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.

Logitech Rally – DDMC Recap

While Logitech has been in the small conference space for some time, when Logitech introduced the Rally platform in the summer of 2018, the AV industry took notice. In essence, the Logitech Rally is a modular video conferencing system for mid- to large-meeting spaces. The platform, coming in two variations, costs $2000 and $2500 respectively. The standard package has a 4K USB PTZ camera, single speaker bar, display hub, table hub, and a single mic pod. The $2500 “Plus” adds an additional speaker pod and mic pod.

Initial Impressions:
We’ve been using the Logitech Rally in our Zoom Room lab for approximately two months, and the experience has been nothing but positive. The PTZ USB camera offers a stunning image and is recognized by the Zoom Room environment. With a few taps of the touch panel, we configured the camera presets with ease. The mic pods have been a pleasant surprise. While unintrusive, they pack the punch necessary for a large room. On a number of occasions we’ve been asked, “What mics are you using? They sound great!” While our configuration doesn’t utilize the two HDMI pass-thru via a Cat 6+ cable, it’s nice knowing that it’s available should we change the setup in the future. As for the speakers, they provide enough audio to fill the room… perhaps too much audio as we’ve had a few complaints.

(Above: Logitech Rally Setup at OIT’s Digitial Media Lab)

So, where would you deploy such a system? Basically, anywhere that is using a soft codec (Microsoft Teams Rooms, Zoom Rooms, Google Hangout Meet), or anywhere you simply want a computer to have access to a nice AV system for WebEx, Skype, etc. Some may argue that $2500 is expensive for a Logitech device, but I’d say that in some small spaces, we’re spending nearly as much, if not more, for a single camera (minus the mics, speakers, transport, etc. etc.). But, when paired with a Zoom Room or similar platform… the Logitech Rally shines.

My only complaint: (and I hope that if I complain enough, they’ll offer it as an option) I’d like to see a hanging mic option for the platform. I’m not sure how they would do that, but it would be a big win from our perspective.


Crestron XiO Cloud – DDMC

When we first received the news about Crestron XiO Cloud in early 2018, we were excited about the possibility of a more modern (and honestly, easier to configure and manage from a higher-education perspective) Crestron Fusion. Our Crestron representative made it clear that XiO Could isn’t a one to one Fusion replacement, and that Fusion wasn’t going away. But, XiO Cloud seemed like a better fit for our environment. Fast forward twelve months, and we’re now getting to see a live demo of the platform.

The Good: The interface is very clean and while it takes elements from Fusion, it’s a refreshingly modern graphical user interface, clearly designed for expansion. Within a few minutes, I was navigating the various hardware components installed within the system, checking status, etc. etc. With a Crestron Mercury, I checked the current status, pulled usage statistics, confirmed the firmware was up-to-date… all the things a centralized AV group would want.

The Less Good: XiO Cloud currently isn’t ready for our (emphasis on “our”) environment. While Crestron has a few devices fully integrated into the XiO Cloud environment, our organization doesn’t deploy those devices in volume. Some of our core devices (DMPS3-150-C, etc.) are partially compatible with XiO Cloud, allowing us to reboot the hardware, obtain basic status, etc., but it’s not up to where we are with Fusion.

The second item is, we currently don’t have a pricing structure for XiO Cloud. Crestron is working on that, but replacing Fusion with a potentially more expensive solution with fewer features (currently) is a hard sell.

Conclusion: The potential for XiO Cloud is significant… the thought of pre-provisioning hardware that automatically installs or configures the AV system is amazing. Also, the thought of obtaining deep metrics associated with a platform is compelling. I look forward to revisiting Crestron XiO Cloud in 12-18 months to see the progress they have made. With just a handful of updates, the platform could transition from “interesting” to “must have” in a short period of time.

Evertz AV Visits the Technology Engagement Center

Evertz AV is best known for its high-quality broadcast AV switching offerings, in fact, if you’ve ever watched a division one basketball game on TV, you’ve probably seen their handiwork. But, while Evertz is well recognized in broadcast, it has slowly been offering up less expensive solutions for educational spaces using the same high-quality design and construction.

AV over IP is the future of classroom AV technology, but it’s still somewhat cost prohibitive for smaller spaces. At some point, the price of IP based AV systems will demand that most systems be IP based, and Evertz’s price point is very attractive. Here are the general Pros and Cons of the platform:


  • Simple to configure: We had the demo unit up and running in under 8 minutes.
  • Cost: The competition has a similar price point but doesn’t provide decoding and encoding simultaneously, that’s big
  • 1GbE: This all runs on 1-gigabit networking, so you most likely won’t need an expensive switch


  • Evertz doesn’t provide a control environment, so you’ll still need a Crestron or Extron interface
  • Sorry “vintage” AV folks, no RS232 or relay control with this system
  • Evertz has a range of products, but not nearly as many as many of the large integrated AV manufacturers… but does that matter?

Overall, I was impressed with their offerings and I look forward to seeing how they might fit in at Duke University.



Meeting Owl Review

We had an opportunity to test the Meeting Owl from OwlLabs this past week and wanted to share our thoughts on this unique conference room technology. The $799 webcam, mic, and speaker all-in-one unit is intended to sit at the center of the conference room table. What makes the Meeting Owl worth nearly $800? If I were reviewing the device simply on the speaker and mic array, I’d say this isn’t all that exciting of an offering. There are plenty of <$200 mic/speaker combos that would perform as well or better. But, the Meeting Owl’s unique 360 camera at the top that makes the unit stand out from its peers.

When sharing video, the device segments the camera feed into zones. At the top, there is a side-to-side 360-degree view of the room, and below is either one, two or three “active speaker” zones intelligently selected by the Meeting Owl. So, when two people in the room start talking, the camera segments lower area of the camera feed to accommodate the conversation. Overall, we found the intelligence of the camera to be rather good. Infrequently, it would pause a bit too long on a speaker that had stopped talking, or incorrectly divided up the lower section, prioritizing the wrong person… but considering the alternative is physically moving the camera… it’s a nice feature that livens up the meeting experience.


  • Incredibly easy to setup and configure (under 10 minutes)
  • 360 camera works as advertised
  • Good quality internal mics
  • Platform agnostic (works with Skype, WebEx, Zoom, Meetings, etc.)


  • The image quality isn’t great (it’s a 720p sensor, so the sections are only standard definition, or worse, and it shows)
  • Split screen can be distracting when in overdrive (sometimes it moves too slowly, other times it seems to move too quickly… this may be improved with a firmware update)
  • At $799, OwlLabs is in the Logitech Meetup zone. While the products are rather different, each has their pros and cons depending upon the expectations of the user.

Closing Thoughts:

Overall, we enjoyed the product and can see it being deployed in a range of spaces. It also signals a new era in intelligent conferencing technologies. The local group at Duke that purchased the device also has plans to deploy this in a classroom where Zoom will be used for hybrid teaching sessions (some students local, others remote). It will be interesting to see how the far side reacts to the automated pan/tilt of the camera and if it can keep up with some of our most active faculty. My primary complaint about the device is that the image is too blurry. Also, the 360 lens tends to have the faces centered in the lower image area. Ideally, it would crop to a few inches above the top of the head of the active speakers(s). Perhaps we’ll see an HD or 4K version in the future that addresses a few of these shortcomings.

Zoom Room TV Control – A CEC Story

One energy-saving feature of Zoom Room is Zoom Rooms Operation Time. This feature allows the room administrator to schedule business hours for an organization, say 8am to 5pm. During regular hours, the Zoom Room display(s), control interface, and scheduling panel will operate as normal. But, when the business (or university in our case) is outside the operational hours, the control device (usually an iPad or Android device) and scheduling display will dim to conserve energy and expand device longevity. Also, the display(s) will turn off during this period. The one catch is that the computer and monitors must support CEC (Consumer Electronic Control), and not all do. In fact, Macs don’t support CEC control over HDMI.

So, what do you do when your computer connection doesn’t support CEC? Simple, you buy some dongles! Zoom details this process (with details regarding the hardware setup) on their website, but in essence, you’ll need to configure the display (or displays… as Zoom Room can accommodate up to 3 screens) as seen below using a USB – HDMI-CEC Adapter by Pulse-Eight and a Lindy HDMI CEC Less Adapter by Lindy.

While this does add to the overall cost of the hardware design, it will more than pay for itself over the life of the install.


Classroom Conversations – 2018 Edition

Due to the joyous snow conditions around Durham, Classroom Conversations 2018 technically took place in… 2019. Classroom Conversations, a Duke Digital Media Community (DDMC) session to recap and explore 2018-2019 classroom technology trends focused on two main topics, active learning and Zoom. While these topics may sound somewhat dissimilar, it was interesting to see how the two topics overlapped in many ways.

Jim Daigle, Director, IT, Pratt School of Engineering, started the conversation off with a recap of their research and development of active learning with regards to how it may be implemented at their new building, currently under construction. Overall, the consensus seems to be that active learning means different things to different people and needs to be faculty-driven to succeed. Jim cautioned that it’s somewhat easy to build advanced AV systems capable of active learning, but that if the faculty’s curriculum is incompatible with the more advanced AV configuration, the overall satisfaction with the environment will be poor.

Ed Gomes Jr., Senior Associate Dean, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, mirrored many of Jim Daigle’s comments, highlighting that active learning isn’t AV exclusive. “You could create an active learning environment with whiteboards and flexible furniture,” highlighting a common misconception that active learning is directly tied to advanced AV.

To bring the session to a close, Tim Searles, Director, Fuqua School of Business Multimedia provided an overview of how they have deployed Zoom and Zoom Rooms in a few select teaching environments. Tim’s team has painstakingly engineered Zoom and Zoom Rooms into a hybrid configuration where students are offered the flexibility of attending class sessions in person or via Zoom. As with active learning, Tim conveyed that the best AV solution is one where the faculty member is comfortable enough with the environment where the technology starts to disappear, and they can “just teach.” Also mirroring active learning, Tim mentioned that Zoom is capable of so much, but that designing the space in a way that mirrors the natural teaching environment (placement of monitors, sound configurations, etc.) are a key component to success.

We’re looking forward to a strong year and can’t wait for Classroom Conversations 2019.

Sony PTZ Cameras

Sony visited Duke University’s Technology Engagement Center this past week to review their pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) camera offerings. Starting at the entry level, Sony showcased the SRG120, ideal for small conference rooms or classrooms on a budget. The optics held up well compared to Sony’s more expensive offerings, but one limitation of the SRG120 is that it can’t be mounted upside down, not a primary concern but something to consider. The SRG360SHE is a mid-tier camera ideally suited for larger event spaces where flexibility is key. The SRG360SHE can send content over an IP network connection, 3G-SDI and HDMI at the same time. The image quality was very clear and the movements were smooth. Rounding out Sony’s top-of-the-line offering, the BRCX1000 is a 4K studio quality PTZ camera ideally suited for production environments where image quality is king. While the $9000+ price tag may scare off many AV folks, when comparing it to the cost of hiring an outside group to film events or a second videographer for multi-cam events, the return on investment can be measured in months.

What PTZ camera review would be complete without control interfaces. Sony demonstrated their new PTZ camera remote controller, the RMIP500. It’s clear Sony has learned from their previous controllers as the PMIP500 has a number of features, such as the ability to lock out areas of the control, that will make controlling your cameras a real joy. It can connect to 100 PTZ cameras and is incredibly customizable. The RMIP10 is Sony’s entry-level control device.

Finally, Sony demonstrated two of their 4K professional monitor. Yes, these are the displays true videographers use when filming their next movie for their legendary clarity and color accuracy. It’s hard to think of a use case at the University side of things, but this is the type of display I’d expect to see in a medical environment where image quality is literally a life or death situation.