New York City school officials wanted to bring high-quality, interactive video to the classroom—without breaking the bank. By all accounts, they’ve succeeded by finding a solution that delivers TV-quality images over the district’s current IP (internet protocol) network.

The city’s educators wanted a workable interactive video system that would enable students in different schools to communicate with each other, share in special lectures or presentations, and take part in virtual field trips to museums and other cultural institutions.

The ambitious project, managed by New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, required a number of features to make it a success. First and foremost, interactive video needed to be television quality or better.

As many educators have learned through experience, previous experiments in interactive video were often flawed by the “herky-jerky” video of ISDN-based video conferencing systems. For students familiar with only the fluid 30 frames-per-second speed of television, poor-quality video often was too distracting to make it a worthwhile education tool. A sense of “seamless presence”—the feeling that others are actually in the same room—between connected locations was vital to making the program a success.

In addition to TV-quality video, the system needed to be easy to use for both educators and IT professionals. Teachers needed to be able to set up on demand easily or preschedule sessions to connect specific schools automatically on a time-of-day or day-of-week basis.

With a broadband network already in place, New York City school officials wanted a video-over-IP system rather than going through the expense and headache of building a separate video network. However, an IP-based video system needed to be network friendly. Many video-over-IP systems chew up bandwidth and cause problems in delivering data or other network traffic. Adding more expensive bandwidth to the school system’s network was not an option.

New York City also wanted a system that would make it easier for students to enjoy the rich array of cultural attractions in the city, so they wanted a video-over-IP system that would work in a wireless environment to enable students to take virtual field trips to museums and cultural centers in the New York City area.

Finding an affordable, easy-to-use, mobile system with high-quality video was a tall order, thought Andrew Casey, the senior IT professional who managed the project: “While there are a range of video conferencing systems available today, finding all of the features we needed at an affordable price was not easy.”

City school officials chose VBrick Systems of Wallingford, Conn., as their solutions provider. In just four years, VBrick has seen its MPEG-based products deployed by hundreds of schools, businesses, and government agencies, including the Utah Educational Network.

In a pilot project, a sophisticated interactive video system using VBrick’s video appliances was deployed to connect schools to each other and to select museums. For this project, New York City selected the VBrick 6200 MPEG-2 encoder/decoder and the VBrick 5300 dual decoder to create the sense of continuous presence between any of the connected schools in the district. Cameras, VCRs, DVD players, or any other video sources simply plug into the VBrick devices, which then convert the feed into MPEG-2 video. This video is transported over the broadband network and delivers real-time, DVD-quality video to TV monitors or computer desktops.

VBricks are located in 31 classrooms throughout the city, including middle schools, high schools, and the City University of New York. VBricks also are accessible at the Board of Education’s television station and are connected to two ISDN gateways and four satellite feeds, enabling the system to feature a virtually unlimited range of external content.

In addition, cameras and VBricks have been placed on mobile carts in the American Museum of Natural History, the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts in Education, and the Heckscher Foundation Resource Center. This enables students to take interactive, virtual field trips to these cultural institutions without leaving the classroom.

The VBricks are about the size of an average DVD player and are just as easy to use, officials say, thanks to a simple, handheld remote control. In the system developed for the New York City pilot project, students can have a natural discussion with three other schools simultaneously.

VBricks require only a modest amount of bandwidth to deliver high-quality video. Using a technique called IP Multicast, only one stream is delivered from the VBrick device to the network. The Ethernet switches will only forward the stream when an end device—a PC or VBrick unit—requests it. This enables high-quality video to be transported over normal IP-switched networks without creating bottlenecks.

With the pilot project in place, New York City students now can take advantage of expert teachers, special lectures, field trips, and many other opportunities without having to travel to another school or location. The project enables students from different parts of the city and with different backgrounds to communicate with each other, helping to foster an enhanced sense of community and understanding.

The system’s ease of use has enabled educators to incorporate it readily into their lesson plans, school officials say. With a simple remote control, they can open up a world of opportunities to their students.

“We’ve been able to implement a high-quality video system connecting schools and cultural institutions without having to spend scarce resources on additional network infrastructure,” said Casey. “VBricks are a powerful tool that makes interactive video a reality for the public school system.”

With the success of the pilot project, the New York City school system is considering options to roll out the program to other schools and broaden the number of museums and galleries that feed into it.

Related links:
New York City Board of Education

VBrick Inc.