Ultra-Cheap HDMI to USB Capture Device

In the golden age of AV, when confronted with the joyous task of converting an HDMI signal to something a local computer could easily ingest, you would simply fork out $2,500+ on a proper 1U device that would elegantly make that digital transition with ease, and call it a day. The single-purpose device was robust, came with dozens of features and capabilities (many of which weren’t utilized in the higher education market), and would work well for five to seven years with minimal issues (except for the faculty and staff that would tinker with the settings – which I’ve been guilty of!). This is during an era when HDMI to USB conversion was a luxury, reserved for those with deep pockets.

But, during the past 3-4 years, we’ve seen the rise of HDMI to USB dongles. Generally speaking, these dongles were much less expensive (usually in the $500 to $300 range), offered fewer features, and generally worked well. But, they were still $300+ and not something most technicians felt comfortable simply handing to a faculty, staff, or student in fear of the device going missing.

Enter 2020… and Amazon seems to be awash with this very inexpensive HDMI to USB thumb-drive style devices, listed under multiple manufacturers (usually not a good sign). Willing to roll the dice on a $32 purchase, my supervisor gave me permission to test the device. To my surprise, IT WORKED! I plugged it in, and the device was immediately recognized as “USB Camera” in Quicktime, Zoom, etc. by using the universal UVC (USB video device class) driver that ships with all modern Mac and PC computers, no driver software needed!

To check compatibility, I threw some oddball hardware at it to see how it would respond. First, I connected my aging Canon 5D MkIII DSLR at it, and it performed well. This is how good a proper DSLR can look in Zoom.

I then connected a game console to the device, and sure enough, it worked! I kept the connection alive for a few hours, and the image never dropped.

Conclusion:
So, do I completely trust this device? Maybe… it hasn’t failed me yet, but it was only $32, and it should cost $300! It’s hard to wrap your mind around such a device when the cost is so low. “There must be something wrong with it!” I keep thinking to myself. That said, I’m probably not going to recommend it as a complete replacement for our more reputable dongles for the foreseeable future. That said, this does make a nice device for testing or possibly handing out to faculty/staff/students to try in unique setups.

Here is my shortlist of Pros/Cons:

Pros:

  • It works!
  • The video quality looks great
  • It’s incredibly flexible for situations where you would like to capture a higher-end video camera, document camera, etc. Anything with an HDMI out!
  • Audio also seems to work (but honestly, I’d like to spend some additional time testing how robust the audio capabilities are).
  • It is C-H-E-A-P!!!

Cons:

  • My main beef with the device is that I don’t like “hard” dongles connected to my desktop. AKA, I wish it had a flexible USB connector between the device and my laptop to allow for some flex. It acts as a perfect lever and could damage your computer if directly connected and someone pulls on the HDMI cable. This wasn’t an issue as I was using my MacBook Pro dongle to connect the device
  • It’s “only” 1080p – 30 fps or 720p/60fps (no 4K here!)
  • The latency is surprisingly good for $32, but it’s not amazing
  • If you are buying this to stream games… you may want to spend the extra money
  • The HDMI to USB processing happens on your computer (some more expensive dongles perform the processing on the dongle, freeing up those extra processing cycles for your computer. This WAS a big deal, but modern computers have the extra bandwidth)
  • It’s USB 2.0, so the image quality is somewhat limited to USB 2.0 speeds, but it also works with older devices, so perhaps this is a pro?

Purchase Location: Amazon

Sony Virtually Visits Duke

Our good friends at Sony visited Duke, virtually, this past week to have a conversation about two of their key market segments. First, Sony is updating the projector that has become our “go to” ~5,000-lumen laser projector (VPL-PHZ10) for many of our classrooms. It’s a minor update, but they are breaking out Ethernet/HDBT connection to have one dedicated Ethernet port and one dedicated HDBT connection. Best of all, they’ve let us know that the price should be nearly the same!

Second, Sony conveyed that they will be introducing a new line of “pro-sumer” displays that should better compete with other manufactures when it comes to price. “Pro-sumer” displays aren’t designed to run 24/7/365, but rather 12-16 hours a day, perfect for higher education. We look forward to seeing these new devices enter the market.

Cisco Visits Duke

This past Friday, Cisco visited the Technology Engagement Center on Duke’s campus to provide an update on their software and hardware offerings. While much of the conversation revolved around “behind the scenes” updates to the platform and general trends (on-prem vs. hybrid installs vs. Cloud), they did mention a range of new AI-based features that may be available in the near future, specifically transcription, translation, and virtual assistant services.

No Cisco conversation would be complete without an overview of their existing and soon-to-be-released hardware. While many of their offerings are unchanged, they do plan to offer a version of the Cisco Webex Room Kit Mini without the codec, for rooms where you simply need BYOD support. If a codec is needed for the room, a simple software key will bring the room up to a full Webex Room Kit Mini.

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.

BrightSign Training

One of the best aspects of being a Duke University Digital Media Engineer for the Office of Information and Technology is that I can regularly attend manufacturer-sponsored AV training sessions related to projects where I may not be directly involved. Learning about new platforms is an exciting opportunity to compare and contrast our existing offerings while exploring new or unique features a new platform offers. Duke is no stranger to BrightSign hardware. We’ve been deploying rebadged BrightSign decoders and encoders for our CampusVision (Duke’s Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) offering) for years. But, we’ve never used BrightSign’s hardware and software on a project, until now.

First and foremost, BrightSign makes hardware media players. As of the writing of this post, they offer eight different players with a variety of configurations (some that display 1080p video, others that play 4K… also, audio capabilities differentiate the players). Some of their players have HDMI encoders, which can come in handy in a wide range of environments. Most people like BrightSign hardware as it’s an alternative to installing a computer, where you need to maintain the operating system, application(s), etc. They perform a simple, yet expanding, set of functions, and they do it well.

For the project in question, Duke has installed an 18 display video wall in a 6 x 3 configuration. Currently, it’s capable of displaying the output from either a Windows computer or Linux computer in a “left nine screens, right nine screens” configuration, but more flexibility (and fewer computers) is the desired outcome. The training BrightSign provided went over the setup of the boxes and adding them to the BrightSign Network (a cloud service BrightSign offers). Overall, the setup was easy and we’re looking forward to the next training where we’ll go over uploading content and controlling the devices. Stay tuned!

 

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.