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.

Help Us Test Sonix.ai

OIT has been following what’s happening in the evolving world of captioning over the years, and in particular monitoring the field for high quality, affordable services we think would be useful to members of the Duke community. When Rev.com came along, offering guaranteed 99% accurate human-generated captions for a flat $1.00 a minute (whereas some comparable services were well over $3.00/minute), we took note and have facilitated a collaboration with them that has been very productive for Duke. A recent review of our usage shows that a lot of you are using Rev, with a huge uptick in usage over the last couple years, and we’ve heard few if any complaints about the service.

While in general there has been a dismissive attitude toward machine (automatic) transcription, the newest generation technology, based on IBM Watson, has become so good that we can no longer (literally) afford to ignore it. With good quality audio to work from, this speech-to-text engine claims to deliver accuracy as high as 95% or more. IBM Watson isn’t a consumer-facing service, but we’ve been on the lookout for vendors building on this platform, and have found one we feel is worth exploring called Sonix. If cost is a significant factor for you, you might consider giving it a try.

Sonix captioning is a little over 8 cents per minute, and has waived the monthly subscription requirement and offered 30 free minutes of captioning for anyone with a duke.edu email address who sets up their account through this page: https://sonix.ai/academic-program/duke-university.

We are not recommending Sonix at this time, but are interested to hear what your experiences with them are. And we would caution that with any machine transcription technology, a review of your captions via the company’s online editor is required if you want to use this as closed captions (vs just a transcription). In our initial testing Sonix’s online editor looks fairly quick and easy to use.

If you set up an account and try Sonix, please reach out to oit-mt-info@duke.edu to let us know what your experiences are and what specific use cases it supports.

 

Quick AV Signal Flow with Lucidchart

When collaborating on the design of classroom AV systems, having the ability to rapidly sketch, modify, innovate, and share a signal flow diagram is an invaluable tool in avoiding expensive mistakes before install. But, creating signal flow diagrams has traditionally been a challenge for AV technicians as the software is either expensive, overly complicated, or locks the AV technician in as the single point of modifications for all time.

First, what is a signal flow diagram, and why do I need it? A signal flow diagram shows the signal path (audio, video, network, control, etc.) from inputs to outputs, for the entire AV system. It’s essentially a blueprint for the system… and would you buy a house where they didn’t have a blueprint? With a signal flow diagram, most entry-level technicians should be able to diagnose an AV issue down to the cabling or hardware level. Without this diagram, it’s difficult to troubleshoot small systems, and nearly impossible with larger systems.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been testing Lucidchart to see if it’s capable of eliminating some of the frustrations with other software-based signal flow products. First, Lucidchart is web-based, so it’s not a piece of software you need to download and manage. If you have a web browser, Windows, Mac, or Linux, you can work on your project from the office, at home, or on your vacation… because we all love working during our vacation.

The platform is easy enough for a novice user to pick up after watching a few 5-10 min. videos. But, the true power comes in the ability for the design to be shared. By pressing the Share button at the top, you can share your design with clients in a “read-only” mode, so they can see, but not modify, the design. But, you can also share the design with collaborators to speed up the process. Also, this ability to keep users up-to-date on the design means you aren’t sending PDFs of the drawings. If you’ve ever attempted to incorporate change requests from the initial release of a drawing when you’re already three or four versions ahead… you’ll understand the appeal of real-time environments.

The only negatives we see are that we are required to design our own AV hardware blocks. While this is somewhat time-consuming, once you create a block, you never need to re-create it.

Check out a quick design we created!

New Machine Caption Options Look Interesting

We wrote in April of last year about the impact of new AI and machine learning advances in the video world, and specifically around captioning. A little less than a year later, we’re starting to see the first packaged services being offered that leverage these technologies and make them available to end users. We’ve recently evaluated a couple options that merit a look:

Syncwords

Syncwords offers machine transcriptions/ captions for $0.60/per minute, and $1.35/ minute for human corrected transcriptions. We tested this service recently and the quality was impressive. Only a handful of words needed adjustment on the 5 minute test file we used, and none of them seemed likely to significantly interfere with comprehension. The recording quality of our test file was fairly high (low noise, words clearly audible, enunciated clearly).

Turnaround time for machine transcriptions is about 1/3 of the media run time on average. For human corrected transcriptions, the advertised turnaround time is 3-4 business days, but the company says the average is less than 2 days. Rush human transcription option is $1.95 with a guaranteed turnaround of 2 business days and, according to the company, average delivery within a day.

Syncwords also notes edu and quantity discounts are available for all of these services, so please inquire with them if interested.

Sonix.ai

Sonix is a subscription-based service with three tiers: single-User ($11.25 per month and $6.00 per recorded hour/ $0.10/minute), Multi-User ($16.50 per user/month and $5.00 per recorded hour) , and Enterprise ($49.50 per user/month, pricing available upon request).  You can find information about the differences among the tiers here: https://sonix.ai/pricing

The videos in the folder below show the results of our testing of these two services together with the built in speech-to-text engine currently utilized by Panopto. To be fair, the service currently integrated with Panopto is free with our Panopto license, and for Panopto to license the more current technology would likely increase their and our costs. We do wonder, however, whether it is simply a matter of time before the currently state-of-the art services such as featured here become more of a commodity:

https://oit.capture.duke.edu/Panopto/Pages/Sessions/List.aspx?folderID=4bd18f0c-e33a-4ab7-b2c9-100d4b33a254