Webcam/Tripod Review

I recently moved into a new home and my previous method of mounting my webcam wouldn’t work in my new home office. I thought I would try one of the low cost webcams offered on Amazon since it came with a tripod mount and said it featured a wide angle lens. I’m very impressed with the performance for a $30 webcam. The tripod was a perfect fit. Even though I’m not using the included gooseneck, for $18 this seemed like a great deal. Using the tripod set behind the laptop allows me to position my screen at an angle for easier viewing without having the built in camera looking “up my nose”

For those that don’t know me, I’m the guy that looks like he’s sitting in Guitar Center. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camera: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0887X6JJM/

Tripod: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08FMMZGYR/

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.

HUE HD Pro

In the era of Covid-19, people are scrambling to find great document camera alternatives for home and in-office use. There is a wide range of devices available, but they generally come in two flavors, cheap and problematic and expensive, full-featured, and bulky. Today, I’ll give a quick review of the HUE HD Pro, a ~$99 USB document camera that bridges that gap.

First, the HUE HD Pro connects to a computer using a standard USB-A connector, so if you’re a modern Mac user, you’ll need a USB-A to USB-C dongle to get this working, so plan accordingly. Once you plug the HUE in, you’re ready to go, no batteries needed. I was able to fire up Quicktime/Zoom/etc. and see the HUE without installing any video drivers as the device leverages the built-in UVC driver available on all Windows and macOS devices. The image was initially very soft, but after a quick turn of the focus ring (did I mention that this is a manual focus camera), it was tack sharp. It’s worth mentioning, as I just did, that the camera focus is completely manual. While that may sound like a negative, I actually prefer setting the focus, as the camera doesn’t constantly “track” (going out of focus and back into focus as with some less expensive webcams) to obtain a good quality image. Considering it’s a document camera, the manual focus works great, as you only need to set it from time to time, and it doesn’t re-focus when it sees your hand.

The HUE HD Pro also has a mic… which is, well, OK at best. It’s passable, but if you are going to be doing any serious, long-term, document camera intensive teaching, you’ll probably want to use a different mic, or upgrade to a USB lav mic (ahem! – https://sites.duke.edu/ddmc/2018/01/04/the-movo-usb-m1-microphone/). You don’t buy this device for the mic, but considering you can also use the HUE HD Pro as a webcam (yep, just point it up from your document and manually refocus… and presto! You have a webcam!), the mic makes sense. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t buy this device if my primary goal was to use it as a webcam. There are plenty of higher quality webcams on the market, with autofocus, which has a better image and a lower cost. You buy the HUE HD Pro for the long flexible neck. But, it would work as a webcam in a pinch or if you are attempting to be ultra-mobile.

Image Quality: While I found the image very clear when sharing a hand-drawn diagram, I did notice that the camera picked up a good bit of flicker (aka, flicker happens when the alternating on/off of LED lights doesn’t match the frame rate of a camera). Overall, it wasn’t a major problem, but it was noticeable, and there really isn’t a way to eliminate the flicker, unless you are willing to swap out the lightbulbs in your environment (aka, not going to happen).

I’ve demonstrated this device about a dozen times, and the feedback is usually, “That’s exactly what I need, perfect… thanks.” It’s a simple device that performs a simple task, but as an educational professional will say, sometimes it’s the simple solution that solves the core underlying issue. Some AV professionals say that document cameras are going the way of VGA… but I still see a wide range of applications where a simple camera, sharing a hand-drawn diagram, is the best and cheapest option to convey a concept. I’ll take a document camera over an advanced touch screen most days.

Pros:

  • No additional drivers required: The HUE HD Pro uses the native UVC driver included with Windows and macOS devices
  • Cost: At ~$99, this is a well-priced USB document camera considering how flexible the device can be
  • The image quality is good and when sharing written notes in a Zoom session, it looks great
  • Oh, and it has a small LED light, which is nice (note con below regarding the light)
  • It just works… and is simple enough for anyone to understand. Even > I < was able to use it!

Cons:

  • I wish the articulating arm was longer, like 6” longer. Sometimes it is challenging to get an oversized sheet of paper in the camera frame, requiring that I place the HUE HD Pro on a book to “zoom out” as it really doesn’t have a zoom
  • Regularly, I found myself twisting the HUE HD Pro’s neck in odd ways to get my documents in the correct orientation. It would have been nice if there was an option to flip the image sensor on the device natively with a tactile button push (this may be possible using their included software, but I generally hesitate to install such software as it’s usually not supported all that well)
  • The light is… well, OK at best. They are not very bright and the color temperature of the LED lights isn’t ideal for every situation, but I’m a color temperature matching perfectionist
  • Flicker, if you have LED lights in your teaching space, you may see a noticeable strobing flicker. This can be problematic for users that are very sensitive to flicker. The guinea pigs, errr… remote Zoom users, didn’t mention it when I was demoing the hardware… but it’s there. I see it, and a few other AV folks would see it… but it’s by no means a deal-breaker

Help Clean Up Background Noise

As we’re all working with instructors that are recording at home, we can count on some of them not recording in the best surroundings for audio. We’ve tried several noise reduction plugins but I recently got the AudioDenoise 2 from CrumplePop and like its super simple interface. It has less “robotic” sound than other plug ins (like the one built into Final Cut) and feel that it’s worth the $99 price tag. Here’s an example:

Motion Array

I came across a pack of Adobe After Effects assets from Motion Array. They had a free trial option so I downloaded one of their title packs to see if it would work for a project I was working on.

The pack I downloaded as my trial pick didn’t end up working for my needs since the text editing options weren’t really to my liking – that said, they have a large library of options and what they have can be used for lots of things for a simple but pretty neat effect. For example, I just put a video from webdam in the background and layered the title on top for a nice clean look.

 

An actual paid plan is about $30/month, but worth a look if you’re new to After Effects or interested in a bit of visual motivation. There are free products all over the site as well, you just have to look for them.

Crestron Visits Duke, Virtually

This past week, Crestron visited Duke… virtually, to highlight some new products and to provide an overview of upcoming changes to various Crestron platforms. The key takeaways were, CH5 (Crestron + HTML5) is here, and we’ll soon be able to leverage the platform for more dynamic visuals on touch panels and mobile devices. Also, the transition throws off the shackles of Crestron’s dependency upon Flash, a very good thing. Second, 4 series processors are making their way to market… but before you throw all of your 3 series processors in the trash, you may soon discover that the 4 series is more of an evolution of the 3 series vs. the major transformation that came along with the 2 series to 3 series shift. The first professional device released is the MC4, a followup to the residential focused MC4-R. Finally, we chatted about what we’d like to see in the coming years (perhaps DMPS units with NVX built-in, or an entry-level DMPS unit with dual matrixed DM/HDBT outputs?). It’s always fun to speculate, but one thing is clear, VGA is dead.

Adobe Premiere: Productions

Adobe Premiere has been adding features that make collaborating on projects much easier. They explain the workings a bit in this video:

Apparently this is being used in the editorial process in feature films, and was made following the suggestions of the teams that worked on films like the latest Terminator.

It’ll be interesting to see if this can work smoothly.

Video Working Group: Visual Misinformation

This month’s Duke Video Working Group topic centered around visual misinformation and the work that the Duke Reporter’s Lab is doing to address a media landscape where truth is harder and harder to discern. Joel Luther showcased how schema like Claim Review can help create a common language for fact checking and identifying mistruths in the media. Particularly interesting was how, utilizing machine learning, platforms are being developed that can provide real-time automated factchecking. Since politicians repeat themselves so often, we can create AI models that recognize a statement as it is being said and then display previously cited sources that prove, disprove, or clarify that claim to the viewer.

We also discussed the role of deepfakes and digital manipulation of video. Using some basic editing tools, a bad actor can distort an otherwise normal video of someone to make them appear drunk or unflattering. With some advanced tools involving machine learning, a bad actor can map a famous person’s face on to almost anyone. While this deepfake technology has not yet reached the point of being totally seamless, many universities and institutions are pursuing not only how to create the “perfect deepfake” but how to identify them as well. In the meantime, this technology has only emboldened others to debate the veracity of any kind of video. If any video could be fake, how will we know when something is actually real?