VR/360 Video at Streaming Media West

While attending the Streaming Media West conference this year, I had the opportunity to check out a panel on the state of 360 video and VR. The panel featured representatives from different parts of the video production industry: journalism, education, marketing, etc. What stood out to me most was the diverse application and varied amount of use cases they shared, and how those applications worked around some of the common challenges native to the platform.

Raj Moorjani, Product Manager at Disney-ABC, discussed how they’ve been using 360 video in their news department as a way to bring viewers deeper into a story. While it’s not fit for all the content they produce, Moorjani found that sometimes it was most effective to simply share the almost raw or unedited video; to simply give viewers the sense of really being where the story was happening. The quick turnaround helped them keep up with the fast pace of the news.

For more highly produced content, it can be difficult to justify the effort and cost while VR headsets are still not widely adopted. Scott Squires, Creative Director and Co-Founder of production studio Pixvana, pointed out that there was a growing market for enterprise training, where you have more control over the end user having the hardware. Having produced training videos in 360 for waiters on a cruise ship, Squires found that the retention rate for the material was much better than with traditional video. He noted Wal-Mart is even deploying 17,000 headsets to its stores for employee training.

In the consumer space, there’s been a slow adoption of the technology, but the panelists see that speeding up with recent improvements to the hardware. The Oculus Go, a standalone VR headset released this year, received praise for its accessibility and value. The previously arduous stitching and editing workflows have largely been smoothed out as well. However, even with technical advancements, there is still a lack of compelling content for most consumers. Squires predicts that as the tools become even easier to use, that amateur production and home movies could be a huge selling point.

Having only experimented with 360 video over the past year here at Duke, I found it validating that even those who are producing it professionally were grappling with the same challenges Though we’re still a far from widespread adoption, I’ve found there’s a growing enthusiasm for its potential as we learn more about how to best work with this technology. For more, check out the full panel here.

Rev Adds New Rush Option

Rev.com‘s captioning services have been in wide use at Duke for the last couple years in part because of their affordability (basic captioning is a flat $1.00/minute), the generally high accuracy of the captions, and the overall quality of the user experience Rev offers via its well-designed user interfaces and quality support. Quick turnaround time is another factor Duke users seem to appreciate. While the exact turnaround times Rev promises are based on file length, we’ve found that most caption files are delivered same or next day.

Rev.com

For those of you who need guaranteed rush delivery above and beyond what Rev already offers, the company just announced it now offers an option that promises files in 5 hours or less from order receipt. There is an additional charge of $1.00/minute for this service. To choose this option, simply select the “Rush My Order” option in desktop checkout.

If any of you utilize the new rush service, we’d love to hear how it goes. Additionally, if you have any other feedback about your use of Rev or other caption providers, please feel free to reach out to oit-mt-info@duke.edu.

Video Working Group Meeting: Sling Studio

This month’s Video Working Group meeting was all about Sling, a video streaming service. It’s an affordable setup that is designed to be incredibly user-friendly and powerful. Stephen Toback reported seeing this at NAB earlier this year. While the model is technically “version one”, Sling Studio is doing a lot to show how robust its product continues to do a lot to improve the existing technology. With the basic technology selling at $999, it’s definitely worth checking out.

We discussed how our various needs could have been met with a setup like this – the topic of graduation came up a lot, but there are certainly many other instances throughout the year we could use this for that would seem to save a lot of headaches.

Here were some of the cool things that were discussed about the product:

  • Battery is easily swappable without breaking the feed in the middle of a recording, or you can plug it in. The batteries can also hold up to a three hour charge.
  • Works with cameras and phones, including android through the free capture app.
  • You can connect up to 10 total camera sources in one stream, 4 of which can be in queue with one main camera.
  • Easy to control audio live.
  • High quality streams.
  • Simple integration with speaker’s slide presentation or other notes if necessary.
  • The CameraLink has an indicator that can be turned towards the individual videographers that indicates whether their shot is live or not.
  • Can capture to SD card or an external drive.

There are tons more things to talk about with this easy-to-use product (there was a lot of emphasis on how teens had been able to use this on the fly with no training), so check out their website and Steve’s NAB report for more.

Educational Video at Streaming Media West

This year, I had the opportunity to represent Duke at the Streaming Media West Conference by participating in the panel “Best Practices for Education & Training Video.” Having seen the growth and development of our online course production over the past six years, it was fascinating to see the approaches that other institutions were pursuing.

The University of Southern California has been streaming interactive lectures over Facebook Live. The approach utilizes a blend of green-screen lectures, interviews and discussions, and instantaneous feedback from viewers. A sample can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/scctsi/review/300228463/c6fc3030f5. Gary San Angel, the Distance Education Specialist at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, noted that the live and interactive format of the lecture significantly increased the viewer engagement compared to their typical video output. Students watched more of the video and had better retention.

USC Price Director of Video Productions and Operations Services, Jonathan Schwartz, largely focused on his team’s live-streaming workflow. They use a mix of of encoders, content delivery networks and publishing platforms, and their commitment to production quality and value had me considering how live-streaming could be incorporated into Duke’s online course development.

While Duke has a great lecture capture system in DukeCapture, the focus of our online courses is in offline production where we have instructors set aside time to record standalone lectures in the studio for an online audience. This ensures that each video is focused on a specific learning objective and conveys that in a short amount of time. Live classroom recordings don’t usually lend themselves well to this priority, but both schools at USC have found ways to work around that limitation.

By working with instructors to design their classroom material to keep an online audience in mind, and by outfitting those classroom’s lecture capture infrastructure with potential live-tracking and live-switching abilities, we would be able to create a workflow that reduces both the bottleneck of the persistently busy professor and the ever growing demand for high-quality educational video.

Zoom Room Integration with External AV Integrators

Creating a basic Zoom Room couldn’t be easier. You get a computer, connect a display, keyboard, and mouse, and then install the Zoom Room software on the computer. Once you register the room and iPad (or another control device capable of running Zoom Room), you’re in business. In fact, a few weeks back, I had a “WOW!” moment when I installed a Zoom Room in under five minutes. Granted, they had the computer ready to go, and an iPad at the ready. This is the utopian AV setup many groups have been looking for.

But… what happens when you attempt to integrate a Zoom Room in an existing space with a more-robust traditional AV system? Oh, and the AV system was installed by an external AV integrator. Well, things become a bit more interesting, complex, and expensive. We sat down with a local AV integrator to sketch out just what this would look like in an existing space, as this is a bit of a shift in the industry.

The Easy Part
The content and video part is rather straightforward. The Zoom Room interface will need to be feed to the AV system, which will route the signal to the display or projector. A camera and content feed will need to be feed from the AV system to the Zoom Room, which will most likely require a few dongles (again, this is rather easy). If you’re lucky, your AV system will have the extra capacity (extra HDMI inputs/outputs) to handle this upgrade without the need for additional cards or splitting video signals using a distribution amplifier.

The Not So Easy Part
Now comes the interesting part… audio. Zoom Rooms shine when the computer manages everything (cameras, mics, speakers, etc.), but when deploying a Zoom Room in an existing space, the audio needs to be integrated so that the rooms acoustic echo cancelation (AEC) doesn’t play havoc with the Zoom Room’s echo cancelation. It’s usually easy to spot an issue as the audio in the Zoom Room will have an “elastic” or “warble” sound, which usually ramps up when the conversation speeds up. For this part, you really need someone that understands audio and the audio program.

Also, when integrating a Zoom Room, you’ll need to decide how you’d like to handle the control of the Zoom Room. Some touch panels are capable of switching between the Zoom Room interface and an existing program, but that may be a bit too complex for some users. The alternative is to have two control systems in the room, one for the AV system, and one for the Zoom Room. This setup isn’t ideal.

Pro Tips for Integrating a Zoom Room into an Existing AV Space

  • Work with a local AV consultant to give you a general sense of how difficult the integration will be. Does your existing system have extra capacity? Will your existing audio configuration be compatible with Zoom? How many screens do you plan on using? Etc. etc. etc. (Psssss, if you work at Duke, you have a group on campus that offers that service for FREE!!!). They will be able to detail a base cost associated with the install and may be able to sketch out the design upgrade you can pass along to the AV integrator.
  • Pass that design sketch to your AV integrator. They will most likely have additional questions, such as: Who will support the Zoom Room, who is buying the computer, how will users interface with the Zoom Room, etc.
  • Get a quote from the AV integrator.
  • Approve the project and install!

We are actively monitoring a number of spaces integrating Zoom Rooms, so stay tuned for updates over the coming months.

Cisco Visits Duke – Meeting Recap

Last week, Cisco visited Duke University’s Technology Engagement Center (TEC) to offer an update on their WebEx/codec offerings. Greg Schalmo, a Senior Collaboration Architect at Cisco, detailed the transformation WebEx has undergone over the past six months. First, WebEx is now “video first,” (as compared to “content first”) mirroring the general trend in online conferencing. Second, the WebEx application has undergone a major facelift, bringing a refreshingly clean interface that simplifies the process of starting an online meeting (thank you Cisco!). Third, Cisco has ended some of their naming madness by folding Spark into Webex as Webex Teams, the Cisco Spark Board is now the Webex Board, and Spark Assistant is now Webex Assistant (R.I.P. Spark!).  This finally puts to rest the nagging question of, “So, what’s the difference between Spark and WebEx again?” Now, it’s ALL WebEx, but there are some nice enhancements, if you need them, in WebEx Teams. Eventually, both WebEx and WebEx Teams will be a single application where you can toggle between the two modes, but that’s a big undertaking, possibly coming in late 2019.

Cisco also detailed a few new hardware codec offerings (check out their Collaboration Device Product Matrix and their Cisco Webex Room Series for specifics). The highlights of the hardware overview were the Cisco Webex Codec Pro, a replacement to the SX80 (used in larger and/or more advanced teaching spaces) which adds additional digital inputs, additional mic options, and a range of advanced features such as voice control, automatic noise suppression, face recognition. For smaller spaces, Cisco offers the Webex Room Kit and Cisco Webex Room Kit Plus, which would work nicely in huddle rooms or small meeting spaces. The one device that made me nearly fall out of my seat was the Webex Room Kit Mini. The Mini offers all the usual niceties from a Cisco codec, but also allows the ability to connect the camera, mic, and speakers to an external device. So, it’s now possible to connect a 3rd party lecture capture device or even an alternative conferencing platform to a room. In our highly flexible teaching spaces, this is a significant enhancement worthy of note.

Warpwire Now Hosts Content for Apple Podcasts

With their commitment to innovation and fresh ideas, it might be too early to call Warpwire an “old dog,” but they definitely learned a cool new trick recently that has expanded the ways it is now possible to use Warpwire at Duke. When we learned that Apple was migrating content Duke had been hosting in what was formerly called iTunes U to a new space called Apple Podcasts and was no longer supporting the hosting of media files on Apple servers, we needed to find an external RSS feed provider and a new publishing workflow for Duke’s vibrant podcast community. Around this same time, Warpwire was making improvements to their service in the area of audio support, and when we approached them with this challenge, they enthusiastically made the needed changes to allow their product to serve this need.

Duke on Apple Podcasts

 

Some of the key changes include:

  • Support for the album art required by Apple Podcasts for feeds and for media
  • Support for metadata in the format required to work with iTunes (Warpwire also now supports Dublin Core metadata)
  • The ability to change the author of a podcast feed to a non NetID (i.e., the name of a Duke organization)
  • Support for formatting text that appears in the Description field for media files. This allows content owners, for example, to include text transcripts for their podcast files that will be available to viewers consuming content through iTunes.

A KB article is available that walks Duke podcasters through the process of creating an RSS feed in Warpwire and publishing it in Apple Podcasts: https://duke.service-now.com/kb_view.do?sysparm_article=KB0028063. If you have any questions or need assistance working with your podcasts in Warpwire, you can contact the OIT Service Desk at https://oit.duke.edu/help

Zoom Room – Make it Work!

While demoing a Zoom Room, I sometimes get the all-too-familiar look of “I get it… this is great and all, but our students, faculty, and/or staff want a simple solution. They don’t want to download an app, wireless sharing isn’t their thing, and they don’t even know what AirPlay is…” Those are some rather significant hurdles in a technology forward room, but Zoom Room is prepared for the challenge.

By simply connecting a laptop to the system via HDMI (technically, the HDMI is connected to an HDMI to USB adaptor, that’s connected to the Zoom Room computer), the content is automatically shared to the Zoom Room screen(s). No touchscreen navigation required, no “share to monitor” button needed, nothing. It really doesn’t get any easier. The only “gotcha” would be that there are only three HDMI to USB adaptors currently supported (Magewell, Inogeni, and Logitech).

We’re looking forward to further testing this feature over the coming days, along with CEC controls via the touchscreen.

More Info: Wired HDMI Screen Share Via Capture Device

 

Blue Yeti Nano

One of the most overlooked technical aspects of in-office or at-home online teaching is audio capture. AV folks are quick to recommend $100-$200 webcams to significantly improve the video quality and flexibility of the teaching environment. But, when it comes to audio, many seem content delegating the sound capture to the built-in microphone of the webcam… or worse, the built-in microphone of the laptop or desktop (shiver!). The reality is, in most online teaching environments, the audio is as important, if not more so, than the video. Consider this, if you are watching a do-it-yourself YouTube video and the video is “OK-ish” (good enough to follow along), but the audio is good, you are still likely to follow along and learn from the recording. But, if the video is amazing, but the audio is poor, it doesn’t take long before you move on to the next offering. The same is true for online teaching.

If you ARE looking to enhance your audio (psssst, your students will thank you), Blue now offers the Blue Yeti Nano. The Nano a stylish desktop USB microphone designed for those that desire high quality (24-bit/48kHz) audio for quasi-professional recording or streaming podcasts, vlogs, Skype interviews, and online teaching (via WebEx, Zoom, etc.). At 75% the size of the original Yeti and Yeti Pro, the Yeti Nano is a bit more “backpack friendly.”

How will this improve my online teaching?
The Blue Nano has a few key features that will significantly improve your audio. First, the Blue Nano has a condenser microphone vs. the dynamic mic you’ll find in your laptop and webcam. Without going into too much technical detail, the condenser mic in the Nano is more complex, offers more sensitivity, and offers a more natural sound. Needless to say, this will blow your laptop’s built-in mic away.

Second, your built-in mic is most likely omnidirectional (it picks up sound in every direction). The Nano CAN be set to omnidirectional (ideal for when you have a conversation with 3+ people around a table, but it also offers a cardioid polar pattern. This means that when you are in front of the mic, you sound amazing, and sounds that aren’t in front of the mic are less prominent (ideal for teaching).

Third, the Blue Nano has a built-in mute button on the front of the mic. This may seem rather basic, but fumbling around for a virtual mute button when you have a PowerPoint, chat screen, etc. etc. open can be a pain. One quick tap of the green circle button on the front and the mic mutes.

At $99, the Blue Nano is a bit of an investment (one that you won’t really notice), but the people on the other side of the conversation will thank you.

Logitech Rally – Sneak Peek

Logitech offered a sneak peek at their soon-to-be-released Rally USB-connected video conferencing solution. While Logitech has had somewhat similar offerings in the past (ie. Logitech Group), the Rally is a bit of a game changer as it competes more directly with the likes of Cisco, Extron, and Crestron in the mid-sized conference room AV hardware environment.

Out of the box, the $1999 Logitech Rally kit has two hubs, one that would sit behind the display(s) and one that would be mounted under a table or in a rack. The two hubs are connected by a single Cat 6 cable that can be ~50 meters long. The table hub sports two HDMI inputs, a USB connection for a laptop/desktop, and a connection for the mic pod (you can have up to seven mic pods connected to the system). The display hub has a connection for the pan/tilt/zoom camera, one (or two speakers, depending upon your configuration) and two HDMI outputs for the displays. So, for under $2K, you have all the AV hardware, minus the displays and computers, you need for a reasonably large conference room or teaching space. Combine the Rally with WebEx, Skype for Business, Zoom Rooms, and you have an impressive turnkey AV solution for under ~$7K.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Rally overcomes a significant limitation of USB. Most “slower” USB devices have a length limitation of 5 meters (just shy of 16.5′) and for high-speed devices (ie, the PTZ camera in this configuration), it’s 3 meters (or under 10′). Once you factor in the table and monitor height, that doesn’t give you much to work with. But, the Rally uses a Cat 6 cable between the pods, so you have a considerably more flexible system, while still using standard USB.

Here is a quick sketch of what a dual-screen Logitech Rally Zoom Room might look like.

Again, this was a pre-release Logitech Rally, so we look forward to getting our hands on a shipping unit in the coming months, but we will be keeping an eye on the platform.