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

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.

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!

2019 Panopto User Conference Report

2019 WAS A FIRST for Panopto, Duke’s lecture capture provider, in that they held their User Conference near company headquarters in downtown Seattle. As this was only their third North American user conference (the previous two were held in downtown Chicago), Panopto has been slow to venture into event hosting. We don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing as it gave the impression Panopto had been focused more on evolving their product platform when that was most needed instead of on PR. However, now that they are one of the clear leaders in the lecture capture space, it makes sense for them to begin to invest in building community through events like these. (It should be mentioned that they’ve had 5 conferences in the EU, so are a bit farther ahead there.)

Panopto 2019 User Conference Signage

This year’s conference suggests they are clearly hitting their stride. The event was well organized and well-attended, and offered a chance to meet and talk with peers from institutions all over the world as well as many of the folks on their Dev, Support, and Product teams we’ve worked with remotely but hadn’t met in person yet. The conference was hosted in an inviting venue called Block 41 that functioned as an ice house in an earlier era. The food was great, and there were nice touches that made guests feel welcome. Panopto staff seemed to always be around and available to assist or just to chat. Hats off to Panopto for putting on a great show.

Duke spoke on our use of automated recording, something we’ve been focused on from our earliest days with Panopto. Other peer sessions focused on technical elements such as integrations with LMS’s and room control systems, and there were a number of informative sessions from Panopto’s Dev team and executive leadership on product direction. One significant change CEO Eric Burns announced was a new in-browser recording tool that looks like it may be powerful and simple enough to replace certain use cases for recording via the downloadable client software. VP of Engineering Tim Sullivan gave a helpful talk on the product roadmap. Neither of those talks are publicly available, but I’m guessing Panopto will be making more public announcements about what’s ahead for them soon. We have a link to the talks that were recorded and will share that with any interested peer institutions (email oit-mt-info@duke.edu).

Panopto Conference Audience

The vendor selection was small but tightly focused group on core Panopto functions, such as appliances and captioning. Epiphan demoed it’s cool Pearl Mini, which offers webcasting to social media platforms in addition to simple lecture capture. It’s a higher end device with more manual controls than we need at Duke for automated recording, but impressive nonetheless. Shuttle was featuring its Panopto-certified device running Windows IoT (i.e., Windows 10 LTSB), and Matrox was showcasing its new Maevex 6020, the first true Linux appliance purpose-built for Panopto. We’ve been building and managing our own Windows appliances to work with Panopto at Duke since we started using Panopto in 2010. While we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks in the process over the years, the overhead in working with even the LTSB version of Windows is high, so the prospect of a Linux appliance is an interesting one to us.

Another nice part of the event for Duke was being able to participate on the new Internet2 NET+ Advisory Board for Panopto, which met the day before the conference in Panopto’s offices in historic Smith Tower. The Board consists of a number of schools who have been working with Panopto for some time, and is working now on developing some suggestions for Panopto as they consider their short and long-term product roadmap. Panopto’s investment in this group demonstrates their commitment to listening to customer feedback in an effort to make their product better. This type of responsiveness is something we’ve seen consistently from Panopto since we started using them in 2010, and is one of the reasons we remain satisfied with the product and services they offer.

Biamp DDMC Session Summer 2019

It’s always nice to have a visit from Biamp in the summer. For those that aren’t in “the know,” Biamp is “a leading provider of professional AV equipment well-suited for a variety of applications, including conferencing, paging, and video,” or so says their website. In higher education, you’ll usually see their hardware tirelessly working away in a rack enclosure receiving, processing, and outputting audio for various of applications. For example, Biamp can take audio, process out some of the noises we generally don’t want to hear (HVAC hum or lighting buzz) and feed it out to a wide range of devices from Panopto to Zoom and beyond. It also applies advanced acoustic echo cancelation (AEC) to the various outputs to prevent that really annoying squeal you sometimes hear when you place a live mic too close to a speaker.

The session covered all of their new offerings, and they have a few. The highlights are:

  • SageVue 2.0 – This software will allow you to monitor your Biamp devices for uptime and to deploy firmware updates. The cost (free) is also perfect for higher education. In 2019, if you aren’t monitoring your AV hardware centrally, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Parlé microphones – Biamp has enhanced their microphone offering, after listening to feedback, and now offers a flatter mic with a considerably lower profile (architects will love them). For those places where hanging mics just aren’t going to work, Biamp has a solution… and it required some audio magic (additional mics) to make that happen.
  • Crowd Mics – If you’ve ever been in a 100+ auditorium where you have “mic runners” racing around to capture audience questions, Crowd Mics may be for you. This device allows guests to take advantage of their mobile phones to respond to questions. It also has an interesting queuing system that looks to make it a breeze to deploy. We’ll be keeping an eye on this as it rolls out.
  • TesiraXEL is an asymmetric power amplifiers from Biamp… and only Biamp could make amp exciting in 2019. It has an interesting universal approach to deployment that may make sense for schools where “hot swap-ability” is key. I’m no audio expert, but it sounded interesting.

Biamp was also kind enough to spend a little time reviewing some of our currently deployed audio programs, offering some game changing tips and tricks to eke out better audio in our classrooms and beyond.

 

The Rise and Fall of BYOD

The bring your own device (BYOD) meeting or teaching space has been a popular model for small and medium meeting and teaching spaces. With the rise of inexpensive and ultra-portable laptops and tablets, the traditional “local computer” has slowly lost favor in many spaces. The computer is expensive, requires significant maintenance, and is a prime target for malicious software. Also, users generally prefer using their own device as they know the ins and outs of the hardware and operating system they prefer. The BYOD model worked well when the guest was sharing a presentation or video to a local projector or monitor. But, as AV systems have grown to include unified communication (UC) systems (WebEx, Zoom, Skype, etc.), the pain points of BYOD have been magnified.

First, when hosting a meeting on a BYOD device, connecting your device to a projector or monitor is usually rather straightforward since standardizing on HDMI. Yes, you may still need a dongle, but that’s an easy hurdle in 2019. But, as we add UC, Zoom as an example, to the meeting, things get complicated. First, you need to connect the laptop to a local USB connection (this may require yet another dongle). This USB connection may carry the video feed from the in-room camera and the in-room audio feed. This may not sound complicated, but those feeds may not be obvious. For example, the camera feed could be labeled Vaddio, Magewell, or Crestron. With audio, it can be equally difficult to discover the audio input with labels such as USB Audio, Matrox, or Biamp. Sure, many reading this article may be familiar with what these do… but even as a digital media engineer, these labels can mean multiple things.

But, who cares… we are saving money while giving maximum AV flexibility, right? Errr, not really. Yes, those with the technical understanding of how the AV system works will be able to utilize all of the audiovisual capabilities… but for the rest of the world, there might as well not be an AV system in the space. Even worse, for those that have ever attended a meeting where it takes 10+ minutes to connect the local laptop to the correct mics, speakers, and camera, you may be losing money in the form of time, compounded by every person in attendance.

The Solution?
Soft codecs to the rescue! With the rise of UC soft codecs (Zoom Room, Microsoft Teams Rooms and BluJeans Rooms, etc.) you can integrate an inexpensive device (a less expensive computer) that is capable of performing a wide range of tasks. First, all of the in-room AV connects to the soft codec, so no fumbling for dongles or figuring out which audio, mic, speaker input/output is correct. Second, the soft codec monitors the space to ensure the hardware is functioning normally, breaking local AV groups out of break fix into a managed model. Third, with calendar integration, you can schedule meetings with a physical location. The icing on the cake is that most of these UC soft codecs offer wireless sharing… so you can toss your AppleTV, Solstice Pod, etc. out the window (OK, don’t do that… but it’s one less thing you need to buy during your next refresh). Oh, and don’t even get me started about accessibility and lecture capture!

We have a keen eye on soft codec system as a potential replacement to traditional classroom AV systems in the mid to long term… and so should you.

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

Educational Video at Streaming Media West

This year, I had the opportunity to represent Duke at the Streaming Media West Conference by participating in the panel “Best Practices for Education & Training Video.” Having seen the growth and development of our online course production over the past six years, it was fascinating to see the approaches that other institutions were pursuing.

The University of Southern California has been streaming interactive lectures over Facebook Live. The approach utilizes a blend of green-screen lectures, interviews and discussions, and instantaneous feedback from viewers. A sample can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/scctsi/review/300228463/c6fc3030f5. Gary San Angel, the Distance Education Specialist at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, noted that the live and interactive format of the lecture significantly increased the viewer engagement compared to their typical video output. Students watched more of the video and had better retention.

USC Price Director of Video Productions and Operations Services, Jonathan Schwartz, largely focused on his team’s live-streaming workflow. They use a mix of of encoders, content delivery networks and publishing platforms, and their commitment to production quality and value had me considering how live-streaming could be incorporated into Duke’s online course development.

While Duke has a great lecture capture system in DukeCapture, the focus of our online courses is in offline production where we have instructors set aside time to record standalone lectures in the studio for an online audience. This ensures that each video is focused on a specific learning objective and conveys that in a short amount of time. Live classroom recordings don’t usually lend themselves well to this priority, but both schools at USC have found ways to work around that limitation.

By working with instructors to design their classroom material to keep an online audience in mind, and by outfitting those classroom’s lecture capture infrastructure with potential live-tracking and live-switching abilities, we would be able to create a workflow that reduces both the bottleneck of the persistently busy professor and the ever growing demand for high-quality educational video.

Cisco Visits Duke – Meeting Recap

Last week, Cisco visited Duke University’s Technology Engagement Center (TEC) to offer an update on their WebEx/codec offerings. Greg Schalmo, a Senior Collaboration Architect at Cisco, detailed the transformation WebEx has undergone over the past six months. First, WebEx is now “video first,” (as compared to “content first”) mirroring the general trend in online conferencing. Second, the WebEx application has undergone a major facelift, bringing a refreshingly clean interface that simplifies the process of starting an online meeting (thank you Cisco!). Third, Cisco has ended some of their naming madness by folding Spark into Webex as Webex Teams, the Cisco Spark Board is now the Webex Board, and Spark Assistant is now Webex Assistant (R.I.P. Spark!).  This finally puts to rest the nagging question of, “So, what’s the difference between Spark and WebEx again?” Now, it’s ALL WebEx, but there are some nice enhancements, if you need them, in WebEx Teams. Eventually, both WebEx and WebEx Teams will be a single application where you can toggle between the two modes, but that’s a big undertaking, possibly coming in late 2019.

Cisco also detailed a few new hardware codec offerings (check out their Collaboration Device Product Matrix and their Cisco Webex Room Series for specifics). The highlights of the hardware overview were the Cisco Webex Codec Pro, a replacement to the SX80 (used in larger and/or more advanced teaching spaces) which adds additional digital inputs, additional mic options, and a range of advanced features such as voice control, automatic noise suppression, face recognition. For smaller spaces, Cisco offers the Webex Room Kit and Cisco Webex Room Kit Plus, which would work nicely in huddle rooms or small meeting spaces. The one device that made me nearly fall out of my seat was the Webex Room Kit Mini. The Mini offers all the usual niceties from a Cisco codec, but also allows the ability to connect the camera, mic, and speakers to an external device. So, it’s now possible to connect a 3rd party lecture capture device or even an alternative conferencing platform to a room. In our highly flexible teaching spaces, this is a significant enhancement worthy of note.

Blue Yeti Nano

One of the most overlooked technical aspects of in-office or at-home online teaching is audio capture. AV folks are quick to recommend $100-$200 webcams to significantly improve the video quality and flexibility of the teaching environment. But, when it comes to audio, many seem content delegating the sound capture to the built-in microphone of the webcam… or worse, the built-in microphone of the laptop or desktop (shiver!). The reality is, in most online teaching environments, the audio is as important, if not more so, than the video. Consider this, if you are watching a do-it-yourself YouTube video and the video is “OK-ish” (good enough to follow along), but the audio is good, you are still likely to follow along and learn from the recording. But, if the video is amazing, but the audio is poor, it doesn’t take long before you move on to the next offering. The same is true for online teaching.

If you ARE looking to enhance your audio (psssst, your students will thank you), Blue now offers the Blue Yeti Nano. The Nano a stylish desktop USB microphone designed for those that desire high quality (24-bit/48kHz) audio for quasi-professional recording or streaming podcasts, vlogs, Skype interviews, and online teaching (via WebEx, Zoom, etc.). At 75% the size of the original Yeti and Yeti Pro, the Yeti Nano is a bit more “backpack friendly.”

How will this improve my online teaching?
The Blue Nano has a few key features that will significantly improve your audio. First, the Blue Nano has a condenser microphone vs. the dynamic mic you’ll find in your laptop and webcam. Without going into too much technical detail, the condenser mic in the Nano is more complex, offers more sensitivity, and offers a more natural sound. Needless to say, this will blow your laptop’s built-in mic away.

Second, your built-in mic is most likely omnidirectional (it picks up sound in every direction). The Nano CAN be set to omnidirectional (ideal for when you have a conversation with 3+ people around a table, but it also offers a cardioid polar pattern. This means that when you are in front of the mic, you sound amazing, and sounds that aren’t in front of the mic are less prominent (ideal for teaching).

Third, the Blue Nano has a built-in mute button on the front of the mic. This may seem rather basic, but fumbling around for a virtual mute button when you have a PowerPoint, chat screen, etc. etc. open can be a pain. One quick tap of the green circle button on the front and the mic mutes.

At $99, the Blue Nano is a bit of an investment (one that you won’t really notice), but the people on the other side of the conversation will thank you.