Polycom MusicMode(TM) and its RealPresence(TM) solutions took a starring role at London's Royal College of Music this week. That's where the fourth annual workshop of the Network Performing Arts Production Workshop (Twitter: #NPAPW) gathered to exchange the latest experiences and technologies for using the Internet to bring together distributed performers in real-time performance. Think of a rock band playing together live when each instrument is forced to be in a different country.
Two things make distributed arts performance over the Internet extra hard: latency, and transparency. "Latency" is the delay in getting from the source of a sound to a listener's ear. Latency is not a problem in streaming movies - we don't care whether the movie we're watching was squirted out of its Kansas service provider 6 or 6,000 milliseconds ago as long as it all arrives together - but it's a very big problem when two fiddlers are trying to play together, taking cues from each other in real time.
"Transparency" is how accurately the sound heard compares to the sound that was played. Over the years, telepresence technologies have evolved for conversation and meetings, not for music. Meetings and music may seem similar, but the difference is as great as that between a chicken and a chicken dinner.
Most real-time distributed collaboration has developed by combining an extremely high-performance private network, Internet2 (up to 10 gigabits of almost lossless data capacity) with extremely fast and simple endpoints that squirt uncompressed audio and video into the connection at channel rates exceeding 700 megabits per second. It mostly works, but access is limited and cost is high.
The popularity of Polycom solutions has rapidly grown in the live arts world because it's viable over conventional networks by using MusicMode, a re-imagining of Polycom's unparalleled conference audio to make it perfect for music. One professor in Copenhagen gave a demonstration to the London audience Tuesday morning, playing piano with MusicMode enabled. Then he disabled MusicMode: the sound was suddenly so un-musical that the audience actually laughed! What makes for superb conference audio and for great music performance are very different things, as listeners quickly recognized.
Through the course of the three-day conference, what became apparent to me was that even among institutions that have access to Internet2, MusicMode is being used more and more. First applied in music education, coaching and master classes where the interactions are back-and-forth, performers are starting to discover that it also works well to bond distributed live performers, like dance and drama, and even musicians in some situations. It's being used to let performers get a lot more live practice to prepare, even if the final performance will be a one-time use of Internet2. One dancer at RCM came up during a quiet moment on Wednesday, introduced herself, and earnestly thanked me. She said MusicModeTM has changed how she sees dance and what it can do.
MusicMode is what makes RealPresence a viable solution in the first place, but it's Polycom reliability and ease of use, I discovered, that are the most highly valued part of the experience. These users want trouble-free tools that do their job. More than once, a speaker or attendee commented casually of Polycom, "it just works". That's what makes it an instant win.
My sincere thanks to our whole EU team for making Polycom's participation in #NPAPW possible through the equipment, people, and support they provided, and for inviting me to be a part of the conference. We've gotten a lot of visibility through this (Polycom was the only commercial UC vendor in this high-profile venue), and I think we'll be seeing more benefits in the coming months. I delivered the closing keynote, but felt as though the conference itself gave me an intense three-day briefing to be sure I was up for the challenge. Really a marvelous experience!