University of Toronto updates Web conferencing tool

IT managers in search of software that broadcasts conferences and seminars over the Web may also like the cost benefit of a Canadian-developed open source tool that attempts to combine fragmented multimedia technologies into one platform.

ePresence Interactive Media, developed by the University of Toronto’s Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) for the past seven years, is a Webcasting, conferencing and rich media publishing tool that just launched version 4.0.

Among the new functionality is ePresenceTV, a user portal where visitors can share their presentations much like on YouTube, and the ability to host small interactive Web conferences with desktop sharing.

Many such multimedia technologies that exist are predominantly proprietary, and are available as separate tools with distinct functions, said Ron Baecker, project director and professor at the University’s department of computer science. “I didn’t think they all had to be different. I thought you could bring them together into one framework.”

Besides the opportunity to develop an open source tool with amalgamated functions, the realization that multimedia is essential to remote communication was another reason behind the ePresence initiative, said Baecker.

The development of the tool is tied to the history of KMDI, which needed to help its staff members convene across what was a “virtual institution”, said Kelly Rankin, ePresence business manager. “It was out of a need to keep a group of people connected, and then from there it just grew.”

The open source community was formed when people outside of KMDI expressed interest in using a similar tool. The software has been developed for the past seven years primarily by KMDI chief architect, Peter Wolf.

In keeping with the community’s open approach, the new functionalities in version 4.0 were borne, in part, from the needs expressed by users, said Rankin. ePresenceTV, in particular, reflects the desire by users to share their creative content on one platform.

“The whole notion of having open source and putting it out there to the community is also taking feedback and constructive comments,” she said.

Users of the software span across the globe in public and private institutions, and can download the tool for free or even purchase a membership that provides technical support and on-site training.

The tool keeps remotely-located residents, interns and medical students at Memorial University of Newfoundland connected, said Eugene Ryan, chief medical photographer and services manager at Memorial University’s faculty of medicine.

“The beauty of ePresence is it allows them to log on and attend a lecture which is being given here, and allows them to interact by text messaging any questions or comments directly to the presenter,” said Ryan.

But besides keeping everyone in the loop, the cost savings are three to four times what third-party proprietary software would have been, he noted.

For Christopher Bouris, president of Stellar Jay Communications, the tool allows his client groups to conduct virtual meetings without the travel expenses.

Besides that, one of the drivers behind using the software was the “reliability and trust factor with having an academic institution involved,” he said.

Bouris said he looked into various proprietary multimedia tools before this, but finds ePresence to be intuitive without the “strict and specific customization.” In addition, being open source means not being “locked into mystery code”.

He anticipates the new Web conferencing functionality will be particularly handy: “The conferencing is the next step for us where we’re going to be able to bring small groups and have that face to face that I think is really important along with real-time functionality.”

Moving forward, the aim is to make the software even easier for people to use, said Rankin. “We’re trying to make it easy so it’s click and watch – as in a Flash-based idea.”

Considering that the project is going so well, in the near future, KMDI will be faced with the choice of spinning off the technology to a start-up company or keeping it within the university, said Baecker.

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