For those in Manchester, meeting someone in the Lass O'Gowrie, used to mean a quick drink after work, but for a growing number of academics and students it's an invitation to take part in a lecture, a conference or even attend a concert.
The 'Lass O'Gowrie' is one of around 30 virtual venues (all named after Manchester pubs) that can be entered through the UK Access Grid. The UK Access Grid, which is operated by a team based at the University of Manchester, offers the chance for anyone involved nationally in research or education to access a high quality virtual meeting, conference room or lecture hall. And although similar to traditional video conferencing, the UK Access Grid offers a guaranteed level of visual and audio quality, the ability to see the feed from more than one camera and enables users to swap documents and other material.
Funded by JISC and running on the core JANET network. Since 2004, it has been co-ordinated by the four-strong team at the University of Manchester based Access Grid Support Centre (AGSC), which currently includes Mohammed Din, Ian Dennell, Ben Green and Paul Kuchar. So far around 300 'nodes' have been set up around the UK - in offices, lecture theatres and meeting rooms. In addition to enabling academics from different parts of the country to have a 'face-to-face' meeting, it is being used for lectures and conferences.
As part of the Mathematics Access Grid: Instruction and Collaboration (MAGIC) project students can already access interactive postgraduate lecture courses at 17 other universities, enabling them to receive training in a broader set of advanced topics than previously possible.
The team at AGSC have run regular sessions which have enabled mental health experts from across the country to 'meet' regularly. They have even been involved in an e-Dance project, in which performers from Manchester, Bedford and Leeds have been working together to develop the artistic potential of the service. Now they are looking at the possibility of using the system to provide interactive lectures - complete with signing for deaf students - to further education colleges.
Mohammed Din, manager of AGSC, says extending the use of the network could help reduce the amount of travel between universities and may help the University to become 'greener'."There are a lot of people travelling distances and there is a big push to reduce costs and to go green,"
he said. "We want more people to know that these sorts of facilities are available."
He believes that the potential of the network - which has a number of nodes based around the country - is not yet fully utilised. He hopes that ultimately all 30 of the networks virtual venues will be fully booked up most of the time."There is often a lot of enthusiasm for setting up the nodes but for whatever reason there are quite a lot that are not being used,"
he said. "We want to promote these services."
The team at the Access Grid Support Centre can be contacted on 0161 275 5997 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.Deborah Haile