Kuando Busylight

Many businesses and universities have transitioned to open floorplans for staff. It’s efficient, flexible, and saves a considerable amount of money. But, for the employees, having unscheduled disruptions can be distracting, causing loss of work or worse, general fatigue. The Kuando Busylight hopes to resolve that issue by integrating a simple light to your daily workflow. It works in a few different ways. First, you can run the light in a manual process (self-selecting your color) to alert those around you of your availability. Perhaps green for available, red for “leave me alone,” and yellow for when you are on a break, and purple for “NO, REALLY, leave me alone!” Because the light inside is an RGB light, the device can create thousands of different color combinations. It runs off of a standard USB plug, no no extra power is needed. Simple and clean.

But, if you want to, you can integrate the device into a range of platforms. For example, the light also integrates with Microsoft Teams so it will automatically change color based on your availability. Also, in a call center, this might be a good way to keep tabs on your employees. As long as the office agrees to use the lights, it can work well.

During our testing, we found the device to be simple enough to get working in just a few minutes for basic availability sharing, yet sophisticated enough to properly integrate with Microsoft Teams and Zoom (both are Windows only).

But wait, there’s more!
The Kuando Busylight can also work with a Panopto appliance to show the status of the device. In our install, we’re testing a Matrox Maevex 6020 with Panopto. We plugged in the Busylight and to the Matrox box, and when a recording started, the light turned green. Literally, you just plug it into the USB port and it worked. Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but it’s nice to have that confirmation that the recorder is working. Well worth the very low price of the Busylight.

The Busylight comes in two different sizes, and both worked very well during our testing. My only input… make a Mac driver for Teams and Zoom 🙂

Epson

Face it, the form factor of most projectors hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. Most projectors subscribe to the “rectangular box” design, sometimes spicing it up with white AND black options, oh my! Enter the Epson EV-105… If you think it looks more like a track lighting fixture, you aren’t wrong. This projector is designed to seamlessly blend into retail, hospitality and event spaces, showrooms and museums, adding a high-quality accent image where needed. The key to this device is that it’s discreet… and doesn’t look like a clunky projector, when aesthetics matter.

General Functionality
Overall, we found the device to be designed from the ground up for an easy ceiling install, with all the necessary security features. The 2,000-lumen image was crisp and easily configurable. The built-in media player was easy enough to install media and test (after some initial head-scratching), and the expansive connectivity options (wired and wireless networking, HDMI and SD card inputs) put us at ease. During testing, the device delivered on what it was designed to do.

Where the Epson EV-105 shines is with creative folks. Want to project a face on a mannequin for a retail install? Interested in simulating water on the floor of a museum install? Curious if you can create the sensation of fall leaves? This is your device if the form fits your needs.

The Epson EV-105 makes less sense when your project has the space for a traditional projector or doesn’t need the unique form factor. You can purchase a 5,000-lumen projector for roughly the same price. Sure, it won’t easily mount on a ceiling without a good bit of work, it doesn’t blend seamlessly with the surroundings, and also doesn’t have a built-in media player… but sometimes you don’t need those features. Also, the resolution of the Epson EV-105 1280 x 800, which is fine for artistic projects, but maybe somewhat lackluster when it comes to spreadsheets and PowerPoint. Overall, it’s a very cool product and fits a very specific niche.

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.

 

Airtame 2

There are officially one zillion wireless sharing devices on planet earth, with one billion new offerings coming to market every day. OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, but there are dozens to hundreds of good looking options on the market, but they all seem to come with a catch. Most wireless sharing devices stink for one of three reasons:

  • Limited cross-platform functionality: It works great for Windows, but has limited Mac support, or vice versa. Even worse, throw in a requirement for Linux  support and most offerings fall apart.
  • Software hoops: If it requires a Ph.D. in software engineering (magna cum laude or above) to download an app, install it on a laptop or phone, and share your content to a screen… it’s dead in the water!
  • Feature Fatigue: Features are cool, don’t get me wrong, but sacrificing the base functionality, used by 95% of users (wirelessly share my screen to the TV) to accommodate fringe users (quad view with student queues anyone?) isn’t a winning strategy.

Enter Denmark’s Airtame… in 2014, this company started as an Indiegogo campaign gone wild, with over $1.4 million raised. The original Airtame device was more of a wireless sharing dongle, but suffered from a number of minor issues (limited RAM, wireless bandwidth issues, video quality issues), but it was still a solid option and well priced.

But, in October of 2018, Airtame announced Airtame 2! This device included a range of “lessons learned” from their previous device including a better (granted, larger) size to assist with network connectivity, more RAM, a proper locking mechanism, an improved chipset throughout, and more range to name a few.

What’s the big deal? First, the device is still reasonably priced at $399 (with no annual fee) when comparing other higher end sharing devices. Airtame 2 is fully compatible with Windows, Mac and Linus, and we found the software to be well engineered. Sure, it’s not a $29 wireless-share stick from some unknown company off of eBay… but that’s not a bad thing (security!). The device is simple to configure and deploy. End users seem to enjoy the platform, and with the optional Ethernet add-on, it a good option for schools. And, most importantly, it just works!

Cons: If I was forced to list a few cons, they would be that other platforms may have more features… but that brings me back to the above mentioned “feature fatigue.” Again, Airtame seems to be shooting for the 95% use case. It’s also worth mentioning that Airtame isn’t backed by a large company. That’s not always a bad thing, but in 2-3 years, who knows how well the device will be supported (but, the same can be said for some of the larger AV hardware companies as well). Overall, it’s a good device.

Crestron Visits Duke

Late last month, Crestron visited Duke’s Technology Engagement Center (TEC) to offer a post InfoComm recap of their new offerings. Unlike years past, Crestron didn’t introduce as many new items at InfoComm 2019, but rather highlighted their transition to a more platform focused company. Specifically, Crestron is slowly transitioning away from the more traditional top down approach to hardware and software offerings (walled garden), where they would entangle their hardware and software solutions. Their new model seems to focus on working with partners, when appropriate, to leverage the best solution for the install.

Key Takeaways:

  • Partnering: Crestron is embracing more open standards. If you want a scheduling panel to communicate directly with Google Calendar, Outlook, etc. you can do that without the pain point of spinning up a Fusion server. But, if you already have Fusion, it’s still available.
  • Programming: While SIMPL programming isn’t going anywhere, Crestron is bolstering their professional programming environment (SIMPL#Pro) and their “no programming” environment .AV Framework with the hope that many users will embrace one of the platforms.
  • XiO Cloud: Crestron continues to expand the footprint of XiO Cloud, but it doesn’t yet cover the most common hardware we are installing in our classrooms, but it’s coming.

It’s always nice to see what Crestron has to offer and the presentation provided an insight into what’s to come.

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.

Remote AV Control

“If only I could be in two places at once!”
– Every AV Technician… Ever.

But… what if you COULD be in two places at once? During a training earlier this year, I discovered that one hardware manufacturer offered a simple method of gaining remote access to the GUI of an AV system. As you built the system, it automatically created a password protected HTML5 web page where (assuming you knew the correct URL/password) you could control the system.

As organizations demand more from their AV systems, this kind of functionality will be an invaluable resource for small AV groups when providing evening or emergency AV support.

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!

Extron Adventures and DDMC Session Recap

Last month, I had the fortune of attending Extron’s Control Professional Certification Program. The three-day course, which Extron recommends for “advanced users or control system programmers” was painless enough to pass with my meager programming background. The class was taught in a way that built on concepts, where at the end of the session, I felt comfortable programming a basic AV system… granted, there is still plenty to learn. This experience was in stark contrast to some of the non-Extron AV programming classes I’ve taken in the past. In a word, the class was enjoyable.

My five key takeaways from the Extron Control Professional Certification Program class are:

  • The Graphical User Interface (GUI) Designer is Surprisingly User-Friendly
    GUI Designer, the application used to design graphical user interfaces for Extron TouchLink Pro Touchpanels, is intuitive enough to quickly design basic user interfaces. Better yet, Extron offers a range of full-featured themes that allows a novice AV technician to piece together a nice looking interface in a short period of time. While I’m no artist, I built a custom user interface with a few pages, popups, etc. with ease. Is GUI Builder the most advanced GUI builder in the industry, no… but for University environments… perhaps “reasonably advanced” is advanced enough?
  • Programming… Also Easy
    Before taking the class, Extron’s programming environment (Global Configurator Plus and Professional) was explained to me as “fine for basic things, small rooms, etc., but for more sophisticated classroom environments, you really need a different platform.” That may have been true in the past, but in 2019, nothing could be further from the truth. The application’s feature-rich design allows a user to rapidly develop a functioning AV system in a short period of time. Technically, this isn’t “programming,” but rather scripting or configuring (that’s probably why it’s called Global Configurator). There were a few minor instances where the environment couldn’t magically do exactly what I wanted… but as Yoda once said… “No. There is another.” For considerably more demanding environments, Extron also offers Global Scripter, a Python-based programming environment for Extron’s Pro processors. With Python’s text-based programming, if you can dream it… Extron’s hardware should be able to do it.
  • A File Structure that Makes Sense
    If you’ve ever asked an external AV integrator to, “send me the final control system files,” only to receive 10-20 files, many looking confusingly similar, you aren’t along. You may receive the GUI, program file(s), IR driver(s), modules, config files, etc. etc. It’s a mess and can be unnecessarily confusing for novice programmers… not to mention the issue of properly versioning your programs. With Extron, a similar request for a program could result in a single file! That single file contains all of the above-mentioned components but in a nice and neat package. Sure, groups seem to be fine managing dozens of files… but should they need to?
  • Access to the Program/GUI
    One nice feature of Extron’s environment is that if you have physical access to the processor and assuming the device is functional, you can download the program and GUI. So, if you have an AV system installed by an external AV integrator… and three years later you want to change or remove something as small as a button (aka, you finally get rid of that VCR)… BUT, the external AV integrator has gone out of business, no worries… you can download, modify and re-upload the program or GUI with ease or source that out to another programmer. This isn’t the case with many AV manufacturers… and stories of AV integrators holding programs or modules “hostage” aren’t uncommon. This feature benefits the owner of the hardware over the installer, and that makes me happy.
  • Rapid Development and Innovation Made Easy
    One striking takeaway from the session was how easy it is to rapidly develop a unique AV control system. Making minor, and not so minor, adjustments to both the GUI and program takes just minutes to implement… allowing true innovation with the platform. This is start contract to being dependant upon external AV integrators. To truly innovate in an AV environment, you must have low-level access to the programming environment. This is something Extron allows any reasonably-experienced AV technician to implement.
  • An Alternative Approach to Hardware
    One interesting observation I have is that Extron seems to lag slightly behind other AV manufacturers when it comes to the bleeding edge of AV. For example, their AV over IP solutions have only recently started shipping, where others have been shipping for 2-3 years or longer. You can see this in a few different ways… one, that they are playing catch-up (this seems unrealistic), two, that Extron has a bit more of a “wait and see” approach before throwing resources into a flawed trend. A third alternative is that they want to get it right the first time in contrast to being first to market (and first to force a half-dozen firmware updates on early adopters – AKA free-beta tester). While it can be fun to be on the bleeding edge, but it’s called “the bleeding edge” for a reason.

The Extron DDMC session we hosted at Duke mirrored many of the topics covered above. While I’m in no way saying “throw out all of your AV systems and go 100% Extron!” My key takeaway is that Extron has some compelling hardware/software solutions worthy of note. Also, your perception of Extron’s offerings may be somewhat out-of-date if you haven’t given them a serious deep-dive over the past three years. Finally, I’ve found their sales folks to be wonderful to work with… in the highly competitive industry of AV, it’s refreshing.