Remote desktop, meet multimedia; school, meet remote desktop

Recently we got contacted about crafting some kind of solution for remote participation to school lesson. Hospitalized students may have hard time catching up and the current technologies, even the overpriced and underused “interactive blackboards” may help a bit in the picture.

What’s an “interactive blackboard” ? It is more or less a projector and any kind of tracking pointer, usually the IR flavour you can see in wide use through the Nintendo Wii. Not exactly a breakthrough it’s something you could craft with about 50e of components and any price for a projector (like the relatively inexpensive and highly portable ones from 3m). You might have some “value added software” that give you an UI that is more “blackboardish” than your standard desktop but that’s all.

How is it used during lessons? Pretty much like a normal blackboard, worst case you have a dumb teacher feeding his poor students dull slides made not so well.

That said it gets pretty easy think about a way to keep the hospitalized student and the rest of the class linked: put a remote desktop solution (nx, vnc, whatever) on the system wired to the blackboard and arrange some controls so that the teacher could give and take the “chalk” to the remote student.

Simple enough isn’t it?

Problems:

– What if the teacher would like to see and heard the remote student?

Well there is plenty of streaming solutions (I’m eyeing sip-communicator currently since they really put a great show at Fosdem, but ekiga or skype could do as well).

– What if the teacher starts to use the “interactive board” to show a DVD and wants the remote student enjoy it?

Ok, there we have a problem, having a large surface updated quite often and asking to have a _good_ quality and expecting the remote student having just a wireless link like umts, edge, gprs is getting really painful.

There are some solutions that have some heuristics in place to discover when a surface is holding a video and they try to compress using some not-so-lossy and quite-enough-low-delay. A bit suboptimal but should work somehow. I wonder if somebody has already thought about harnessing XV, XvMC and libVA capabilities and try to wire the not so fully decoded bitstream this way. Given you have a vaapi implementation on both endpoint and the right codec you may get a perfect movie and probably also spare some bandwidth. If I’ll have time probably I’ll try to have a proof of concept using the efikamx as endpoint, given it will get a vaapi bridget to it’s hardware accelerators.

For the audio you can compress it quite well w/out many complaints and wiring it from a desktop to another is relatively easy (hi, pulse!).

So I already described some months of work, now the last problem:

– What if I want many remote students interact with the same class and blackboard?

Ops. Given the class may have a link that’s no better than umts as well if we are talking about bare remote desktop might be feasible

If we could cut the video feeds and keep just the voices of the remote students we could still survive with 3-4 at most

If we want them to enjoy the video the teacher is about to show to the classe then… we need something else, completely. The whole blackboard&such software could stay better on a server with enough bandwidth and cpu to serve all the remote nodes with ease. Also the class could use a thin client wired to the interactive blackboard and more or less everybody could be happy. Sadly such technologies aren’t that ready. There is spice that’s quite promising, but not ready yet.

That’s all for now, I spent enough time rambling. We’ll see if this “cloud”y ideas will end in an implementation or not. And I haven’t started yet thinking about which software would run on this contraption… Anybody has a any experience with educational software for middle/high schools?

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