network. And since getting in and out of the mine is not easy, advanced voice and video communication is needed for scientists underground to stay in touch with their peers on the surface. The general session gave a preview of what Polycom audio-video technology can do in the tough mine environment characterized by dust, water, and wide temperature variation.

The mine itself is up to 8,000 feet or 2,438 meters deep (and therefore the deepest in North America) but most of the work today is done at 4,850 feet / 1,478 meters underground, and that’s exactly where the Polycom HDX 8000 system was installed. Optical fiber goes to the surface, and connects to the South Dakota’s Research, Education and Economic Development network (REED), which supports two 10 gigabit/second waves and links the state’s six public universities. REED also connects with the Great Plains regional research and education network at Kansas City, which peers with Internet2. Internet2 links with the Mid Atlantic regional network, which had a 1 Gigabit per second link to the conference site in Arlington. Pretty much the same network – except the underground part - was used to connect the second remote participant in the session: the Governor of South Dakota Michael Rounds. The original plan to have him in the mine was scrapped because of safety concerns and another Polycom HDX 8000 system connected the governor’s office to Arlington.

I have seen many demos of Polycom technology over good networks. The Polycom corporate IP network is designed for audio and video and provides very good quality. BUT nothing I have seen compares to the perfect network used during the general session last week. Not a single packet was lost and the delay was just not there, so that the interaction among on-site and remote participants was flawless. The HDX 8000 systems worked at High Definition 1080p video quality and full-band (22 kHz) audio quality over connections of 6 megabits per second. On one hand, the audience could see, hear, and almost smell the thick air in the deep mine. On the other hand, the pristine quality delivered a fully immersive experience, and made everyone in Arlington feel ‘in the mine’. It felt surreal to be so close and so far away at the same time. 700 conference attendees joined me in that experience.

It is impossible to capture the immersive experience during the session but I will try to at least give my blog readers some feeling of the event.

I took a picture of the Governor of South Dakota Michael Rounds speaking about the creation of an underground science lab in the Homestake mine. I also shot a short video of this part of the session.

When Kevin Lesko, DUSEL Principal Investigator, spoke from the Homestake mine, I took a still picture and shot a short video of him, too.

The Q&A part of the session used a split screen to allow conference attendees to see both the Governor and the team underground at the same time, and engage in live discussion. Here is a picture and a video clip from that part of the session.

The interaction in the Q&A session was spectacular. The Governor and the team in the Homestake mine answered numerous questions from the audience and the interaction across distances was just spectacular. In conclusion of the session the President and CEO of Internet2 Doug Van Houweling thanked all contributors to the session. He thanked Polycom for providing the video equipment for this incredible discussion that highlighted both the advances of audio-video technology and the enormous capabilities of the Internet2 network.

Throughout the 75 minute session, the audio and video quality was impressive. Several attendees came to me after the session to share their surprise and excitement about the immersive experience. Most of them wanted to know how to make their own video conferencing systems deliver similar quality, which of course led to discussion about the recent advances of audio and video technology including compression, cameras, microphones, and networking.

I am sure several of my blog followers attended the session "Science Discovery and Advanced Networking 1.5 Miles Below the Earth's Surface", and I would love to get their comments.

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