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To make video-meetings work, force people to stay engaged

Our videoconferencing tools have been getting better, but meetings with remote video participants still don't work very well. One problem is poor use of the technology (such as a lack of headsets) which I outlined in my guide to room based video meetings. These can be worked on and the tech keeps improving.

The other big area for improvement is the discipline of the people in the meeting. The big challenge in typical meetings is that some of the participants are 2nd class. This is obvious when you have a meeting room with multiple local people and some remote users. It can also happen when people have differing levels of technology. In an ideal meeting, everybody in the meeting is on the same footing as far as their presence and ability to communicate. In addition, everybody should be as fully engaged with the meeting as if they were in a single olde-tyme meeting room.

We break this rule often. It is quite common to have remote attendees turn off sending video, or mute their audio, for example, making them be more like a TV audience than members of the meeting. It makes sense because it saves bandwidth, and people don't like being watched. We also tolerate having some people present just on the phone, while others are there in person and others are on low and high quality video systems.

If you hope for a good meeting, you also want to express that the main value of the conferencing system is to let people attend without travel. It is not there to let them attend without the same effort and engagement they would put into a meeting they did travel to. The things I describe may seem minor, and they may veto features of great convenience, but those features are actually bugs and disrupt meetings more than people realize.

Here are some principles to get around this:

No meeting room

In an ideal video meeting, everybody is on their own personal video station. There is no meeting room. This means that even if several of the attendees are in the same building, they don't go to a room, they stay at their desks and join the meeting just like any other remote.

This is obviously hard to do if the majority of participants are in the building, but it can be worth it. It also means you don't need room-based videoconferencing systems, which are expensive and don't work well. But if only 2 or 3 of the participants are in the same place, definitely consider having no meeting room. The big benefit is that when everybody has their own microphone, everybody hears everybody really well.

Today you can't have people in the same room using their own computer because they hear the other people both via their headset and through the air. Perhaps some day a smart videoconferencing system will understand that some people are in the same room (you can tell because some sounds do get into the microphones) and adjust. It would allow those who still want a physical meeting room to get the great audio and video that comes from everybody using their own computer and headset. Those in the room together would still be higher-level participants, but remotes would not be that badly off.

Headsets at all times

We have gotten seduced by how well some voip systems handle speakerphone mode in one on one conversations. Don't be fooled. They don't do group meetings well at all. They seem like they do, but quickly you realize that now everybody hears all the random noises from the location of a speakerphone user. They do things like step away from their desks to eat, chat or take a phone call, and everybody hears it. Keyboards and mice clickety-clack. Sirens go by. It's easy to ignore this in a one on one call, but it disrupts a meeting.

Project Fi gives extra free Data Sims

Ten years ago, I asked Cell companies to let me have more than one phone on the same number. Recently I noticed the ability to almost do that with Google Project FI cell service.


Time for phones to have replaceable shock corners and more battery

Everywhere I go, a vast majority of people seem to now have two things in associating with their phone -- a protective case, and a spare USB charging battery. The battery is there because most phones stopped having switchable batteries some time ago. The cases are there partly for decoration, but mostly because anybody who has dropped a phone and cracked the screen (or worse, the digitizer) doesn't want to do it again -- and a lot of people have done it.


The failure of the pan-tilt camera in video calls

This year, we stayed with Kathryn's family for the holidays, so I attended dinner in my own mother's home via Skype. Once again, the technology was frustrating. And it need not be.

There were many things that can be better. For those of us who Skype regularly, we don't understand that there is still hassle for those not used to it. Setting up a good videoconferencing setup is still work. As I have found is always the case in a group-to-solos videoconference, the group folks do not care nearly as much about the conference as the remote solos, so a fundamental rule of design here is that if the remotes can do something, they should be the ones doing it, since they care the most. If there is to be UI, leave the UI to the remotes (who are sitting at computers and care) and not to the meeting room locals. Many systems get this exactly backwards -- they imagine the meeting room is the "master" and thus has the complex UI.

In this family setting, however, the clearest problem for me is that no camera can show the whole room. It's like sitting at the table unable to move your head, with blinders on. You can't really be part of the group. You also have to be away from the table so everybody there can see you, since screens are only visible over a limited viewing angle.

One clear answer to this is the pan/tilt camera, which is to say a webcam with servo motors that allow it to look around. This technology is very cheap -- you'll find pan/tilt IP security cameras online for $30 or less, and there are even some low priced Chinese made pan/tilt webcams out there -- I just picked another up for $20. I also have the Logitech Orbit AF. This was once a top of the line HD webcam, and still is very good, but Logitech no longer makes it. Logitech also makes the BCC950 -- a $200 conference room pan/tilt webcam which has extremely good HD quality and a built-in hardware compressor for 1080p video that is superb with Skype. We have one of these, and it advertises "remote control" but in fact all that means is there is an infrared remote the people in the room can use to steer the camera. In our meetings, nobody ever uses this remote for the reason I specify above -- the people in the room aren't the motivated ones.

This is compounded by the fact that the old method -- audio conference speakerphones -- have a reasonably well understood UI. Dial the conference bridge, enter a code, and let the remotes handle their own calling in. Anything more complex than that gets pushback -- no matter how much better it is.

International roaming, T-mobile and local SIMs

Back from 5 weeks of international travel, I continue to seek the best solution in my quest for reasonably priced data service when outside the USA.

Data has become a must for me when on the road. In spite of the fact that we all lived without it a decade ago, I find it very frustrating if it's not available (or priced at $15,000 per gigabyte, which is the typical default roaming rate.) It's how I find directions, food, tourist info and keep in touch with others.

For a while my normal practice, if in a country for more than a few days, has been to purchase a local SIM card, and of course to have an unlocked GSM phone. Usually local SIMs are now available with 500mb to 1gb of data for $10 to $20. There are various web sites that list the local data providers to help you choose. The best prices tend to come from the MVNOs -- not the main incumbent carriers -- but even the big carriers tend to have decent prepaid deals. These usually come with some voice minutes and texting. This is useful though I don't do a lot of voice minutes when overseas due to time zones. I use them to reach local friends, book hotels, check restaurants, and with my companion. Annoyingly, though I have bought many of these SIMs, even for data, it's not nearly as nice and easy as it should be. A large fraction of the time, something goes wrong.

The hassles of local SIMs

  • It can often be a pain to research and pick the right carrier, and then to find one of their stores, and get the purchase done. This was particularly true in the past, when selling a SIM to a random foreigner was not a common event at many stores. You have to go out of your way, and deal with people who don't speak your language. Some providers put a store in the arrival area of the airport, which is great, though they tend to be the more expensive cards.
  • Until you get the new SIM, you are faced with very expensive roaming.
  • Research does matter. In England (where language is not a problem) some carriers give you your data bundle free when you put 10 pounds on the card, others charge you those 10 pounds, leaving you with no voice minutes.
  • Once you get the card, you often have to deal with web sites, menus and voice prompts not in your language. Setting up the voicemail is already a pain, and is far worse if you can't understand the prompts.
  • Fixing odd problems is difficult in an unfamiliar system. My Orange card had a package of 500mb in it for 10 Euros, (great) but kept draining the money I put on it, leaving it unusable for making calls and texts, and though I can read and speak modest French, I was unable to find the cause.
  • There are always issues of prepaid cards for short use. If you put too much in the card, it's wasted unless you are coming back soon. If you don't put enough in, you have to run around buying and adding refills -- again with prompts not in your language. Carriers would do well to let you add a lot to the card, and then refund it to you on request. This would make me put more in the card, and use the phone more, so it's a win for them.
  • As noted, balances usually expire quickly, and cards often expire after 6 months or a year if not used. Though some cards are lasting longer.
  • In some countries, they won't let you refill from a credit card, which means you must buy cards at local shops with cash, and always have a card handy -- then throw away the spare cards when you leave, wasted.
  • You need to learn and give a new phone number to people. You may be able to forward your old number, but often that comes at a high cost. As a plus, you make it much cheaper for locals to call and text you, while making it more expensive for people back home to reach you (unless you forward and eat many times that cost.) You do get the "advantage" that incoming calls and texts are free.
  • Text messages generally do not forward, so you will not see those unless you keep 2 phones -- and pay roaming.
  • Calls back home may or may not be quite expensive, but usually are much less than roaming rates on your home SIM.
  • If you move to a different country, you usually have to do it all over again -- shop again, and have a new number. In Europe, where it is common to hop from country to country this becomes a real issue. Some prepaid plans allow tolerable voice roaming in other countries, though data roaming tends to still be expensive on prepaid, in spite of a European order to reduce it.
  • You are going to pay $10 to $20 plus your time for all this, and if all you want is to do a few voice minutes and some texts and keep your data usage to wifi, you might not come out ahead on a short trip.

T-Mobile's new solution


Locking devices down too hard, and other tales of broken phones

One day I noticed my nice 7 month old Nexus 4 had a think crack on the screen. Not sure where it came from, but my old Nexus One had had a similar crack and when it was on you barely saw it and the phone worked fine, so I wasn't scared -- until I saw that the crack stopped the digitizer from recognizing my finger in a band in the middle of the screen. A band which included dots from my "unlock" code.

And so, while the phone worked fine, you could not unlock it. That was bad news because with 4.3, the Android team had done a lot of work to make sure unlocked phones are secure if people randomly pick them up. As I'll explain in more detail, you really can't unlock it. And while it's locked, it won't respond to USB commands either. I had enabled debugging some time ago, but either that doesn't work unlocked or that state had been reset in a system update.

No unlocking meant no backing up the things that Google doesn't back up for you. It backs up a lot, these days, but there's still dozens of settings, lots of app data, logs of calls and texts, your app screen layout and much more that's lost.

I could repair the phone -- but when LG designed this phone they merged the digitizer and screen, so the repair is $180, and the parts take weeks to come in at most shops. Problem is, you can now buy a new Nexus 4 for just $199 (which is a truly great price for an unlocked phone) or the larger model I have for $249. Since the phone still has some uses, it makes much more sense to get a new one than to repair, other than to get that lost data. But more to the point, it's been 7 months and there are newer, hotter phones out there! So I eventually got a new phone.

But first I did restore functionality on the N4 by doing a factory wipe. That's possible without the screen, and the wiped phone has no lock code. It's actually possible to use quite a bit of the phone. Typing is a pain since a few letters on the right don't register but you can get them by rotating. You would not want to use this long term, but many apps are quite usable, such as maps and in particular eBook reading -- for cheap I have a nice small eBook reader. And you can make and receive calls. (Even on the locked phone I could receive a call somebody made to me -- it was the only thing it could do.) In addition, by connecting a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, I could use the phone fully -- this was essential for setting the phone up again, where the lack of that region on the touchpad would have made it impossible.

One of my security maxims is "Every security system ends up blocking legitimate users, often more than it blocks out the bad guys." I got bitten by that.

V2V vs. the paths to a successful networked technology (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, in my article on myths I wrote why the development of "vehicle to vehicle" (V2V) communications was mostly orthogonal to that of robocars. That's very far from the view of many authors, and most of those in the ITS community. I remain puzzled by the V2V plan and how it might actually come to fruition. Because there is some actual value in V2V, and we would like to see that value realized in the future, I am afraid that the current strategy will not work out and thus misdirect a lot of resources.

This is particularly apropos because recently, the FCC issued an NPRM saying it wants to open up the DSRC band at 5.9ghz that was meant for V2V for unlicenced wifi-style use. This has been anticipated for some time, but the ITS community is concerned about losing the band it received in the late 90s but has yet to use in anything but experiments. The demand for new unlicenced spectrum is quite appropriately very large -- the opening up of 2.4gz decades ago generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio -- and the V2V community has a daunting task resisting it.

In this series I will examine where V2V approaches went wrong and what they might do to still attain their goals.

I want to begin by examining what it takes to make a successful cooperative technology. History has many stories of cooperative technologies (either peer-to-peer or using central relays) that grew, some of which managed to do so in spite of appearing to need a critical mass of users before they were useful.

Consider the rise and fall of fax (or for that matter, the telephone itself.) For a lot of us, we did not get a fax machine until it was clear that lots of people had fax machines, and we were routinely having people ask us to send or receive faxes. But somebody had to buy the first fax machine, in fact others had to buy the first million fax machines before this could start happening.

This was not a problem because while one fax machine is useless, two are quite useful to a company with a branch office. Fax started with pairs of small networks of machines, and one day two companies noticed they both had fax and started communicating inter-company instead of intra-company.

So we see rule one: The technology has to have strong value to the first purchaser. Use by a small number of people (though not necessarily just one) needs to be able to financially justify itself. This can be a high-cost, high-value "early adopter" value but it must be real.

This was true for fax, e-mail, phone and many other systems, but a second principle has applied in many of the historical cases. Most, but not all systems were able to build themselves on top of an underlying layer that already existed for other reasons. Fax came on top of the telephone. E-mail on top of the phone and later the internet. Skype was on top of the internet and PCs. The underlying system allowed it to be possible for two people to adopt a technology which was useful to just those two, and the two people could be anywhere. Any two offices could get a fax or an e-mail system and communicate, only the ordinary phone was needed.

The ordinary phone had it much harder. To join the phone network in the early days you had to go out and string physical wires. But anybody could still do it, and once they did it, they got the full value they were paying for. They didn't pay for phone wires in the hope that others would some day also pay for wires and they could talk to them -- they found enough value calling the people already on that network.

Social networks are also interesting. There is a strong critical mass factor there. But with social networks, they are useful to a small group of friends who join. It is not necessary that other people's social groups join, not at first. And they have the advantage of viral spreading -- the existing infrastructure of e-mail allows one person to invite all their friends to join in.

Enter Car V2V

Car V2V doesn't satisfy these rules. There is no value for the first person to install a V2V radio, and very tiny value for the first thousands of people. An experiment is going on in Ann Arbor with 3,000 vehicles, all belonging to people who work in the same area, and another experiment in Europe will equip several hundred vehicles.


Mesh networking when the cell network fails

Interesting article about a new plan for mesh networking Android phones if the cell network fails. I point this out because of another blog post of mine from 2005 on a related proposal from Klein Gilhousen that he was pushing after Katrina.

Guide to a meeting room based videoconference with Skype

If you're going to have a meeting with people in a meeting room and one or more people calling in remotely, I recommend trying to have a remote multi-party video call, or at the very least a high-fidelity audio call, and avoid the traditional use of a phone conference bridge to a speakerphone on the meeting room table. The reality is the remote people never feel part of the meeting, and no matter how expensive the speakerphone, the audio just doesn't cut it. There are several tools that can do a multi-party video call, including Oovoo, Sightspeed, Vsee and others, but for now I recommend Skype because it's high quality, cheap, encrypted and already ubiquitous.

While you can just set up the meeting room with Skype on a typical laptop, it's worth a bit of extra effort to make things run more smoothly in the meeting room, and to get good audio and video. Here are some steps to take, in rough order of importance.

The Basics

  • You should upgrade to the latest Skype. Use "Help/Check for upgrades" in Skype or download from their web site.
  • Create or designate a "conference master" account. (Skype no longer needs a Premium account for this but calls are limited to 4 hours/day and 100hrs/month.) I also recommend you have some money in the Skype account for outbound calling, see below.
  • The conference master should learn the UI of multi-party calling. They must be on Windows or a Mac. (Sadly, for now, only Windows is recommended.) The UI is slightly different, annoyingly. Read Skype's instructions for windows or Mac. They also have some how-to videos. The hard reality is that the Windows version is more advanced. Don't learn the UI during the conference -- in particular make sure you know how to deal with late callers or re-adding bounced people because it can happen.
  • The conference master should have a decently high-powered PC, especially if having 4 or more remotes.
  • Notify all participants of the name of the conference master. Have them add the conference master to their contact list in advance of the conference. Confirm them as buddies. Alternately, if you know their Skype names, add them and get them to confirm.
  • Create, in advance, a call group for the conference.
  • You may wish to refer the remote callers to my guide to calling in to a multi-party videoconference or a similar document. Send them the master ID when you mail them instructions like these.

The problems

Here are the typical problems that we see if the meeting room just uses a laptop on the table for the video call:

  • The camera is low down on the table, and laptop quality. It often captures backlights and looks up at people. Half the people are blocked from view by other people or stuff on the table.
  • The microphone is at the far end of the table, and it's a cheap laptop mic that picks up sound of its own fan, keyboard and possibly projector. When it sets levels based on the people at that end of the table, it makes the people at the other end hard to hear.
  • You need the sound up loud to hear the remote folks, but then any incoming calls or other computer noises are so loud as to startle people.
  • People haven't tried the interface before, so they fumble and have problems dealing with call setup and adding new callers or returning callers. This frustrates the others in the room, who just want to get on with the meeting.
  • Some folks have to come in by telephone, but you can't really have a speaker phone and a computer conference talking speaker to microphone very well.

Here's how to solve many of these problems:

Getting good audio in the conference room


Guide for remote video participants in a group meeting with Skype

Having a group videoconference, or participating by video in a group meeting (where several people are in a meeting room, and one or more others are coming in via video) is quite useful. It's much better than the traditional audio conference call on a fancy speakerphone. The audio is much better and the video makes a big difference to how engaged the remote parties are in the meeting.

There are many tools, but right now I recommend Skype and Google Hangout which are both free. Hangout does 15 people and Skype 25. You want people using the latest versions.


Review of Everyman HD 720p webcam and Skype HD calling

I've been interested in videoconferencing for some time, both what it works well at, and what it doesn't do well. Of late, many have believed that quality makes a big difference, and HD systems, such as very expensive ones from Cisco, have been selling on that notion.

A couple of years ago Skype added what they call HQ calling -- 640 x 480 at up to 30fps. That's the resolution of standard broadcast TV, though due to heavy compression it never looks quite that good. But it is good and is well worth it, especially at Skype's price: free, though you are well advised to get a higher end webcam, which they initially insisted on.

So there was some excitement about the new round of 720p HD webcams that are coming out this year, with support for them in Skype, though only on the Windows version. This new generation of cams has video compression hardware in the webcam. Real time compression of 1280x720 video requires a lot of CPU, so this is a very good idea. In theory almost any PC can send HD from such a webcam with minimal CPU usage. Even the "HQ" 640x480 line video requires a fair bit of CPU, and initially Skype insisted on a dual core system if you wanted to send it. Receiving 720p takes far less CPU, but still enough that Skype refuses to do it on slower computers, such as a 1.6ghz Atom netbook. Such netbooks are able to play stored 720p videos, but Skype is judging them as unsuitable for playing this. On the other hand, modern video chips (Such as all Nvidia 8xxx and above) contain hardware for decoding H.264 video and can play this form of video readily, but Skype does not support that.

The other problem is bandwidth. 720p takes a lot of it, especially when it must be generated in real time. Skype says that you need 1.2 megabits for HD, and in fact you are much better off if you have 2 or more. On a LAN, it will use about 2.5 megabits. Unfortunately, most DSL customers don't have a megabit of upstream and can't get it. In the 90s, ISPs and telcos decided that most people would download far more than they uploaded, and designed DSL to have limited upload in order to get more download. The latest cable systems using DOCSIS 3 are also asymmetric but offer as much as 10 megabits if you pay for it, and 2 megabits upstream to the base customers. HD video calling may push more people into cable as their ISP.

Should be many choices when the phone rings

Long ago I described how I want my cell phone to let me command it to play a recording to a caller noting that I have answered but need some time before I can talk, and also how I want the phone to stop ringing once I start fumbling for it. I learned that a few phones do have the former feature in a simple form, and it is something that is within the range of an app in some OSs but not others.


A standard OS mini-daemon, saving power and memory

On every system we use today (except the iPhone) a lot of programs want to be daemons -- background tasks that sit around to wait for events or perform certain regular operations. On Windows it seems things are the worst, which is why I wrote before about how Windows needs a master daemon. A master daemon is a single background process that uses a scripting language to perform most of the daemon functions that other programs are asking for. A master daemon will wait for events and fire off more full-fledged processes when they happen.

When the cell phone rings...

We've all experienced it. A cell phone starts ringing or vibrating. To be clever, it slowly starts getting louder in case the owner didn't hear or feel the initial signal. You see somebody going through their bag looking for the phone that keeps getting louder and louder. Finally they answer and it shuts up.


Iniating calls with a VoIP tool, like Skype

Last week, I wrote about issues in providing videoconferencing to the aged. Later, I refined a new interface plan discussed in the comments. I think this would be a very good way for tools like Skype to work, so I am making an independent posting, and will encourage Skype, Google video chat (and others) to follow this approach.


Making videocalls work for the aged

While videoconferencing may not make sense for everyday use, I think it has special value for contact with distant relatives, particularly older ones who don't travel very much. They may not get to see the grandchildren, great-grandchildren or even children very often, and their lives are often marked by a particular loneliness, particular at senior homes.

But today's videoconferencing tools are getting quite good and will get even better. Skype now offers a 640x480 video call if you have enough bandwidth and CPU, which is not far off broadcast quality if not for the mpeg artifacts they have trying to save bandwidth. It's also pretty easy, as is Google's GMail video chat and several other tools. We're just a couple of years from HDTV level consumer video calling.

Many seniors, however are unfamiliar with or even afraid of many new technologies, and often in places where it's hard to get them. And this in turn means they can't readily set up computers, cameras or software. There is also still not internet access in many of the locations you might want ot reach, such as hospital deathbeds and senior homes. (Had they had the access in my stepfather's hospital room, I could have had a video conversation at the end; he died as I was heading to the plane.)

Video calls also offer extra human bandwidth, which is a big plus with people who are getting infirm, less strong of mind and hard of hearing. Reading lips can help improve how well you are understood, and physical cues can mean a lot.

And so I think it's crazy that senior homes, hospitals and hospices don't come standard with a video call station. This is not anything fancy. It's a computer, a webcam, and a megabit of internet. Ideally wireless to move into rooms for the truly infirm. Yet when I have asked for this I have found myself to be the first person to ask, or found that there are policies against internet use by any but the staff.

I'm going to describe two paths to getting this. The first uses off-the-shelf hardware and freeware, but does require that the staff of these facilities learn how to use the system and be able to set their residents up in front of it when it is time for a call. This is not particularly difficult, and no different then the staff being trained in any of the other things they do for residents and patients. Then I will discuss how you would design a product aimed for the sector, which could be used without staff help.


Disturbing abuse of the troops and those who care for them by AT&T and others

Today I was pointed to this advertisement asking you to buy prepaid phone cards for the troops.

AT&T has set up special phone stations near all major deployments in the Mid-East. Phone access for our troops is easy, but calls home remain expensive.


A Skype Webcam Mother's Day Brunch

A brunch was planned for my mother's house on Sunday, but being 2,500 miles distant, I decided to try to attend by videoconference. Recently Skype has started supporting what it calls a "high quality" videoconference, which is 640x480 at 24 to 30 frames per second. At its base, that's a very good resolution, slightly better than broadcast TV.

This requires fairly modern hardware, which my mother doesn't have. It needs a dual-core processor to be able to compress the video in real time, and a decently fast processor to decompress it. It wants 384K of upstream bandwidth, but ideally even more, which in theory she has but not always. It demands Windows XP. And artificially it demands one of three of Logitech's newest and most expensive webcams, the Orbit AF or the Quickcam Pro for Notebooks or Pro 9000 for desktops. These are the same camera in 3 packages -- I took the Orbit AF which also includes a pan/tilt motor.

Skype's decision to only work with these 3 cameras presumably came from a large kickback from Logitech. Admittedly these are very nice webcams. They are true-HD webcams that can native capture at 1600x1200. They are sharp and better in low light than most webcams, and they come with a decent built in microphone that appears as a USB audio device -- also good. But they aren't the only cameras capable of a good 640x480 image, including many of Logitech's older high-end webcams. They retail for $100 or more, but via eBay sellers I got the Orbit AF for about $75 shipped and the Pro for Notebooks shipped quickly within Canada for $63. Some versions of Skype allow you to hack its config file to tell it to do 640x480 with other quality cameras. That is easy enough for me, but I felt it was not something to push on the relatives quite yet. On the Mac it's your only choice.

Testing on my own LAN, the image is indeed impressive when bandwidth is no object. It is indeed comparable to broadcast TV. That's 4 times the pixels and twice the framerate of former high-end video calls, and 16 times the pixels of what most people are used to. And the framerate is important for making the call look much more natural than older 10fps level calls.


Rotary dial application for touch-screen phones

Ok, this would be a cool application for iPhones, Pocket PC and the like -- a dialer which presents an old style rotary phone dial, and you have to put your finger in it and spin it around the center, and then it slowly twists back and plays the sound of a dial returning. A bit like how you control an iPod, but slower.

Completely useless, other than for having fun and explaining to kids why we call it "dialing" a phone.



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