Video Periscope

Institution / client name: California Science Center;
Getty Museum
Project name: Video Periscope
Date: Fall 1997
Role(s): Interactivity design, technical soultion design, technical direction, programming


Two screen shots of Video Periscope postcards. Postcards are sent via Picturetel to a user at the remote site.

The goal of the Video Periscope was to create the opportunity for 'casual interaction' between museum visitors at two different locations - the California Science Center and the Getty Museum in LA - using PictureTel video conferencing systems integrated into a kiosk and communicating with each other over ISDN telephone lines.

The design called for two monitors: one video only and one computer with video overlay capability. In addition, each site has up to 4 remotely stationed cameras that can be controlled. The video monitor was to always show the view at the remote connected kiosk. When a visitor at one kiosk noticed a person walking up to the other, they could begin to talk. The visitors could send 'video postcards' from one kiosk to the other and interact. The postcards were of different types and included games, slide shows, and remote cameras. For instance, a person at the Science Center could select any of the connected cameras and 'show' the person at the Getty Museum what he saw through that camera. He could also control the camera and capture still images from the camera.

There were two main challenges in creating this experience: one was simply issues of connectivity between cameras, computers, and video conferencing system to allow the kinds of activities envisioned. The second was the communications protocol between two connected systems.

For the first problem, we had to plan out how the video was going to appear in each of the possible cases where it might appear. We always wanted to see the person at the remote site, but we also wanted to show live picture of the remote site. This meant using a picture-in-picture feature. We also wanted to allow video signals from any of the cameras to go into the computer, or into the video conferencing system. To accomplish this, we needed to integrate a controllable video matrix switcher and a controllable picture-in-picture video generator into our design. We had to plan for all possible states of the system, which video signals went where to accomplish our goals, and we had to incorporate those into our software.

For the second problem of communications, we were, in some sense, slave to the Picture Tel unit, which provided us with a single bi-directional RS-232 channel. We then had to design a communications protocol that worked using that channel to send messages back and forth between the units. The protocol had to allow for sending commands to remote cameras, playing games, sending postcards, and coordinating system startup.

The complexities and efforts involved in creating the video periscope paid off for the user by placing a simple and intuitive front end onto a difficult process. All a user has to do to engage in video telephony is to walk up to the kiosk, use the touch-screen, and start talking to a person who walks up to the other end.


Photograph of actual Periscope screen showing local camera large and remote camera as a picture-in-picture.

Then Vice President Al Gore attended the gala opening of the California Science Center and played with the Periscope

phone: 617-697-7527 — e-mail: ben@dubrovsky.name — ©2007, 2008, 2009 Ben Dubrovsky