Zoom Room Appliances

It’s no surprise, but I’m a fan of Zoom and Zoom Rooms. The platform is easy to understand, flexible, and users simply like it. While many people are familiar with Zoom, they are generally less familiar with what a Zoom Room is. In essence, a Zoom Room is a computer attached to a display, mics, speakers, camera, and a control interface, that is always on and ready to host a meeting. This is in sharp contrast to a bring your own device (BYOD) space where the user brings a laptop and connects to the AV in the space, wasting precious conference time and adding complexity to the essential task of having a meeting. With a Zoom Room, similar to a Cisco WebEx Room Kit, you walk in, touch a button on the control interface… and away you go! But, unlike a Cisco WebEx Room Kit, a Zoom Room is hardware agnostic which, relying on a Windows or Apple computer at the heart of the system, attached to anything from consumer to professional peripherals. This nearly infinite flexibility of the Zoom Room platform comes at a cost of reliability. Maintaining a Zoom Room can be challenging… keeping the local computer up-to-date with the OS, security, virus protection, not to mention all the drivers of the peripherals! If only Zoom offered a Zoom Room codec style device!

Enter Zoom Room Appliances… While these haven’t shipped, they may resolve many of the issues many Zoom Room managers have experienced. By eliminating the need for an in-room computer attached to a camera, mic, and speaker… it dramatically reduces the overall complexity of the platform.  Install the soundbar like device, enter the Zoom Room activation code and BOOM! The system is connected to the hardware and you’re ready for the next meeting. No more worrying about Windows updates, what feels like weekly security patches, etc. etc. It should just work! We can’t wait to get our hands on the devices to properly test these in higher education!

 

CampusVision DDMC Session

This past Thursday, Jack D’Ardenne provided the Duke Digital Media Community (DDMC) with an overview of Duke’s Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) offering, called CampusVision. The platform features approximately 135 DirecTV channels and several Duke internal channels from Duke Athletics and Duke Chapel. While IPTV is the primary purpose of CampusVision, it’s also capable of a range of signage and AV related tasks. Specifically, with the more expensive of the two CampusVision players, it’s capable of acting as a rudimentary AV switcher which could come in handy in locations where you may want to watch the next basketball game… yet don’t want to install an expensive or complicated AV system to manage the area. Also, CampusVision is capable of emergency notification, so in theory, you could switch over your displays when an alert goes out. Visit the CampusVision page to request additional information on the platform.

Fusion 2019 Technology Expo

The Fusion 2019 Technology Expo in Charlotte North Carolina, hosted by ClarkPowell is an annual event that brings together AV integrators and hardware manufacturers. While the conference isn’t specific to classroom technology, it’s not uncommon to see regional colleges and universities represented. This year, seminars were provided by Crestron, Extron, Biamp, Draper, Kramer, Panasonic, Tightrope, Vaddio, and ClarkPowell. ClarkPowell provided an overview of NDI-Video over IP, which is gaining popularity in many segments.

I attended Vaddio’s session to get a sense of how the manufacturer is addressing the need to offer reasonably priced PTZ USB cameras, specifically for soft codecs (Zoom, WebEx, etc.) and Zoom Rooms. Considering the audience, Vaddio was able to provide a deep dive into their offerings and provide a range of “things to think about” especially considering USB’s distance limitations. One area to explore is the use of fiberoptic USB cables for sending signals long distances. As the Vaddio representative said, “The days of grabbing a USB cable and having it ‘just work’ are over.” It’s going to require a considerable amount of understanding of the connection protocol to ensure things work as expected, and some trial and error.

Extron’s AV over IP, named NAV, is also an area of interest. While Extron isn’t the first manufacturer to offer AV over IP, their cautious approach to the segment is appreciated. The platform looks to be easy to deploy in a mixed environment, and we look forward to seeing it in a deployment in the near future.

No expo would be complete without networking! There were opportunities to connect with other AV professionals and manufacturers, and honestly… it’s one of the main reasons the journey to Charlotte was worth the trip. Bouncing ideas off of like-minded AV professionals is a great way to spark new approaches to AV challenges. Having face to face conversations about hardware and software eliminates the need for hours of online research. Also, hearing the “horror stories” associated with AV failures is a wonderful form of AV therapy.

iOS 13 Bluetooth Tracking

I’ve been enjoying the latest iOS 13 update for the past week (woot woot to dark mode!), but when I received a “Vudu Would lIke to Use Blooth” popup, I tilted my head and said, “why?” There are a number of legitimate reasons an app may request Bluetooth access. The first good reason that comes to mind is the ability to detect what device you’re connected to, to provide a unique experience. For example, if an application detects that I’m connected to my car stereo, it may automatically provide a unique driving mode (a few applications currently take advantage of this). Cool… but what are the not so good reasons? Well, applications like Vudo (Vudu is a subsidiary of Walmart) could, in theory, allow Walmart to track my location as I walk around a Walmart, building a unique profile based on my movements. If I hover around the green tea aisle of the store too long I shouldn’t be surprised if I received a targeted add for similar products. This can become increasingly concerning with an organization that has the ability to correlate different databases based on your email addresses or unique identifier.

The worst part is… the apps haven’t changed to add this notification. Only iOS has changed to notify the user when a specific app requests Bluetooth access. So, that Vudu app may have been using my Bluetooth signal for years without my knowledge. I give Apple credit for making this a mandatory feature in an attempt to provide better transparency and privacy.

How to Check Your Bluetooth Usage
Visit Settings -> Privacy -> Bluetooth on your iPhone and you’ll see a list of all of the applications that have requested Bluetooth access. The moral of the story is, you really want to trust the companies to whom you provide Bluetooth access.

Audio Declipper Comparison

With the release of a new audio plugin on FX Factory called De-Clipper, we decided to compare our previous audio cleanup tools and see what came out on top.

De-Clipper ($59) by Accusonous is billed as “the world’s first entirely automatic De-Clipper.”

SoundSoap 5 ($150) by Antares is a suite of audio cleaning tools that includes denoise, declicking, and hum removal in addition to the declipper feature.

RX Elements ($129) by iZotope is a basic suite of audio cleaning tools, featuring de-click, de-clip, de-hum and de-noise.

We ran each tool over a couple samples of clipped audio in Final Cut Pro X, the results of which you can find here:

Overall, we found the RX Elements tool to be the most effective by a large margin. Further, within the interface of each tool, Accusonous’s De-Clipper and SoundSoap offer rather binary options. In SoundSoap, this is literally an on/off switch for the effect. RX Elements, meanwhile, offers more in the way of fine-tuning the various thresholds and gains. This flexibility is perhaps best demonstrated by comparing the interfaces for the various tools:

Soundsoap Interface

Soundsoap Interface

De-Clipper Interface

De-Clipper Interface

RX Elements Interface

RX Elements Interface

 

An important consideration is that while Accusonous’s De-Clipper is a standalone tool, both Soundsoap and RX Elements include a suite of other features and are thus priced accordingly. In particular, we’ve found the noise reduction abilities to be quite effective in both plug-ins and well worth the additional cost.

24 Hours with the Apple AirPods

In March, Apple announced the 2nd generation of AirPods. At $159, I was a bit hesitant to purchase them as I didn’t really need yet another thing to keep charged. Sure, the addition of “hey Siri” control, 50% more talk time on a charge, and wireless charging are a nice bump… but those were really “nice to have” features. Also, my $20 set of Bluetooth headphones were working just fine and allowed me to say “Yah, but mine were $20!”

Fast forward six months and my cheaper headphones had gone missing and I had become somewhat frustrated with the way the cheaper headphones connected with my iPhone, Apple laptop, and Apple TV (it was just clunky and time-consuming to switch between my devices). With $145 dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I splurged on a new toy. I assumed I’d have immediate buyers remorse.

It’s only been 24 hours with the AirPods, but my initial reaction has been incredibly positive. The AirPods act as an extension of my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and Apple TV with seamless transitions between the devices. The human interface (removing an AirPod pauses the current song or movie) is simply brilliant and it’s clear Apple has painstakingly woven the AirPods into their entire hardware ecosystem. So far, the few minor “complaints” would be that the mics aren’t as good as my standard iPhone mic. The AirPod mics aren’t bad… I had an hour-long conversation with a family member and they indicated that the audio was good. They just aren’t great, which was a little surprising… but not really when you realize the mic is basically next to my ear. I guess my other complaint is that there is a $145 hole in my wallet where money once lived.

Overall, I’m excited to see how I’m able to use the AirPods for WebEx, Zoom, Skype, etc. meetings and how they hold up over the coming weeks, months, and hopefully years.

Blue Yeti X

Since 2009, Blue Yeti USB microphones have dominated the YouTube, podcast, and vocal production world. With each update, the Yeti has adjusted to the demands of the users, and the new Yeti X is no different. The newly added LED metering will allow users to directly monitor their levels to prevent over or under driven audio. Also, the mechanical switch on the back of the Yeti (to adjust the 4 mic pickup pattern) has been redesigned to make a transition from, say, cardioid to omnidirectional, less “clicky.” The device also allows more control from the multi-functional control wheel in the front, enabling quick access to mute and headset volume.

While the hardware has received a nice bump in terms of specifications, the most interesting update in the new Yeti X isn’t hardware related. Yeti X now ships with Blue’s VO!CE software which enables professional vocal effects and presets. Yes, you can also use the simplified Sherpa app for those that want good quality, yet simplistic, recording software. The device should be out next month!

Google Jamboard Visits Duke

The Google Jamboard may not be newest technology to hit the market, officially announced in late 2016, but the 55″ 4K touchscreen still delivers a wonderfully playful experience in 2019. To start, the hardware “feels very Google” (well organized cables, stylish design, solid materials) and while I was a bit concerned about the two giant boxes the device shipped in, I had the entire system connected an running a software update in no time (granted, with the help of another person when connecting the display). The device is essentially a monitor/computer combo with a wide range of features.

The best way to describe the interaction is fun.

Pros:

  • The hardware is heavily rubberized and should withstand any normal office environment (no small feat)
  • It works seamlessly in the Google ecosystem (Google Drive, YouTube, etc.)
  • Working in a synchronous and asynchronous way, for large projects, is a breeze.
  • The handwriting recognition is amazing!
  • The touch screen is of a very high quality, with 16 points of touch and a 60Hz refresh rate
  • It’s cross platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. and it just works)

Cons:

  • At $4,999 (not including the $1,349 stand), it’s kinda expensive, not to mention the annual management and support fee of $600. [all MSRP]
  • The device works wonderfully in the Google ecosystem, but doesn’t necessarily work well with other environments (WebEx, Zoom, etc.). If you aren’t a Google shop… this may not be for you.
  • Like any technology, there is a learning curve… even for those inside of Google’s ecosystem on a regular basis.

So, what do I think?
If I worked in a smaller office environment (say 20-100 employees) and we were 100% a Google House (Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, etc.) I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this device. But, if you living in a mixed unified communications world, it’s a more difficult decision, especially with the likes of Microsoft and Zoom floating around.

Biamp DDMC Session Summer 2019

It’s always nice to have a visit from Biamp in the summer. For those that aren’t in “the know,” Biamp is “a leading provider of professional AV equipment well-suited for a variety of applications, including conferencing, paging, and video,” or so says their website. In higher education, you’ll usually see their hardware tirelessly working away in a rack enclosure receiving, processing, and outputting audio for various of applications. For example, Biamp can take audio, process out some of the noises we generally don’t want to hear (HVAC hum or lighting buzz) and feed it out to a wide range of devices from Panopto to Zoom and beyond. It also applies advanced acoustic echo cancelation (AEC) to the various outputs to prevent that really annoying squeal you sometimes hear when you place a live mic too close to a speaker.

The session covered all of their new offerings, and they have a few. The highlights are:

  • SageVue 2.0 – This software will allow you to monitor your Biamp devices for uptime and to deploy firmware updates. The cost (free) is also perfect for higher education. In 2019, if you aren’t monitoring your AV hardware centrally, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Parlé microphones – Biamp has enhanced their microphone offering, after listening to feedback, and now offers a flatter mic with a considerably lower profile (architects will love them). For those places where hanging mics just aren’t going to work, Biamp has a solution… and it required some audio magic (additional mics) to make that happen.
  • Crowd Mics – If you’ve ever been in a 100+ auditorium where you have “mic runners” racing around to capture audience questions, Crowd Mics may be for you. This device allows guests to take advantage of their mobile phones to respond to questions. It also has an interesting queuing system that looks to make it a breeze to deploy. We’ll be keeping an eye on this as it rolls out.
  • TesiraXEL is an asymmetric power amplifiers from Biamp… and only Biamp could make amp exciting in 2019. It has an interesting universal approach to deployment that may make sense for schools where “hot swap-ability” is key. I’m no audio expert, but it sounded interesting.

Biamp was also kind enough to spend a little time reviewing some of our currently deployed audio programs, offering some game changing tips and tricks to eke out better audio in our classrooms and beyond.

 

The Rise and Fall of BYOD

The bring your own device (BYOD) meeting or teaching space has been a popular model for small and medium meeting and teaching spaces. With the rise of inexpensive and ultra-portable laptops and tablets, the traditional “local computer” has slowly lost favor in many spaces. The computer is expensive, requires significant maintenance, and is a prime target for malicious software. Also, users generally prefer using their own device as they know the ins and outs of the hardware and operating system they prefer. The BYOD model worked well when the guest was sharing a presentation or video to a local projector or monitor. But, as AV systems have grown to include unified communication (UC) systems (WebEx, Zoom, Skype, etc.), the pain points of BYOD have been magnified.

First, when hosting a meeting on a BYOD device, connecting your device to a projector or monitor is usually rather straightforward since standardizing on HDMI. Yes, you may still need a dongle, but that’s an easy hurdle in 2019. But, as we add UC, Zoom as an example, to the meeting, things get complicated. First, you need to connect the laptop to a local USB connection (this may require yet another dongle). This USB connection may carry the video feed from the in-room camera and the in-room audio feed. This may not sound complicated, but those feeds may not be obvious. For example, the camera feed could be labeled Vaddio, Magewell, or Crestron. With audio, it can be equally difficult to discover the audio input with labels such as USB Audio, Matrox, or Biamp. Sure, many reading this article may be familiar with what these do… but even as a digital media engineer, these labels can mean multiple things.

But, who cares… we are saving money while giving maximum AV flexibility, right? Errr, not really. Yes, those with the technical understanding of how the AV system works will be able to utilize all of the audiovisual capabilities… but for the rest of the world, there might as well not be an AV system in the space. Even worse, for those that have ever attended a meeting where it takes 10+ minutes to connect the local laptop to the correct mics, speakers, and camera, you may be losing money in the form of time, compounded by every person in attendance.

The Solution?
Soft codecs to the rescue! With the rise of UC soft codecs (Zoom Room, Microsoft Teams Rooms and BluJeans Rooms, etc.) you can integrate an inexpensive device (a less expensive computer) that is capable of performing a wide range of tasks. First, all of the in-room AV connects to the soft codec, so no fumbling for dongles or figuring out which audio, mic, speaker input/output is correct. Second, the soft codec monitors the space to ensure the hardware is functioning normally, breaking local AV groups out of break fix into a managed model. Third, with calendar integration, you can schedule meetings with a physical location. The icing on the cake is that most of these UC soft codecs offer wireless sharing… so you can toss your AppleTV, Solstice Pod, etc. out the window (OK, don’t do that… but it’s one less thing you need to buy during your next refresh). Oh, and don’t even get me started about accessibility and lecture capture!

We have a keen eye on soft codec system as a potential replacement to traditional classroom AV systems in the mid to long term… and so should you.