HP SkyRoom Offers High-End Streaming, Collaboration

Years before getting involved in streaming, I worked with a group of consultants in the videoconferencing space, doing system design, integration, and market analytics.

Christine Perey and Andrew Davis, who now owns Wainhouse Research, introduced me to a company called DataBeam, which was working on a technology for application sharing that could co-exist with audio- and videoconferencing calls. DataBeam was later acquired by Lotus, which called the technology SameTime, and was then itself acquired by IBM.

The technology, which went by the moniker of T.120, was rudimentary, with very limited bandwidth of 16Kpbs, as it had to share bandwidth with an H.323 IP videoconference, which itself was typically about 384Kbps. This limited bandwidth meant Photoshop or other high-performance (and high processing) applications couldn't be easily shared, but T.120 caught on as part of NetMeeting for shared whiteboards.

Even over the past few years, as WebEx and other collaboration tools took off in popularity, they were only used for basic content such as PowerPoint or Excel, since full-motion content would need to share bandwidth with a video or audio stream.

Against this background, HP demonstrated a technology called SkyRoom at BMW Designworks several months ago, as part of the launch of its Z Series of multi-core workstations. The technology preview generated interest, since it allowed 3D and high-performance graphical data sharing between workstations, but those of us in attendance were told it might never get beyond the preview stage.

Today, however, HP announced availability of the SkyRoom platform, available free of charge on its Z Series Workstations (Z800, Z600, and Z400) and for a nominal fee for current HP or non-HP workstations.

HP calls SkyRoom "affordable, high-definition videoconferencing software that offers live, real-time collaboration." When compared to T.120, or even an enhanced WebEx in which multiple participants have control of the workstation to make modifications, SkyRoom really shows what the T.120 and NetMeeting were aiming at all those years ago.

The company claims the in-house solution, developed in HP Labs, was used by NASA's Mars rovers to transfer high-resolution images back to Earth. It currently supports up to four simultaneous participants in a multi-point videoconference mode which HP calls "multiway conferencing" for corporate LANs. It is possible to integrate an outside caller in to the SkyRoom call, but only via the corporate virtual private network (VPN).

An interesting feature in SkyRoom is the enablement of full-motion and multiple-display collaboration. Since HP focuses its Z Series Workstations on the high end of the digital media, financial, and gas/oil exploration markets, SkyRoom also adds the ability to display 2D and 3D graphics, even if a viewer is participating on a system that only has a 2D graphics card.

Like inter-frame compressions, such as MPEG-2, which allowed for high compression rates over traditional intra-frame compressions like motion JPEG, SkyRoom also takes advantage of inter-frame compression.

"The HP SkyRoom software on the presenter's system monitors and updates only changes in screen appearance," a press release said, "not the entire display. SkyRoom then compresses and encrypts the information before sending it to the participants, where it is decrypted, decompressed and updated. In this way, network traffic is greatly reduced, latency and bandwidth requirements are reduced, and the need for dedicated networking hardware is eliminated."

Since the video takes advantage of multithreading and multi-core processors, the minimum requirements, running on both Windows XP and Vista, include an Intel Core 2T Duo 2.33-GHz or equivalent processor with 2GB RAM and a webcam.

Besides the workstations, on which SkyRoom comes free of charge, HP says it will also ship trial versions on its business-grade machines.

"Select premium business PCs and notebooks will include a 90-day trial of HP SkyRoom," a company spokesperson said, "which will be available for purchase thereafter."

We plan to review the SkyRoom capabilities sometime in the near future, once HP ships it on both business and workstation computers.

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