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1Gbps 'superbroadband' helps research

The University of Melbourne has combined high resolution screens with a "superbroadband" connection to help researchers collaborate across the globe.
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Written by Suzanne Tindal on

The University of Melbourne has combined high resolution screens with a "superbroadband" connection to help researchers collaborate across the globe.

The screens will be used by researchers in Australia to receive images and data from their international peers. The video link will make discussions and sharing information as intimate as if researchers from across the globe were "in the same room", according to the University.

"As a researcher, you can act in an environment which is completely immersive," University of Melbourne's Dean of Engineering Professor Iven Mareels told ZDNet Australia. The real time connection makes international collaboration on projects easier, he said: "It's not an e-mail connection where it comes back 24 hours later."

Other future possible uses of the system could be remote surgery via robot, or piloting an underwater research robot.

Apart from making interactions between researchers in different universities easier, the system could help them gain access to expensive equipment remotely which they would otherwise be unable to afford, such as MRIs and supercomputers.

The key to making using the equipment a near-real experience is a wall of screens called the OptIPortal which have a total of 96 million pixels--a normal computer screen only has one to two million.

Transmitting the amount of data required for the University's very high resolution images necessitates a fast connection, provided by optical fiber "superbroadband". The link can achieve speeds of over 1000Mbps, 250 times faster than the fastest broadband connections offered in Australian capital cities.

These speeds are possible using Australia's Academic and Research Network, AARNet, which achieves speeds of 10Gbps both between universities in Australia, and in the United States. For the OptIPortal project, the University has been allocated one tenth of the connection's bandwidth to the U.S., enabling speeds of 1Gbps.

"It's like having a direct line, but a virtual one," Mareels said.

Although these speeds may seem massive to the everyday user, for the data intensive work being undertaken by the project it is only just sufficient. "I would be much more comfortable with 10 times as much," Mareels said.

At the 1Gbps speed, the time delay in transmission is just under one second, which is acceptable according to Mareels. "My ideal would be if we could get it below 350 milliseconds," he said, which would require three to 10 times more bandwidth.

The facility was used today to hold a discussion between the University of California San Diego and the University of Melbourne, in which Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard took part, with a leading neuroscientist and water researcher giving presentations over the link to demonstrate the capacity of the OptIPortal.

As the engineers behind the effort, Mareels' team has been responsible for the "nontrivial" software behind the scenes to control a network with such a data capacity. It is their task to "make [the technology] feasible for society", he said, by making it cheaper and more user-friendly.

Once a user-friendly system has been developed, if the bandwidths to operate the system become available, its use could be expanded outside of universities.

Mareels believes the necessary bandwidths could feasibly be realizable within his lifetime using fiber-to-the-home, saying "the bandwidth has to become available" for Australia to keep up with the rest of the world. "I think having a Gbps to the home is not too much to ask," he added.

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