2019 Lecture Capture Survey

We’re excited to announce that our 2019 Lecture Capture Survey is complete. We had a chance to take a birds eye view of ten of the leading lecture capture tools and make some observations about general trends in this rapidly evolving product space.

We hope this information will be useful to you. Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments to oit-mt-info@duke.edu.

A publicly accessible PDF version of the complete survey can be found here: https://duke.box.com/s/r50wv3sgqanxj7pq2x7xiud6vppldqfj

-OIT Media Technologies Team

Sidecar

Rumor has it that Apple is working on a feature named Sidecar that will allow you to seamlessly use your iPad as a secondary Mac display. While there have been workarounds for this for a while, as someone who just purchased an iPad, I’m super excited to hear about this and hope it works well. I wrote an article about the Luna Display a while back and there are other similar pieces of equipment that can achieve such a thing, but if they update to make it intuitive, I’d love the chance to save $80 or so, or just avoid trying to fumble with other apps.

The feature will reportedly work by hovering over the green maximize button in a window and giving the user option to launch the screen from there, among other things. Fingers crossed for a swift release!

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!

Keynote Vectors

I was using Keynote to show how the simple tools could be used to create effective and interesting animations. I was a little stuck on how to easily make items from scratch or where to locate free-to-use vectors for people to use, when I discovered that Keynote actually has a ton of built-in vectors. They’re located in the toolbar under the Shapes button.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that you could scroll down and see that there are tons of things besides basic shapes in there, but I found it useful and I think I’m not the only one who’s missed it. Of course, keynote has many other features that make creating your own objects super simple, so it’s sometimes worth a new wandering around software every now and then. I think that, with minimal tinkering, these assets can create a very nice and cohesive look for small animated tutorials and the like.

Is 4K in a Classroom Important?

We’re going to make this a short DDMC post… We will definitely answer the age-old question of, “Is 4K video content worth it?” The easy answer is, YES, absolutely! Well, maybe… OK, sometimes… well, it’s complicated.

First, what is 4K? 4K refers to video frame sizes of either 3840 x 2160 pixels or 4096 x 2160 pixels. Technically, 3840 x 2160 isn’t truly 4K, but it gets a pass as 3.84K doesn’t have the same ring to it (it’s actually a bit more technical, but we’re just going to gloss over that). So, 4K is big… and while you might think 4K is twice as large as 2K or HD content (1,920 x 1,080), 4K is actually four times the resolution of 2K! So, it’s a big jump in resolution… but, the real question is… can you tell the difference with your human eye?

CHARTS!!!
Looking at the above chart, if you are at home watching your favorite 4K Bluray on an 80-inch TV from 8 feet away, you should easily be able to see the enhanced 4K image over the lower resolutions available (2K, 720p, etc.), and I’m sure it looks fantastic! But, and this is a big but, if you are 20 feet away from an 80-inch screen (think a small classroom environment)… you won’t be able to tell the difference between 4K, 1080p, 720p, or even 1024×768 PowerPoint assuming you have normal vision. Yes, you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Why should I care?
While I’m not saying, “Don’t buy 4K infrastructure!!!” It’s worth exploring the questions… do you have 4K content for these screens? Even if it is 4K, will you be able to see that added resolution? If the answer is “No” to either of those questions, take a breather and know that it’s still OK to install 2K infrastructure in 2019… but keep this chart handy for the next round of upgrades.

 

 

 

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.

A Resource for “Budget Friendly” 4K Cameras

I recently discovered “4K for $10K,” a video series on AbelCine’s blog. The limited series profiles and compares six cameras that capture 4K video, meet certain minimum criteria, and cost between five and ten thousand dollars. 

Late last year when this series launched, we were in the throes of researching and selecting a new, more specialized camera to add to our inventory. We went with the Sony Alpha A7 III, a full-frame DSLR. Even though the $5-10K range will still be high for many production units at academic institutions (it’s worth noting that the list prices reach $9,999 and do not include the cost of lenses), the series is still extremely helpful to those considering a new camera with any budget. 

The minimum criteria used to select the cameras to be profiled and the features and specifications they compared were very similar, if not identical, to the things we were thinking about when selecting our new camera. They are all designed with small crews or single operators in mind, and the needs of those users are the same regardless of the available budget. Even if an even more budget friendly camera lacks some of these features, it is important to know what you are sacrificing and why. 

The videos also strike a good balance of investigating both the technical and functional characteristics of each camera. It can be easy to get lost in all of the technical specifications and minutiae of individual cameras and lose sight of the importance of how the camera will be used and what role it fills among the equipment you already have. Jem Schofield, the author of the posts, sums it up in the introduction to the series. “Creating this series confirmed, once again, that there is no perfect camera system. Each has its perceived strengths and weaknesses, which are different for each operator. That must-have, killer feature in one camera may or may not even be of interest to certain people when considering cameras that are right for them.” For example, we were looking for a camera that could produce a higher end, more versatile image to supplement the 4K camcorders that we use to record long form lectures and interviews. The strengths and weaknesses of a DSLR made sense for filling the gaps in our toolkit without replacing what we already have. 

The other huge takeaway from this series is the reassuring fact there are many excellent camera options across all price points. Again, Jem Schofield summarizes, “Each of the six cameras is capable of producing amazing results in many different production environments. We have come so far in just a short period of time, in terms of the tools that are available to us to create high resolution and high dynamic range moving images at such a reasonable price point.” The number of options and nuanced differences can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to know that it is harder than ever to make a regrettable camera choice as long as you are thoughtful about prioritizing your specific needs. 

I’d recommend this series to anyone looking to purchase a camera on a reasonable budget even if the final choice is not on this list. It provides a useful framework for how to think about a camera’s unique personality and demystifies some of the more intimidating “under the hood” aspects of camera shopping. You can find links to the complete series here.

Producing a Video Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to make a short profile video about a robotics graduate student here at Duke, Victoria Nneji. The goal of the video was to compel middle school students to start thinking about college and their future by sharing Victoria’s story.

This production was also a good opportunity for me to work with our new DSLR camera. The filming process was a big change of pace compared to producing scripted lectures in the green screen studio. Here’s a couple thoughts and takeaways on how the production went:

While the DSLR had a much better depth-of-field and clarity to the image, I didn’t truly appreciate the limitations of working with it until the day of the shoot. Since the camera has no zoom capability, there’s much less flexibility in where you can best place the camera and frame your shot. This was doubly difficult in a scenario where I was also running a secondary camera to capture a wide, two-person shot. Most of the set-up time for the shoot was spent trying to find the right placement for both cameras and the two subjects. Luckily, the in-room overhead lighting worked great, otherwise I’d still be trying to set up the shoot.

Additionally, I neglected to consider that this camera will overheat after about 30 minutes and to try to plan the shoot around that consideration. While we completed the interview without much trouble, I wasn’t able to get as much b-roll with the camera after the interview as I would’ve liked.

In lieu of more extensive on-site b-roll, I was extremely lucky to find some relevant footage as part of Duke’s public video folder which will remain a permanent bookmark for future video projects. The YouTube Audio Library, as always, was a good resource as well for some introductory music.

Were I to do anything differently, I’d try to add a third camera to the setup and feature more of Emerson, the interviewer. For a video aimed at middle-schoolers, I think it would be good to feature her more prominently. I’d also try to get more footage of the robots in action.

Many thanks to Victoria for sharing her story and to David Stein for coordinating the project.

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.