Middle Atlantic RackLink 9 Outlet Select PDU – RLNK-915R

WAIT!!! Before you let out an audible groan and skip to the next Duke Digital Media Community (DDMC) post… hear me out. This isn’t your grandfather’s power strip or sequencer. This RackLink PDU is somewhat unique, and that difference can be significant when managing anywhere between 1 and 1,000 conference rooms or learning spaces.

The background:
With most AV deployments, there is a range of boxes that are required to complete a modern AV system. All these boxes require power, including a control processor, matrix switch, DSP, lecture capture appliance, Bluray player, network switch, VHS cassette player, and reel-to-reel tape recorders (OK, those last two were a joke), etc. Basically, you need a bunch of available outlets, and the two or four that are behind your rack simply won’t cut it. You could easily run to your local Walmart and pick up a $14.97  power strip and call it a day (many people do – sigh) and that may work… but you may be limiting the control you have over your AV for the life of the system.

So, why should you spend $400+ (usually education folks can get it at a discounted price) on something that seems oddly similar to a $14.97 device?
Where do we begin? First of all, the RLNK-915R is built like a tank with heavy metal construction engineered to endure the harsh higher-education environment (only half-joking). It is designed in a way to allow for easy install in a rack enclosure, giving the installer eight outlets in the back, away from curious hands. The “cord retainer” for the power cable connected to the wall will prevent accidental disconnects, or worse… partial disconnects when the rack is moved for maintenance. Finally, the back also has an Ethernet port for control and monitoring. Moving to the front of the unit, there is an additional power outlet that can come in handy for a laptop charging in a pinch. The eight LEDs on the front of the unit provide a quick reference to the state of all of the back outlets… more on that in a moment.

Now, we get to the meat of why AV professionals purchase such a device. Dumb power distribution devices and basic surge protection (see Walmart above) is OK (but perhaps not recommended), and power sequencing (turning on-off each of the individual power outlets, one at a time with a pre-defined delay) isn’t anything new. The RLNK-915R can turn on/off or toggle each outlet individually from anywhere using the RLNK-915R’s build-in web page. Best of all, it can also be integrated with a control system (Extron, Crestron, etc.) to allow for deep AV integrations.

For example, you could program your AV system to tell the RLNK-915R to power down amps (or any hardware) outside of normal business hours (yet turn them on if someone has a spontaneous 4 am meeting). Also, if you have a piece of hardware that won’t respond (think control processor, DSP, etc.), you can perform a quick power cycle to see if that brings the device back to life. Finally, such a device will also allow you to intelligently power sequence devices in a more meaningful way. Instead of waiting 60 seconds between each outlet, you could spend 2 minutes powering up your amp and DSP, and five seconds for other devices that don’t require as much time (saving a significant amount of time on full system reboots).

Overally, seeing intelligent power devices integrated into modern learning spaces makes perfect sense when considering the limited resources facing AV managers, especially when looking at locations that aren’t easily accessible. Is it worth the additional cost to install such devices in every classroom? Probably not, but having such devices in key locations, especially those that are higher profile or challenging to send technicians to, is the future… or more to the point is here today.

 

Middle Atlantic RLNK-215

Technically, this isn’t an “AV specific” piece of hardware, but the Middle Atlantic RLNK-215 makes its way to AV racks regularly and for good reason. The two-outlet “intelligent power” control device provides basic metal oxide varistor (MOV) surge protection to your AV system, network device, or server. What makes this device unique is that when you connect the RLNK-215 to your network, it offers an easy to use web interface that enables you to independently turn the outlets on and off. While this may not sound like such a modern marvel, consider a scenario where you need to perform a quick hard reboot to your fancy new AV system after a failed firmware update. One quick power cycle should do the trick. Oh, did I forget to mention that the AV system is 100 miles away, on an island, and it’s a Saturday afternoon? Having the ability to remotely hard reboot a system can come in handy in several situations and this device allows you to easily and securely perform that task. The RLNK-215 is also capable of fully integrating into your AV system of choice (Extron, Crestron, etc.) to power devices on or off (amps, lights, fans, etc.).


[Above: Screenshot of the various ways to password protect the Middle Atlantic RLNK-215 for users, admins, and control systems.]

I know what you are thinking, “But didn’t I see something like this for $29.95 online?” Perhaps, but there are reasons you buy such a device. First, it’s not an Internet of Things device, pinging home to a centralized server. This device is fully self-contained and does not require access to the greater Internet. Also, the device is well constructed with a metal outer shell and locking power cable to prevent accidental power disconnects. The device is RoHS and UL listed (60950-1) which is important in many installations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the device is backed by a three-year warranty and a group of people that stand behind the device should you experience issues.

Bottom Line: While these devices may sound like a luxury at times, it allows you to more centrally manage AV systems, especially when you have limited staffing resources or a large AV footprint across a sprawling campus.

mmhmm, Taking Advanced Online Presentations to the Next Level

As we enter year 700 of COVID-19, some faculty and staff are looking at 2021 wondering how they can spice up their online teaching environment without spending hours or days learning a full-blown video production application. While Zoom offers a wide range of ever-expanding features, there is still plenty of room for growth and mmhmm, a startup from Phil Libin, is capitalizing on that need.

First and foremost, mmhmm acts like PowerPoint steroids. You can supercharge your presentation by your webcam video overlayed on rich media content elements such as slides, images, videos, sounds, etc. Best of all, I was able to pick up the basics of the application in under 20 minutes or so, your mileage may vary. The easy drag and drop configuration nature of the application will have you creating or enhancing your presentation in minutes. Best of all, you can save your layout so that the next time you present, unlike Zoom, you won’t need to reposition your webcam feed, content location, etc.

Where mmhmm really excites us is its ability to feed that content into Zoom and a range of other video applications as a virtual camera or piece of content. While Zoom has enhanced a few features in this area over the past 6 months, mmhmm is considerably further along when it comes to rich presentations. On top of that, mmhmm is capable of capturing your presentation locally in a high-quality .mp4 video file WHILE also sharing that presentation with Zoom. Yes, Zoom can record the session, but sometimes you want a higher quality version, or you would rather not have the participants being a part of your recording. It’s the best of both worlds.

Finally, mmhmm has a copilot capability that will allow a remote participant to manage aspects of the presentation. This would come in handy when you have large productions where people are working together advancing slides. Perhaps not something for everyday use, but for power users… this could be a game changer.

Pros:

  • It just works!
  • Adds a level of sophistication to presentations, when you have the rich content
  • May allow for a better teaching delivery
  • Simplifies tasks that could take 30-60 seconds in Zoom (30-60 seconds doesn’t sound like long, but when you perform that task 20-30 times during a class, it’s an eternity)
  • The ability to save rich presentations can’t be understated… and is a feature lacking in Zoom. Having to “reset” your video layout can be problematic.

Cons:

  • The subscription pricing model is… well, expensive ($9.99/mo or $99/yr – no educational pricing to be seen)
  • mmhmm can consume a considerable amount of processing power. The fans on my MacBook Pro were screaming when running Zoom and mmhmm with advanced videos, etc. in the content box. I’m sure the new MacBook Pro with the M1 CPU won’t even blink.
  • You CAN do much of what mmhmm does with free and open source applications if you are willing to invest a good bit of time learning such platforms (which can be buggy at times), but mmhmm packages it up in a more faculty/staff friendly package.

Atlona Professional HDBaseT PTZ Camera

While on a classroom technology Zoom session, a peer institution mentioned that they had installed a few Atlona cameras in a subset of their classrooms. While I was somewhat familiar with Atloma as a complete AV solutions manufacturer, our University has primarily been a Crestron/Extron/Biamp/Vaddio/Sony house, with a wide range of exceptions depending upon the location. One challenge opportunity we’ve faced is the cost of reasonably high-quality cameras in our somewhat smaller classroom and meeting environments. Once two cameras are added to the av design (one facing the students and one facing the faculty member), you can be in the $8,000+ neighborhood without breaking a sweat. That price is before you start the conversation about a projector, mics, DSP, control processors, touch panels, and signal routing. When you start looking at less expensive camera options, you usually see one of three things happen: You lose most (or all) support for the device and the warranty is very limited, the image quality doesn’t meet acceptable baseline standards, or the device lacks professional long-distance connections (power/video/control).

After testing the device, on and off for a few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Atlona camera ticks a wide range of boxes. Obviously, the cost of the device is good… but controlling the device is straightforward and the HDBasseT connection was familiar and compatible with a wide range of devices (Atlona or otherwise). Within twenty minutes or so, the device was added to my test environment and I was able to see the camera’s feed and send control commands to the camera. It just worked…

Pros:

  • Cost… cost… cost. With many professional PTZ cameras topping out in the $4,000+ range, it’s nice to see an option that’s literally <25% of that price point. This is a value-focused device.
  • HDBasseT/Power/Control: With a single connection, you can send power, receive a video signal, and send control commands to the Atlona camera. The HDBasseT seemed solid during my testing and it was nice that it could all be done over a single cable (no need for power near the camera, running a second RS232 cable, etc.). The camera can be placed up to 100m from the receiver, which accommodates many teaching environments.
  • It just works: From the web-based GUI, included remote, and industry-standard HDBasseT output, it just worked.
  • Warranty: I just couldn’t get past the limited product warranty of 10 years for electronic circuit and optics, and 3 years for PTZ motor.
  • Value: I can’t get past the value these devices offer, with support.

Cons:

  • Build Quality: The camera felt a little… “plastic-ey” and the device didn’t have the same heft I usually see in our general professional offerings. Does this matter? I don’t think so, as long as it works as advertised.
  • Image Resolution and Quality: Wait… wait, these are somewhat of cons based on pros, all things considered. The device I tested (Atlona’s AT-HDVS-CAM-HDBT-WH paired with the AT-OME-RX11 – HDBaseT Receiver) offered a resolution of 1080p @ 60 Hz. Some would say, “but that’s not 4K… burn it!” But, in higher education, I’m not sold on 4K for standard classrooms as many of our capture systems and unified communications platforms can “only” capture or transmit 1920 x 1080 camera signals (there are obvious exceptions where 4K makes sense). The image quality is good for the price, and reasonable when compared with cameras that are approximate twice the price. At the price point, I wasn’t expecting a good image… and I was pleasantly surprised, so pro/con. It’s also worth reiterating that the cost of the device is very reasonable.
  • USB: This is a small thing, and somewhat unrelated to the camera, but I wish the AT-OME-RX11 HDBasseT Receiver had a USB video output that we could feed directly into a computer via a UVC driver for ultra-budget-friendly locations.

Final Thoughts: Is this the best PTZ camera on the market? No… yes… well maybe, as it really depends upon your goals and objectives. In the era of ever-shrinking AV budgets and a drastic uptick in the demand for video conferencing and lecture capture capabilities in classrooms, adding one or two $4,000+ cameras, not to mention the other devices necessary to integrate said cameras, is problematic. This camera may be a solid alternative to the costly, perhaps more professional, options on the market.

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.

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.

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!