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IIT, Oops bring the world to village kids
Shobha Warrier in Chennai |
August 01, 2003
Half-a-dozen kids sit huddled in front of a personal computer concentrating hard to grasp everything that the face on the monitor is saying.
The tiny kiosk, where these kids are sitting, does not boast of any specialised equipment or high bandwidth. It has just one PC and one Web cam.
Yet every day, children crowd this kiosk to interact with their teacher Meena, who is based in far-off Chennai.
Belonging to Ulakapichanpatti - a small village in Tamil Nadu - and coming from low-income, uneducated families, the face on the monitor is their only saviour.
An innovative software - Oops I see - developed by the engineers of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and the Chennai-based Oops Private Ltd, allows these village kids to take tuitions through video conferencing on an Internet connection with bandwidth as low as 20 kbps.
Origin of an idea
The idea to develop an audio video messenger that works on low bandwidth was born six years ago when Karthik Ayyar decided to return to India, giving up his lucrative career in the United States. Ayyar, who did his BS in Computer Science at the University of Minnesota, also worked for a couple of years with Unifys.
While pondering on whether to use the ATM protocol (Asynchronous Transfer Mode Protocol) or TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) for the 'product,' one of Ayyar's friends told him that the video conferencing on TCP/IP would certainly take off.
"That was when I decided to work on it," he recollected.
Armed with this unique proposal, Ayyar approached Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT-Madras. Intrigued by the video-conferencing plan, Jhunjhunwala offered to put up a team to work on the idea.
Devendra Jalihal, associate professor at the IIT Madras and an expert in audio compression, was in charge of the research. His colleague Professor R Arvind also joined the team.
This was in 1996-97, and people had only started talking about video conferencing. It was then believed that for good video conferencing, you need a fast computer, a good camera and bandwidth. But all three were expensive in India and 'good' bandwidth just did not exist.
Jalihal admits that had it not been for Ayyar, whose idea it was to develop a software solution that would enable audio-video transmission through low bandwidth, the team would have gone for a developer PC plug-in card.
"In the last six years, we have been trying to develop a tool that will take computer use beyond the keyboard. Since the keyboard is English-oriented, we wanted to develop an audio-visual or some other tools like pen, which can be used instead of the keyboard. Some of our initiatives took off, while some fell flat. But our effort to make audio-visual communication possible on dial-up lines was successful," says Jalihal.
The 'Oops I see' software not only works on low bandwidth, but functions much better than any other broadband solution, the developers claimed.
The software helps one to hold point-to-point, point-to-multiple and multiple-to-point and even multi-point video conferencing through a normal dial-up telephone connection, they added.
Unfortunately, Ayyar failed to find a market for a product that is '100 per cent Indian.'
The turning point
The big moment finally came when the Oops I see team was asked to hold a demonstration of their product in front of an august audience at the national conference on communication and computer networking held in Bangalore.
The video conference went smoothly as the girl who was in charge of the village kiosk successfully communicated with those present in Chennai.
Both Ayyar and Professor Jalihal admit that this particular demonstration was the turning point and the technology soon received wide acceptance.
Today, 150 villages use this technology on a daily basis and more than 500 villages would soon come into the loop.
"We are looking at the possibilities to improve the educational standard of the village children. With Oops I see, all that the village classroom needs is a PC, a Web cam and a dial-up connection. A qualified teacher from a city can take classes for the children and that too, interactive ones," Jalihal explained.
Low-cost, but effective, technology
While Ayyar was experimenting with his video conferencing product, Jhunjhunwala concentrated on wireless in local loop. His passion to provide 100 million telephone connections in the rural areas resulted in the birth of n-logue. The company floated by IIT-Madras opened kiosks in several villages.
Rural healthcare has also been one of their concerns, Jalihal confessed. If the system that some of the hospitals use for telemedicine costs around Rs 500,000, the technology -developed by the experts at the IIT-Madras - which can function as well as the others, costs less than Rs 30,000!
Ayyar pointed out that the villagers, instead of taking expensive trips to town to consult a doctor, can now use their system and avail of the same benefit without venturing out.
Many benefits, some more plans
In a way, Oops I see also connects the villagers who cannot read or write to their relatives who stay far away.
"It has two good aspects. The villagers can go to the kiosks to 'talk' to their dear ones, while the person who runs the kiosk can earn too. For the last two years, the villagers have been sending voice and video mails from the kiosks," Jalihal said.
The software that occupies only half a megabyte on the desktop, compresses the picture and voice to as low as 3kbps and if a person talks for one full minute, the message comes to only about 200 kilobytes.
Viswanath, who runs a kiosk in a small village called Melur in Tamil Nadu, has in the last three months arranged video conferencing with a doctor and an agricultural scientist.
The villagers were so impressed with the question and answer session they had with the doctor that more people flocked to meet the agricultural scientist.
"They had a lot of questions to ask about various crops. In the end, they went back quite happy and satisfied. Now the villagers are after me to arrange many such meetings," Viswanath said.
The Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, which engages in a lot of charity work, and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore also use the Oops I see technology now.
As it is not expensive, Ayyar is trying to convince the government offices and corporate houses to use the software for video conferencing.
Another plan of the Oops I see team is to start a 'virtual clinic' on a subscription based model.
The beta version of Oops I see is available for free download on the Internet at http://www.tenet.res.in/isee and http://isee.enmail.com.