Thursday, 20 April 2017

Bringing a big fat Indian wedding from Durban to a hospital bed in Cape Town

My mum has been in hospital for weeks. She was desperate to attend the wedding of my niece, Nisthal Sooful, who got married over the Easter weekend. We, the family, also wanted to make this happen. However, just before the event, the doctors informed us that it would be impossible for my mum to travel. She was devastated and there was a real danger of her sinking into a depression (which was not be great for her recovery). So, my brothers and I leap into action and decided that if she could not attend the wedding, we would bring the wedding events to her.

This was no mean feat. There were 5 separate wedding events over 3 nights across 4 different venues (none of which had internet access). The events itself ran for hours. So we had to make a plan. For internet access, I took a Huawei B315 router with a Telkom LTE-A Uncapped plan. We also had phones with data sims from Vodacom, MTN, Telkom Free Me, etc. I took a selfie stick apart and merged some of the components with a camera tripod, so that we could use a phone as the main device to broadcast the event.

The intention was not only to broadcast the events, but to allow people at the various events to interact with my mum (almost like she was at the event). The good news is that we managed to make it work. The main technology that we used was Skype, but at times we had to switch to WhatsApp video (not the best quality, but worked when connectivity was bad), and WebEx (when all else failed).

The lessons we learnt was:
  • Connectivity had to be good on both sides. This was a challenge as the hospital room that my mother was in was in a poor reception area. My brother Sunil, had to put her in a wheelchair and go around looking for a good signal. In Kwazulu-Natal, we only had problems at the venue in Hillcrest. However, as this was the main wedding event, we had to make it work, and we did eventually succeed.
  • Power was extremely important. Streaming hours and hours of video drain the battery life of phones relatively quickly, so you need a power connection. 
  • Phones worked very well to broadcast the event. We had a fancy video conference unit that could be setup on a laptop, but the phones ended up working the best. It was portable when we need to take the call around to people to enable them to speak to my mum. For broadcasting the event, a phone on a tripod produced an extremely high quality video feed to the computer on the other end. Phones also helped make us relatedly unobtrusive (so as not to get in the way).
  • Headphones are important, as events are noisy and if you want to talk to people on the other side of the video, you need headphones. 
  • You also need a separate phone on both sides to communicate while you are getting all of the logistics right. Also technologies like WhatsApp becomes invaluable as you often need to tweak settings, but cannot speak while the events are happening.
  • People of all ages took to the technology. I was surprised that people in their 60s and 70s at the event where quite comfortable using it to speak to and interact with my mum in Cape Town.
All in all, it was a very successful endeavour. My mum got to see all of the wedding events, she got to speak to people every day at the various events, and in part, felt like she was a part of the wedding.  It was really great for us as technologists (and sons) to see that we could make an old lady’s dream come true via technology even when she was physically not able to travel.

This video clip gives a glimpse into the 3 days of wedding festivities.