The Access Grid (AG) is a global network of internet-enabled locations, or nodes, equipped with AV hardware 'microphones, cameras and projectors' linked by an arrangement of computers over the grid. A group of connected nodes using this equipment is known as a virtual venue, across which the audio and visual media are streamed in real time. Within a virtual venue, the people present at each participating node can conduct a conversation across these streams, using the display and audio interfaces present to see each others movements and hear each others voices. As well as the necessary audio visual capture equipment, each node is equipped with display screens connected to the cameras in the other nodes, so that the current speaker is visible to all the other participants. As well as this, data content relevant to the meeting can be displayed simultaneously in each node. AG is in other words based on the concept of videoconferencing, but whereas videoconferencing allows only one-to-one meetings, with severe limitations on the type and quality of data to be exchanged, AG allows many-to-many, or, via a desktop Personal Interface to the [a]ccess Grid (PIG), one-to-many meeting collaborations with vastly increased capacity for data sharing and visualisation.
[img_assist|nid=1507|title=|desc=Figure 1: Access Grid Reading|link=node|align=left|width=300|height=225]
AG is based on an open-source toolkit(AGTk). This provides the software for establishing a virtual venue and connecting nodes to it. It also provides the capacity for audio and video streaming, and for a range of types of data transfer within the venue. It also allows two or more venues to communicate with each other. This paper outlines some current applications of this arrangement in the arts and humanities (A&H), and provides an overview of the various AG implementation issues relevant to A&H researchers. It is not a technical guide to the AG. Extensive documentation for users, managers and developers is available at the AG website, which should be consulted for further information.
The AG concept was developed at the Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago to extend and complement the computational grid. The AG Consortium, based at ANL, provides a range of documentation for AG users and developers, and an internet portal for the AG community. This provides global details of nodes, FAQ lists, various add-ons to the AG toolkit, and a catalogue of the documentation available.
AG as a grid technology has a range of possible applications in both the arts and the humanities: enabling new types of performance within and across virtual venues, facilitating new modes of collaboration, and presenting new opportunities for the way in which data is exchanged and displayed. There are a number of issues concerning how a meeting taking place in a virtual venue equates, or can equate, to a meeting in real life; and a debate about how AG deals with nonverbal communications such as body language affects so-called workspace awareness. These questions clearly take on a new dimension where the practice-led performing arts are concerned: how does AG affect the relationship between the performers, and between the performance and the audience? These in themselves are research questions for these disciplines.
There are also well-rehearsed issues surrounding the reliability of AG. These often mirror problems associated with videoconferencing in the arts and humanities, whereby users experience hardware failure and encounter bugs in the software. Although, along with the need for trained technical staff with the experience needed to ensure the smooth flow of the multilogue, these problems inevitably acts as a disincentive to use AG (Dunn and Dunning 2005). A particular problem which has been identified for collaborative high-tempo music compositions is that of latency the brief time delay from the despatch of a signal and its arrival at its destination (Deal 2005). However, it is clear that the conceptual benefits of AG outweigh these infrastructural issues, which are in any case addressed on an ongoing basis by the AG development community. There is also an established national support system for AG users in the UK, which can assist users in overcoming many of these problems.
Uses in research: arts
The 'immersive' nature of AG, whereby the user is surrounded by, and interacts with, the virtual environment projected in a node, has led to its use in a number of disciplines which rely to a greater or lesser extent on visualisation (e.g. Loomis and Blascovich 1999; Childers et al 2000): herein lies AGs potential for the performance and practice-led arts. Performances conducted across AG in this way is sometimes known as telematic art (Deal 2005). The AG Consortium has a mailing list dedicated to discussion of this aspect, which is used by a number of groups to promote and discuss their activities.
There are a number of artistic projects which utilise AG, especially in the US, where the Internet 2 organisation has actively promoted such activity (see http://arts.internet2.edu/). A particularly good example of this is InterPlay, a collaboration between the University of Utahs Center for High Performance Computing and a private company, Another Language. InterPlay is a multimedia, multi-artist, telematic, and collaborative art form that is performed and transmitted over Internet2 advanced networks utilizing Access Grid technology, bringing together performers from a widely dispersed set of venues for annual performances of music and dance. In 2006, participants from University of Alaska Fairbanks, Boston University, University of Maryland, Purdue University, and Ryerson University-Toronto, Ontario Canada will take part.
InterPlay highlights a key possibility for AG: the ability to plug in specialist hardware to capture the data in ways which enhance and effect the way in which it is represented in the virtual venue (Deal 2005).
In 2001, the Dancing Beyond Boundaries project linked percussionists in Brazil, performers at the University of Florida, a choreographer and dancers in Minneapolis and a display area at the SuperComputing Conference in Denver, Colorado in a multicast involving more than 125 artists and audience members over four days (Oliverio et al xxx). The project describes AG as a palette of possibilities for the choreographer to create not only the dance, but choose the shots and angles displayed in the final performance of the piece.
Uses in research: humanities
Humanities researchers are moving towards more ambitious modes of collaboration, both in terms of scale and of method. This is reflected by the increasing number of AHRC programmes which explicitly encourage and reward such work; for example the Collaborative Research Training schemes and the six strategic initiatives set up by the Council which, to a greater or lesser extent, all involve scholars working together (see AHRC).
Use of AG is an obvious means of providing architecture for such new modes. In one sense, it is simply a grid-enabled way to conduct normal meetings, but in reality it has the potential to add huge value to the research process for the arts and humanities. Most immediately and obviously it allows research teams whose members have access to any two or more AG nodes to conduct meetings extremely cost-effectively without having to travel. Where international, and especially intercontinental, collaborations are concerned this will represent a budgetary saving running into hundreds, and probably thousands, of pounds, as well as saving the time of those involved, and reducing the projects contribution to pollution caused by air, road and rail travel.
AG differs from the computational and data grids in that these were conceived as solutions to research needs unique to the hard physical sciences: the research need for collaborative methods, however, is something that the arts and humanities have always had in common with these fields. Therefore, the AG requires little or no intellectual or conceptual adapting for arts and humanities use in the way needed for the computational and data grid structures.
A number of humanities departments and centres in the UK run formal AG seminar series. The HP Vista Centre at Birmingham is one such example. The National Centre for e-Social Science funds, with the ESRC, eight AG nodes, and coordinates a fortnightly AG seminar between them (see http://www.ncess.ac.uk/events/AGN/). NCeSS restricts access to the seminars to these eight nodes; an example of how an AG virtual venue can be tailored and constrained to maintain a particular intellectual focus for a particular community.
Uses in teaching
AG has numerous possibilities for e-learning via the simple and obvious expedient of enabling distributed lectures and tutorials across any institution with an AG node. There are, however, possibilities for more innovative teaching methods and integration with other e-science elements. Such possibilities are being explored by the History of Political Discourse VRE project at the universities of Hull and East Anglia. This project is utilising AG and Sakai tools in a Virtual Research Environment to conduct and manage a programme of MA seminars.
Technical documentation for AG, and the AGTk, is available at http://www.accessgrid.org, and the AG portal at http://portal.accessgrid.org/ provides information and discussion fora for the AG user and developer communities.
In the UK direct user support is provided by the Access Grid Support Centre in Manchester. The AGSC runs workshops, a quality assurance programme for AG nodes, and navigation facilities for UK-specific virtual venues. It is managed by UKERNA, which also allocates multicast addresses for UK virtual venues, and maintains a full list of AG nodes (see http://www.agsc.ja.net/venues.php#AGSC). Arts and Humanities researchers wishing to implement and use AG in their work are also welcome to discuss their plans with AHeSSC.
[img_assist|nid=474|title=|desc=|link=url|url=http://www.ahessc.ac.uk|align=left|width=78|height=78]This briefing paper was written for AHeSSC, the Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre. It is published here with permission from AHeSSC.