Extreme video calling: up high and down low

We’ve looked at some fairly innovative ways that people are using video calling beyond just a simple means of communication; innovative but essentially standard. So, today as part of Skype Up Your Life week on Pocket-lint, we’re taking it up a gear.

This isn’t about friends overseas, this isn’t about special occasions. We’re going to check out three examples of people using Skype to the extreme. If you’ve tried any of these three video chat case studies before, then do let us know.

Skype from Everest

If you’re looking for an extreme use of Skype, then it doesn’t come much more extreme than explorer Mark Wood and his mission to use Skype from on top of the world. Sponsored by Skype, Mark will be leading an expedition through the Nepalese side of the Himalayas up to Everest Base Camp and from there making an attempt on the summit where they will make a Skype call to a group of children in their school classroom. It will be the first time it’s been done and probably the highest Skype call ever made within the Earth’s atmosphere. It will also be the first time that Wood has been to the roof of the world, despite working as a trek guide in the mountains there for many years.

“The expeditions have all come from very small beginnings,” Wood tells us on video chat from the comfort of his Coventry home. “I spent a lot of time walking through quite a few villages and, with all my exploring, it isn’t all based on just where I’m going but how you can makes a difference.”

“I spoke to one of my Nepalese guides and the villagers and asked if there was anything we could do to help and the reply was for education. So, I went to Skype to ask for financial support for electricity and internet in school which then gave us the recipe for Skype.”

Why Skype is important to schools, such as those in Nepal, is for pupils to connect with other classrooms across the world as part of the Global Schools Project, which has already seen students from Kesennuma Omose Elementary School in Japan discuss environmental issues with their Nepalese peers. And Wood’s set-ups are not just charity offerings either: sustainability is also key.

“We put solar panels on the roof so that costs are kept low and we set up an internet cafe on the route for the tourist to pay and that keeps it all going. We wanted it to be a blueprint for other remote schools, if you like, and, once we were done, we had a little celebration. We got computers, a projector, speakers - and this is in an area where there’s nothing, nothing - we set a big screen and some chairs in this playground at 3,500m up for all the children, the local people, Sherpa guides, and under the stars, we watched the film Up. To me and you, that’s quite nice but to them, they’ve never seen a film before. It was like a scene out of Close Encounters.”

Beyond classroom to classroom, one of Wood’s missions with Skype is to bring his adventures direct to schoolchildren. A veteran of polar expeditions many times over on ski, by huskey and even once taking the Top Gear team along for a ride, Wood uses the technology to step straight into a school lesson from whatever extreme place on the planet he happens to be. He encourages the students to take responsibility for the environment, to lead by example and to be proud of what they’re doing.

“I used to believe that everything comes from the government but it doesn’t. It comes from here,” he says pointing to his chest, “and it comes from here,” this time to his temple, “and that goes for everything we do.”

As for the Skype Everest ascent, the big question is about how Wood and his team expect to be able to get online from 8,848m. Surprisingly, the equipment required isn’t wildly sophisticated. The team will be taking an iPad, with no other apps on it or running apart from Skype, and a smartphone. Keeping the load light is of paramount importance.

Getting any kind of internet connection is one of the interesting challenges but it’s solved by a piece of kit known as a Began unit. About the size of a paperback, it connects to the internet via satellite and then creates a local wireless network for other gadgets. Naturally, Wood will be taking a top-of-the-line model.

“We’ve tested the set-up at 5,500m up in the Himalayas in a blizzard with a tarpaulin over the top of us in a call back to the UK and it worked. We’ll charge the mother out of it with a solar panel as we go but we’ll have to practise throwing up the tent around us and we’ll probably only get 15 or 20 seconds to put our thumbs up and say we’re at the top.”

Along with the kit, Wood will have a laminated, step-by-step idiot’s guide on how to get the link up and running. He’s no technophobe but, at high altitude, breathing oxygen from a canister and after 40-odd days in deadly conditions, he’s well aware that he might not be at his cerebral best. Whether or not the call from the summit will be live to a classroom depends on which classroom around the world is in lessons at the time, but the team will be making calls throughout the ascent from Base Camp onwards.

The expedition heads out on 18 March 2013 and you can follow the adventure as well as read more details about it on Mark Wood’s site, on Facebook and on Twitter too. The whole trip will be filmed on Sony cameras and GoPros with a good possibility of the footage getting picked for television later in the year. We wish Mark and his team the best of luck.

Skype your dog

It may not compare to mountaineering but Howard Perlmuter has come up with a fairly extreme use of Skype video calls all of his own. Perlmuter is the president, CEO, founder and entrepreneur behind The Barkley Pet Hotel and Day Spa. With two facilities - one in Cleveland, Ohio, and the other on the outskirts of Los Angeles - The Barkley is most definitely at the top end of what you can find for your dog.

Along with salon and spa options, in-room dining menus, bedtime stories, pool parties, a choice of suites and webcams installed everywhere for pet parents to tune into over the internet or via a smartphone app, there’s also the option to have individual Skype calls with your dog.

“The technology previously had never really allowed people to connect with their pets when they're gone," he tells us from his Cleveland home with the original Barkley, his own dog, on the sofa behind him. "The most they could do was call the kennel and check that their dog was still alive.”

“At the same time when you look at what’s going on and at how much people love their pets; when they’re traveling or away on business, they miss them a hell of a lot.”

“We started off with something called Vacation Photos. We had a cute little studio and we’d take shots and give the parent the collage when they came back to pick their pets up. That's great, but what about the pet parent feeling connected when they’re gone? So we thought, why don’t we actually allow them to call in and do this live?”

The answer, for The Barkley, was the Bone Booth - a room set up with a monitor, webcam and child-sized headset for the dogs to wear while they Skype their pet parents. You can arrange to video call your dog at any time and the only downside for The Barkley is that the equipment can get a little chewed. In general, reports are that the dogs do see the screen and recognise it and they hear their owners' voices and get excited, but the reactions aren't uniform across the board.

“Some dogs see the screen, some dogs don’t. Some dogs don’t react at all and some of the owners go crazier than the dogs, but they love to have the option to be able to do it. Some clients think that the last thing they'd want to do is Skype their pets but then they’re probably people who wouldn't Skype their kids either.”

As it stands, some 15 per cent of the customers choose to use the Skype facility but that number is skewed because the average stay is only five days. It would be a much higher percentage, according to Perlmuter, if they looked at the stats of those who stayed a week or more. All the same, it's not just about the statistics - it's a way of being seen as the Four Seasons of pet hotels as much as anything else.

“For us, it’s a way to connect with technology and a way for us to remain innovative and stay on top of the game, and to humanise the human/animal bond,” says Perlmuter.

Indeed, it's that humanisation that's the armature for Perlmuter's creation. Yes, the dogs can have surfing lessons and go on chauffeur-driven limo rides with their heads hanging out of the window to catch the smells of the day but, at it's heart, The Barkley is about turning the experience of being put in a cage into somewhere that the dogs get to go to have a good time as well.

“If you and I went on vacation, what do we want to do other than just stay in a nice hotel with a comfortable room? We want it to be a place full of activity. It's about what do we do while we’re there as opposed to a typical kennel facility where you’re getting thrown in jail while your parents go away. I wanted to make it exactly the opposite.”

Started as a sideline to Perlmuter's already successful career as an artists' manager in the music business, The Barkley has become just as big an enterprise. There are two Barkley pet hotels opening up in Mumbai within the year - something that has taken even Perlmuter by surprise.

“That was probably the last place outside of the Moon that I thought there'd ever be a Barkley," he says. "I thought there’d be one in Afghanistan before there was one in India, but what do I know.”

And if you thought The Barkley was something fit only for the Hollywood rich and famous and their Bollywood counterparts, think again. Perlmuter has all but signed the deal to bring the first Barkley to the London area. So, how much do you love your dog?

Skype on a submarine

Skype can work anywhere provided you have an internet connection, even underwater. Extreme Skype is all about showing you instances where you wouldn't think a Skype chat would be possible.

There isn't much more extreme than Skype from inside a submarine and you would think a video chat from the depths of the ocean impossible, but Commander John Sager of the USS Louisville has managed it.

"This is a first for any submarine. We are pretty proud that we are able to do this." says Sager in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey on her show.

Submerged at 60ft, using the Louisville's periscope, Sager manages to have a pretty decent video Skype call.

While no details are given as to exactly how the call was made, we know Skyping from a submarine is a rarity. Chances are that either a satellite was used, or given how near they were to the coast of Hawaii, that cellular came into play.

"I'm currently in the torpedo room, right behind me you can see four torpedo tubes." explains Sager.

"Each of the torpedo tubes are capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as normal torpedoes." Not a conventional Skype chat then, certainly different from chatting to your mum and dad.

"We have 146 personnel on board today. Some people have to share racks, guys actually sleep between torpedoes in the torpedo room."

All 146 crew have to spend extremely long periods of time away from home. For many nuclear submariners, six months of the year are spent underwater in fairly cramped conditions. While we can't know if Skype has ever come to submarines proper, given their inner workings are so secretive, we hope that it has. 

"We have three bathrooms we share between the whole crew. On of them has three toilets the others have one or two" explains Sager. A Skype conversation could make all the difference in conditions as sardine can-like as that. 

For many who work in extreme conditions, or spend long periods away from home, Skype is invaluable for keeping in touch. Oil rig workers, for example, regularly use the service to chat to home. Submariners, when they come back to port, tend to get on Skype first thing, or at least that is what interviews say.

So Skype has managed to extend its reach all the way under the sea. What next? Space? Already been done.