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University Information Services


'An Evening with Stephen Hawking', live from the Sydney Opera House,
was the professor’s first live appearance before Australian audiences, but thanks to some clever 3D video technology and the ideal studio facilities, he didn’t have to leave Cambridge. In this world first, the Cockroft Building became a virtual annexe to the Sydney Opera House, as the famous cosmologist’s image was transformed into a live holographic projection, and beamed 17,000 miles to his eager audience in Australia.

When Cisco needed a base to set up camp for the weekend of the event, Information Services’ videoconferencing team was able to deliver the perfect package. Using DVE’s Telepresence Stage 'augmented reality' technology, dictated a long list of requirements for sourcing a suitable venue.

Our recently refurbished facilities on the New Museums Site, coupled with our helpful and dedicated technical support staff being on-hand both leading up to and during the event, provided everything necessary for a perfect performance on the day:

UIS' free-to-hire facilities comprise a large fully-equipped videoconferencing studio, large breakout space, a separate meeting room and a kitchenette. This proved the ideal venue for a number of reasons: the video storeroom made a perfect temporary control room for Cisco's engineers to mastermind the operation; the breakout area was ideal for storing the plethora of AV equipment Cisco brought with them – including laptops, sound decks, cameras, tripods, monitors, codecs, microphones and miles of cables. The large, wheelchair-accessible videoconferencing studio provided enough space to rig-up the blackout curtains and flooring necessary for creating the holographic illusion, while our Chatteris meeting room served as Professor Hawkings' dressing room.

The technical success of the broadcast was due to more than the excellent facilities alone, however. UIS' friendly and responsive team pulled out all the stops leading up to the event, and on the evening itself. 

For UIS' videoconferencing team manager, Sue Rogers, the preparation work began months in advance of the event. Her facilitatory role involved liaising with Professor Hawking's technical assistant, Jon Wood, to discuss feasibility, and early meetings with Cisco's technical team. Leading up to the event, she was there to finalise logistics, receive deliveries of equipment, and liaise with external building contractors who were working on-site converting some of the top floor of the Cockroft building (in preparation for PandIS relocating there) to guarantee that all the scaffolding, plaster dust and building equipment was cleaned up in time for the dry run scheduled for the Friday evening before the weekend's event.

In preparing for an event like this, the little details are often the ones that can be overlooked and scupper the best-laid plans, but luckily our team was on-hand throughout to deal with incidental matters – like finding water and cloths to clean the plaster dust from Professor Hawking’s wheelchair wheels, which would have left tracks on the blackout carpet and totally ruined the holographic effect, or disabling the in-house studio lighting so that the Cisco team could use their own studio and TV lighting equipment.

Guy Goodrick, also from UIS, was able to arrange and test the network access Cisco engineers required, and to help ensure that the high profile event's demanding network requirements were met at the Cambridge end, liaising with counterparts in Australia to establish the reliable connection that was critical in successfully live broadcasting the high definition video stream.

'We are always trying to give the best service to our customers, but with Professor Hawking and the groundbreaking demands of this event, the stakes were  higher than usual. '

Sue Rogers, Information Services' videoconferencing manager.

UIS’ facilities have previously been used by University speakers to deliver conference presentations remotely, but never in such an innovative way. They can be booked free of charge for University business. Both our facilities on the New Museums Site in the city centre, and in the William Gates Building on the West Cambridge Site are free to hire, and have the added benefit of having our staff on-hand to help with setting-up the connections before your event and to remain in attendance during the live link, in case of any unforeseen technical hitches.

During normal hours this service is provided free, and out-of-hours support is available, chargeable at the Department’s standard rate. For those wishing to record their own events, UIS also has portable kit available for loan within the University. 

Further information:

UIS' free videoconferencing services 

Professor Hawking 'hologram' makes history


Photo credits: Carousel image 1: Professor Hawking's hologram on stage in Sydney, © Prudence Upton. Carousel image 4: In the Cambridge studio (L-R) are Adam Fig, Chris Mack, Rachel Crisp, Richard Bentley, Prof. Stepehen Hawking, Simon Gascoigne, Barbara Mack, Stephen Johnstone, Sue Rogers, and Graham Edwards. Carousel images 2, 3, 4: © Cisco, reproduced by kind permission.