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This article appeared in the Dec. 2004 issue of Min Manjari, the e-journal of INFITT, the International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil.

The 16 Oct. 2004, and 15 Oct. 2005, Webcasted-Videoconferences for the Demonstration and Discussion of Children’s Tamil (and Other) Songs/Chants/Dances/Games, and Methods of Teaching and Learning Spoken Tamil Language

by Eric Miller

ko-lai-ya, ko-lai-ya mun-thi-ri-kaa, 
ne-Ra-ya, ne-Ra-ya ceet-thu vaa! 

a bunch, a bunch of cashew-nut fruits, 
more, more add and come!

These words are chanted by a player as he or she circles around a ring of seated players, at the beginning of one of Tamil Nadu’s most popular children’s songs-dances-games.  This was one of the songs-dances-games demonstrated by the Tamil children in Chennai in the course of our 16 Oct. 2004 “webcasted-videoconference.”  In this event, myself and Tamil children (and others) at a site in Chennai videoconferenced with children of Tamil descent (and others) at a site in Philadelphia, USA. 

This article considers certain technical issues raised by the 16 Oct. 2004 videoconference -- especially the issue of methods of displaying electronic text in the course of a videoconference.  The article also looks forward to the repeat of the event, scheduled for 15 Oct. 2005.  This article is a follow-up to my paper, “Chennai and Videoconferencing,” which was presented at the 2003 INFITT (International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil) conference in Chennai. 

To begin with, I must apologise that this article is being written in English, and that no Tamil characters appear herein.  The words of the Tamil songs-dances-games under study -- in Tamil characters, along with English transliterations and translations -- are available here (click "Chapter IV"). 

An audio-video recording of Tamil children performing 14 of the songs-dances-games in their village in southwestern Tamil Nadu is here.  

At this juncture it may be helpful for me to define some terms as they are used in this article:  Videoconferencing and webcasting are two forms of “tele-presence,” or “video-mediated communication.”  In a videoconference, all parties can send and receive audio and video to and from each other.  A videoconference may occur via the Internet, or via other systems.  A webcast, on the other hand, occurs via the Internet only, and only one party transmits the audio and/or video “stream” (those who receive the stream may respond via e-mail, etc.).  In a webcasted-videoconference, a mix of the videoconferencing parties’ audio and video is near-instantaneously relayed onto the Internet so that an audience can observe the videoconference conversation. 

The 16 Oct. 2004 webcasted-videoconference began at Saturday 10:30pm in Chennai, which was Saturday 1pm in Philadelphia.  On that date, Chennai time (like the time in all of India) was 9.5 hours ahead of USA East Coast time.  Presently (in Nov.), Chennai is 10.5 hours ahead of USA East Coast time, as the USA’s “Daylights Saving Time” period has ended.  Daylights Saving Time is a system of adjusting time-measurement, used by the USA to ensure that daylight there occurs during approximately the same hours throughout the year.  It involves clocks being moved ahead one hour during half of the year (April-Oct.).  To be precise, Daylights Saving Time begins on the first Sunday of each April (when clocks are moved ahead one hour), and ends on the last Sunday of each Oct. (when clocks are moved back one hour) -- thus the saying, “Spring ahead, Fall behind.”

When videoconferencing with students, audiences, and others, in different countries, we in Chennai will often need to videoconference at odd hours, and to be aware of other countries’ time-keeping customs.  This will be necessary in order for us to be able to cater to our clients around the world, that is, to make communication with us optimally attractive and convenient. 

The 16 Oct. 2004 event was a three-ISDN-line, non-Internet, videoconference between two sites: one in Chennai (at the Reliance Webworld facility on TTK Road, in Alwarpet), and one in Philadelphia, USA (at the University of Pennsylvania). However, two innovations were added: 

1) At the Philadelphia site, a video mixer was used to combine the incoming and local pictures in a split-screen fashion.  As both written Tamil and English are read from left to right, we decided to place the Chennai picture on the left side of the screen, in the initiating position, and the Philadelphia picture on the right side of the screen, in the responding position.  This was meant to represent that in this videoconference, the primary demonstrating was being done at the Chennai site.

This combined, split-screen picture was sent back to us in Chennai as the videoconference signal coming from the Philadelphia site.  Thus we in Chennai saw our own image with a double-delay: the delay caused by us sending our picture to Philadelphia, and the delay caused by Philadelphia sending it back to us.  (We in Chennai had practised in advance seeing our own image with such an approximately two-second delay).  The same split-screen picture was displayed on a large screen both in the Philadelphia room and in the Chennai room. 

2) The Philadelphia site also relayed the split-screen picture onto the Internet as a live audio-video webcast.  This sort of webcasted-videoconference is a practice we have been developing for a number of years at the University of Pennsylvania.  For viewers of the (live, and now, recorded) webcast, the experience is similar to that of viewing on television a videoconferenced conversation between, say, a news-anchorperson in a studio, and a distant reporter or interviewee.

We are looking forward to making a number of improvements in the repeat event, scheduled for Saturday 15 Oct. 2005.  One area slated for possible improvement is the method of displaying (Tamil and English) text during the event.

Methods of Displaying Text in a Videoconference

In the 16 Oct. 2004 event, the method of displaying text was a bit cumbersome:  In the Chennai videoconferencing room, I used a laptop computer and a projector to show texts (in Tamil and English) on a large white cloth held against the back wall of the room.  Reliance Webworld videoconferencing suites feature a beautifully-designed graphic on the back wall.  As this was a special academic and dance event, Reliance kindly permitted us to hang a large blue cloth against the back wall, to give a solid, neutral surface.  During the times when text was projected, a large white cloth was held in front of this large blue cloth.

Another way that we in Chennai could have displayed text during the videoconference would have been to temporarily replace our outgoing video picture with a computer-generated picture.  Or, a picture-in-picture combination could have been used (with the Chennai computer picture small, inserted into a section of the Chennai video picture; or vice-versa, with the Chennai video picture small, inserted into a section of the Chennai computer picture).

However, I tend to prefer the use of a “video wall” -- whether created by video projection (as was the case in the 16 Oct. 2004 event), or by video panels.  With a video wall, all present in the room can see the display clearly, and there is the option of the presenter sitting or standing in front of, and gesturing at, what is being shown.

In the 16 Oct. 2004 event, frontal video projection was used.  Rear projection can also be used -- in the case of rear projection, parts of the projected material does not go onto the body of a presenter who might be in front of the video wall.  A disadvantage of projection is that the room lighting tends to wash out the picture.  Advantages of projection include that it is relatively inexpensive, and that the projected picture is not segmented.

Video panels, on the other hand, produce a segmented video wall -- a narrow border appears around each panel.  Another disadvantage of video panels is that their use tends to be very expensive.   An advantage of video panels is that they stand up to the room lighting very well.  Anyone who watched CNN during the recent USA presidential election was treated to see a splendid application of a large video wall composed of video panels.  This video wall was three panels high (coming to approximately eight feet), and about 12 panels wide (coming to approximately 40 feet).  A wide variety of material was shown on this video wall during height of the election coverage (over an almost-24-hour period), including words, numbers, and live and pre-recorded video.  The in-studio hosts and guests stood in front of this video wall and used their entire bodies to gesture at sections of the wall. 

Yet another possible method of presenting text in a videoconference is a “chroma-key” process.  A chroma-key (a video production term) is created by placing a solid color background, typically a certain shade of blue, behind the human presenter.  That solid field of color is then, in the outgoing picture, electronically replaced by another source (a computer-generated picture, for example).  A disadvantage of this method is that the presenter (and other people in the room) cannot see the computer-generated material by looking at the room’s back wall -- instead, they need to look at a nearby video monitor to see the other material, and the way that the presenter’s image appears as it is superimposed over that other material.  This is a type of “virtual set.”  It has for many years been a favourite technique for television weather presentations; in some cases, it now is used for entire television news programmes.  Chroma-keys are also often used in special effect movie-making: and a version of this process is employed to create the “holodeck” in the Star Trek television series, and films.

Utilising and experimenting with the above-described options -- along with the possibilities of participants drawing and painting electronically, and having their body movements automatically effect electronic graphics -- can transform a videoconference room into a multimedia classroom, or, thought of in another way, into an artistic and expressive environment.  Such activity can make a videoconference room similar to a television studio or a movie set, or an artist’s studio.  In the past, videoconference rooms have generally been considered to be places suitable only for serious and formal business meetings, typically with people statically sitting around large tables.  This arrangement was perhaps thought to give a sense of dignity and power to the participants.  In the 16 Oct. 2004 event, we used a variety of camera shots: group shots, and various types of close-ups.  This also differed from the standard business videoconference practice, which has been to primarily show people’s images from the middle part of the body to the top of the head.

Lessons Learned from the 16 Oct. 2004 Event, and Ideas for Next Year

It seems that only a few people watched the live webcast on 16 Oct. 2004.  Although viewers were invited to send in e-mails and to enter a text chat room, no text questions or comments from viewers reached the videoconference participants during the event.  Next year, we hope to be more successful in alerting people about the live webcast, and in structuring matters so that incoming questions and comments can periodically be responded to by the videoconferencing participants.  Two of our target audiences for next year’s webcast are people around the world who appreciate 1) Tamil language and culture, and 2) children’s songs-dances-games. 

One thing we learned from the 16 Oct. 2004 event was that ring games are especially interesting in the videoconference context.  In some ring games, one player circles around the outside of the ring; in others, the entire ring circles around.  Next year we are planning to once again mostly use a split-screen configuration, and, at least during some of the ring games, we are considering the possibility of having one side of the screen show half of the ring from one site, and of having the other half of the screen show the other half of the ring from the other site.  In this way, people in two different locations would attempt to play a single ring game together.

In the course of the 16 Oct. 2004 event, the children in Philadelphia demonstrated one English-language ring game -- “Ring Around the Rosie.”  Eventually, we in Chennai formed our own ring, and we followed along.  After the children in Philadelphia sang the line, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”, children on both sides of the videoconference, in their separate rings, fell down.  Because of the transmission delay, however, on the screen in the Philadelphia room, the images of the Chennai children fell down approximately one second after the Philadelphia children had fallen down.  It is useful to engage in an activity like this -- with both vocal and physical components -- near the beginning of a videoconference.  This way, people on both sides of the videoconference can be aware of the transmission-delay: they can be aware that the people on the other end are going to take an extra second or so to hear and respond to each message.

Another thing we observed on 16 Oct. 2004 is that the children seemed to enjoy speaking to each other through the use of hand puppets.  Using the split-screen configuration the way we did necessitated that people in each room saw both the local and the distant pictures -- that is, they saw their own images, as well as the images from the distant site.  Seeing oneself can cause some self-consciousness.  However, holding up a hand puppet and presenting that image on the screen -- whether or not one’s face also appears -- seems to take away some of the self-consciousness and pressure that can develop when people seek to communicate primarily face-to-face in a videoconference.  Using the puppets as a playful form of mediation seemed to relax people.  The hand puppets were a tiger on the Chennai side, and a lion and a bear on the Philadelphia side.  The children operating the puppets had these animals asking each other what their names and native places were, and what food they liked to eat.  These were among the initial questions that the children had been asking each other in the language-practice session that had occurred some time earlier in the videoconference. 

In next year’s event, we are looking forward to facilitating more back-and-forth, question-and-answer exchanges between people at the two sites -- especially during the language-practice section of the event.  A number of the children’s Tamil songs-games-dances we are working with involve the chanting of a series of brief questions-and-answers.  In some games, one word is taken from each answer, and a new question is made using that word.  Ancient forms of Tamil poetry -- such as the Bhakti form of poetry, an-thaa-thi, practised especially by the poet, Abirami Pattar -- have also followed versions of this pattern.  A recent Tamil television programme, “Paattukku Paattu,” is also built around this universally-common principle of artistic composition.  We are eager to develop versions of this pattern for language-practice exercises.

Long-term Projects

Uma Ramesh, who owns the Reliance Webworld facility on TTK Road in Alwarpet, Chennai, was especially helpful in regard to the 16 Oct. 2004 webcasted-videoconference: we owe much of the success this event may have enjoyed to the splendid services provided by her, and by Reliance Infocom in general.   Ms. Ramesh also happens to be an excellent performer and teacher of Bharata Natyam dance.  She is interested in the possibility of beginning a Virtual Dance School.  Eventually, numerous aspects of Chennai’s December classical music and dance season could be shared with the world via videoconferencing and webcasting.

My specialty as a Folklore scholar is forms of storytelling.  I am hoping to help to facilitate (videoconference and other) classes in Kathaiyum-paaTTum (story and song, typically practiced in small villages); VillupaaTTu; and Katha Kalak Chepam, also known as Harikatha (traditionally an orthodox Hindu form of religious discourse -- on a similar level of culture with Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam dance).  All three of these forms of storytelling involve the performer alternating between a variety of styles of speaking, chanting, and singing. 

These classes may develop into an institute for the study of, and training in, forms of storytelling.  This projected International Storytelling Institute might eventually be affiliated with universities and/or non-government-organisations, such as, for example, India’s National Folklore Support Centre (based in Velachery, Chennai), which has kindly been supervising my Folklore Ph.D. fieldwork here in India.  The NFSC, by the way, is scheduled to begin the Asian School of Folklore Studies, which is also planning to offer courses and training via webcast and videoconference.  Classes in children’s Tamil songs-dances-games are among those scheduled to be offered (both to those physically-present and to those tele-present).

In all of these cases, teachers could give instruction via videoconference, and then, perhaps once or twice a year, could meet the students in person, either by traveling to the students, or by the students traveling to Chennai.  Numerous studies have shown that videoconference education is most effective when teachers and students also periodically meet physically.  Thus, videoconferenced communication should not be seen as a substitute for physically-present communication, but rather as a complement to it.  Thus, I submit that building up Chennai’s abilities to videoconference and webcast in relation to the performing arts and education will only increase the physical travel to and from the city.

In today’s world, individuals interested in receiving training in rare art forms may not be living in the same location in which those art forms originated, and in which teachers of those art forms are based.  These students may not even be of the same ethnic backgrounds as the originators of those art forms.  Through videoconferencing and webcasting, individuals with specialised common interests can teach and learn from each other, and in the process they can help ancient art forms to survive and develop. 

Although videoconferencing has been in existence for quite some time (especially in certain business and government circles), it is only now beginning to come into its own as a medium for members of the public to use for private and civic meetings, artistic events, and other social purposes.  We are fortunate to be living at a time when we can help to give shape to this new medium, and to use it to share beautiful culture around the world. 

We in Chennai are in need of numerous large and flexible spaces for videoconferencing, which can be called “teletoriums.”  The excellent videoconferencing suites offered by Reliance Webworld are simply not spacious enough for videoconferences which may involve dozens of participants and observers at each site.  


Eric Miller (<>, ) was a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA), at the time of writing this article: he has since graduated.