Camera Tracking Review

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to remotely demo a few autonomous camera tracking systems for use in a classroom environment. The idea is appealing. By updating the camera in the classroom, you move away from a static back-of-room shot to a considerably more impressive.

The first system we demoed was the PTZOptics Perfect Track. During the demonstration, the camera was able to gracefully pan and tilt as the subject moved around the front of the room. More importantly, it was configured to return to a general preset when no subject was in the predefined presentation area (this prevents the camera from getting “stuck” at the edge of the frame or at a door when someone exits the room… a real issue with older tracking systems). It took a considerable amount of my supervisor and I directing the demo individuals to “run faster” and “cover your face and move to the very edge of the tracking zone” before we were able to “trick” the system into action in a slightly unnatural way… but it still responded well, simply moving back to the “safe” preset. But, most importantly, a majority of the time camera movements felt very natural, almost to the point where it was hard to tell it apart from a mid-level camera operator (yes, I’ve seen MUCH worse human camera operators). The only real “gotcha” with this platform was that it’s SDI (not a major issue, but most classroom AV setups are more HDMI friendly), and the price (during the demo, it was said to be in the $8,000+ range). But, if you are filming in a classroom for a semester, that $8,000 price is very reasonable when compared to the cost of hiring a camera operator.

The second system we reviewed was the HuddleCamHD SimplTrack. While less expensive and USB only, it also proved to be a good solution, but perhaps slightly less impressive (and ~$2,000 less expensive) than the PTZOptics solution. It was also able to track the subject in a predefined presentation zone, but there were more frequent “misses” with the camera. This could have been due to the environment of the demo (there were a few minor obstructions in front of the tracking subject). It also had tracking zones and a “safe preset” that worked as detailed. Overall, I’d also recommend this system for consideration.

The Good:

  • The systems are improving in terms of their ability to intelligently track an individual or group of individuals
  • The robotic pan and tilt is nearly a thing of the past and the footage looked very natural
  • The video from these cameras is vastly superior to static, wide angle, back of the room cameras

The Bad:

  • The hardware/software costs for these systems are high
  • Setup is more involved
  • These cameras don’t work in every environment (they don’t like windows, reflective surfaces, and glair)

To sum up, we’re almost to the point where classroom AV folks should consider deploying these solutions in their highly utilized classrooms as a standard install. I’d still like to see a more affordable option (wouldn’t we all?), but the price is falling and the functionality is at a tipping point.

Kaptivo

Let’s face it… humans like articulating concepts by drawing on a wall. This behavior dates back over 64,000 years with some of the first cave paintings. While we’ve improved on the concept over the years, transitioning to clay tablets, and eventually blackboards and whiteboards, the basic idea has remained the same. Why do people like chalkboard/whiteboards? Simple, it’s a system you don’t need to learn (or you learned when you were a child), you can quickly add, adjust, and erase content, it’s multi-user, it doesn’t require power, never needs a firmware or operating system update, and it lasts for years. While I’ll avoid the grand “chalkboard vs. whiteboard” debate, we can all agree that the two communication systems are nearly identical, and are very effective in teaching environments. But, as classrooms transition from traditional learning environments (one professor teaching to a small to a medium number of students in a single classroom) to distance education and active learning environments, compounded by our rapid transition to digital platforms… the whiteboard has had a difficult time making the transition. There have been many (failed) attempts at digitizing the whiteboards, just check eBay. Most failed for a few key reasons. They were expensive, they required the user to learn a new system, they didn’t interface well with other technologies… oh, and did I mention that they were expensive?

Enter Kaptivo, a “short throw” webcam based platform for capturing and sharing whiteboard content. During our testing (Panopto sample), we found that the device was capable of capturing the whiteboard image, cleaning up the image with a bit of Kaptivo processing magic, and convert the content into an HDMI friendly format. The power of Kaptivo is in its simplicity. From a faculty/staff/student perspective, you don’t need to learn anything new… just write on the wall. But, that image can now be shared with our lecture capture system or any AV system you can think of (WebEx, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). It’s also worth noting that Kaptivo is also capable of sharing the above content with their own Kaptivo software. While we didn’t specifically test this product, it looked to be an elegant solution for organizations with limited resources.

The gotchas: Every new or interesting technology has a few gotchas. First, Kaptivo currently works with whiteboards (sorry chalkboard fans). Also, there isn’t any way to daisy chain Kaptivo or “stitch” multiple Kaptivo units together for longer whiteboards (not to mention how you would share such content). Finally, the maximum whiteboard size is currently 6′ x 4′, so that’s not all that big in a classroom environment.

At the end of the day, I could see this unit working well in a number of small collaborative learning environments, flipped classrooms and active learning spaces. We received a pre-production unit, so I’m anxious to see what the final product looks like and if some of the above-mentioned limitations can be overcomed. Overall, it’s a very slick device.

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Video

Big advances are taking place in intersection of video with AI (Artificial Intelligence). I ran across an interesting article in Streaming Media Magazine called The State of Video and AI 2018 that takes stock of some of these changes and I wanted to share it with you as we look toward what’s ahead for Duke.

 

We’ve been following trends in this area from a number of directions, including video captioning. As many of you are aware, the needs for captioning videos we produce at Duke are increasing, but the costs of captioning services, most of which rely on intensive manual labor, are high. However, new tools like IBM’s Watson, which includes more than 60 AI services, including machine captioning (with accuracy advertised as a whopping 96%), seem poised to shift the balance and make it possible for us to caption videos on a wider scale. We demoed Watson recently and will continue to monitor it as well as other tools in this space.

In this context I also wanted to point out that we recently began offering ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) for Panopto, Duke’s lecture capture service. We are excited about the opportunities this new functionality will offer students and other viewers who are looking to drill down to points in videos where specific terms are found. This feature adds to Panopto’s already healthy set of features built around in-video search, including OCR (Optical Character Recognition) for slide content, and user-created time-stamped notes and bookmarks.

AV in a Box – The Sub $25K Classroom

As the expectations of classroom and meeting space AV changes over time, so too must the approach of delivering advanced AV systems for teaching and learning environments.

The Sanford School of Public Policy (SSPP), in collaboration with Duke Office of Information Technology (OIT) and Trinity Technology Services (TTS), was able to take a tentative list of desired outcomes for a scheduled AV update to four classrooms, and translate that into a cost-effective and robust classroom AV design. The process started with the Sanford School approaching my group (Media Technologies) at OIT and informing us that they were looking to upgrade a few classroom environments and if we could provide some general guidance to ensure they were maximizing their available funds. Based on the initial wants and needs assessment, OIT sketched a base AV design and reviewed the design with TTS to ensure the feasibility of the design and to obtain pricing. From that point, TTS finalized the design with a few minor modifications and provided pricing. Ultimately, TTS was selected as the AV integrator due to their cost-effective pricing and solid track record (roughly a 35%+ cost savings).

About the spaces:

  • Laser Projectors (5,000 lumens at 1920×1080, rated for 20,000 hours – no bulb replacements!)
  • Front and Back Cameras (no pan or tilt)
  • Built-in VoIP Calling
  • Integrated Lecture Capture (Panopto)
  • 7″ Touch Panel for Control
  • AV Bridge Standard (for WebEx, Skype, Google Hangout, YouTube, Facebook, etc.)

The system recycled the previous AV rack, speakers, and projector mount, so this was far from new construction. The Sanford School of Public Policy has indicated that they had a very smooth install, and minor issues since install ~4 months ago. So, it survived a full semester.

The pros and cons of such a system are difficult to quantify, but I’ll give it a shot.
Pros:

  • significant reduction in overall cost (~35%)
  • simplified install (TTS has a robust understanding Duke’s network, VoIP systems, scheduling, etc. and it really helps)
  • good support, especially if you have tier one local support.
  • a unified graphical user interface (faculty moving from one of the 170+ TTS room to a Sanford School of Public Policy room will experience a similar user interface)
  • they understand the unique AV needs of an academic teaching environment.
  • did I mention the price?

Equally difficult would be to list the cons of using TTS. Instead of listing cons, I’ll list a few considerations when working with TTS.

  • TTS may not be an ideal fit for advanced rooms (“Advanced” is a relative term… they have done some impressively complex work and they continue to surprise, but there is a limit).
  • TTS may not be the perfect fit for new construction (Have they done new construction? Yes! Can they do all new construction? Probably not.)
  • There are limitations to their programming (TTS has a range of solid classroom designs, good programmers, and a dedication to clean design, but it’s best to “borrow” their best designs vs. reinventing the wheel.)

This was a wonderful project, and I look forward to reviewing this project in a few years to see how happy the Sanford School of Public Policy is with the overall project. Only time will tell.

 

Logitech DDMC Session

On November 30th, Warren Widener of Logitech visited the Technology Engagement Center on Duke’s campus to showcase three pieces of technology ideal for small and medium-sized conference rooms.

We all know Logitech for their webcams, keyboards, and mice, but over the past few years, they have expanded into small, and not so small, business environments as more organizations move toward small bring your own device (BYOD) meeting spaces. Logitech has achieved this by integrating their various devices into flexible and cost-effective offerings highlighted below. While they may be careful not to take on “the trons” of the industry, it’s clear they are looking to move up the food chain.

First, Warren provided a demonstration of the Logitech Smartdock. The Smartdock is essentially a dock for a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with expanded I/O, designed to interface with Skype for Business and in-room Logitech hardware (cameras/mics) to simplify the process of launching an audio or video conference to the push of a button. The device is intended to live in the meeting space and act as the meeting scheduler and AV bridge. While not a perfect fit for Duke due to our deep enterprise WebEx integration, for businesses that rely on Skype for Business, this device makes one-touch video conferencing one step closer to reality.

Also highlighted at the session was the Logitech Meetup. The Meetup is an $899 MSRP wide-angle webcam, three-element mic array and tuned speakers, with build in acoustic echo cancelation, that ticks a number of boxes in small huddle room design. Unlike some of Logitech’s previous all-in-one designs, the Meetup is designed to be permanently mounted above or below a monitor and comes with a wall-mount bracket. The super-wide 120-degree field of view from the camera ensures everyone in a small conference room will be in the shot.

Finally, the session briefly touched on Logitec’s GROUP offering. We’ve seen previous iterations of this device, but Logitech promises that they continue to improve upon the overall audio quality and features from this device. Ideal for larger BYOD spaces with a pan tilt zoom camera, high-quality mics and speaker and open nature (it works with WebEx, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, etc. etc.), the lack of integrated voice over IP (VoIP) makes it a more difficult sell in some of our more robust and demanding spaces.

Duke Panopto Upgrade, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

We’re excited to announce that we’ll be upgrading our current v. 5.3 installation of Panopto to version 5.5 on Tuesday, December 19th, 2017. Some of the headline features we’ll be gaining include:

  • Webcasts are now delivered via HTML5 in both the interactive viewer and the embed viewer. One of final steps in our move away from proprietary plug-in based technology (Flash, Silverlight) toward a completely browser-based playback architecture.
  • Added the capability to embed a Youtube video within a Panopto session.
  • Added welcome tours to orient new users logging into Panopto.
  • Added Playlists. Playlists allow sessions from any folder within a Panopto site to be presented together in a single, ordered list.

Panopto

As per usual, we expect the system to be offline during business hours on this day. If you have questions, you can contact your Panopto Site Administrator or the OIT Service Desk

  • 5.4 Full release notes: https://support.panopto.com/articles/Documentation/Panopto-5-4-Release-Notes
  • 5.5 Full release Notes: https://support.panopto.com/articles/Documentation/Panopto-5-5-Release-Notes

Portable Lighting Options, Webstar II Video Chat Light Giveaway

I’ve been doing some research into inexpensive portable lighting kits and wondering if anyone has discovered a killer solution for attaching lights to the top of a laptop or that can sit on a desktop and illumine someone’s face at a computer. Preferably something under $30.00. Several years ago we discovered the Micropro LED light (link is to current v2), which did a good job but was extremely expensive and difficult to mount.

Softbox lighting kits such as this one are extremely cheap now–even coming in under $30.00 in many cases (sometimes as part of kits of two or three), and they do such a great job that the benefits can often outweigh the bulkiness and portability issues in a lot of cases. However, there are certainly scenarios where something more portable is definitely called for.
Via DDI (thanks Libby Evans!) we have four USB-powered Webstar II Video Chat Lights free to the first four members of the Duke Community who email oit-mt-info@duke.edu to request one and are available to come by our offices at American Tobacco to pick theirs up. The Webstar does a great job (see before and after pictures below). The only downside I can see so far in my limited testing is that the unit is a little loose when attached to the top of a laptop.
Video from Macbook Pro built in iSight camera after using the Webstar II

Video from Macbook Pro built in iSight camera with the Webstar II Video Chat Light

Video from Macbook Pro built in iSight camera before using the Webstar II

Video from Macbook Pro built in iSight camera without the Webstar II Video Chat Light

Webstar II Video Chat Light

Webstar II Video Chat Light

Elgato Cam Link

When it comes to converting an HDMI signal to something a little more computer friendly (USB), there are plenty of good options. Osprey and Magewell both have very compelling offerings with enhanced features, but at a price of roughly $300 – $330. Enter Elgato and their $130 HDMI to USB converter. While we haven’t had an opportunity to test the device, it looks to further lower the barrier of entry for higher quality video streaming and capture. The website is somewhat thin on details, but after digging around a bit it seems the Cam Link uses the UVC driver, so it should be compatible with most modern versions of Windows, Mac, and Linux without the need for a driver.

That said, some key details are missing from the website, specifically, what resolution and frame rate does the HDMI inputs accept. While it mentions 60fps, does it also capture 24, 25, 30 and 50? Also, no word on if or how or if it will handle interlaced video. That said, one interesting feature of this device is that you could theoretically use two Cam Links (one for video and one for content) connected to a laptop (with two USB3 core hubs) and create an ultra portable live teaching rig, assuming you had all the other necessary equipment (camera or video capable dlsr, mics, lights, etc.). Add in WireCast (or OBS if you are on an ultra tight budget), and you could start hosting some rather high quality streaming events (alumni engagement session, “behind the scenes” when high profile guests that come to campus, live Q&A with the admissions folks, etc.) on the cheap-ish.

We’ll be keeping our eye on this device as it enters the market.

Farewell Wireless Microphones on the 600 MHz Band

It may be time to retire those trusty old wireless microphone systems that you’re currently using in your classrooms and auditoriums. The 600 MHz spectrum (technically 614 – 698 MHz) is about to get considerably more congested with wireless interference in the coming months and years. The Backstory: Way back in the olden days of 2012, Congress authorized the FCC to auction off some of the “old analog TV” wireless spectrum that was killed off in 2009. The 600 MHz band, where many wireless mic systems on campus operate, was auctioned off in March 2017 and is to be used for mobile devices (phones) starting later this year.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, it’s time to decommission those wireless mics using the 600 MHz band (or at least start budgeting for new wireless mics in the short term). The hard deadline to stop using mics on the 600MHz spectrum is 2020. WAIT… keep reading! I know what you’re thinking, “So, plenty of time to ignore this…” The “gotcha” is, these new mobile phones will start showing up this fall, and the carriers are already testing devices on the 600MHz spectrum. So, you may start noticing that your trusty old wireless mic isn’t so trusty anymore, and that could happen overnight. An infrequent audio dropout may not be a major concern for minor sound reenforcement in small settings, but for larger events, it can be a true show stopper (I know this from personal experience).

How do I know if my system is impacted?
All wireless microphone systems are required to list their frequency rang on the device. This is usually in the form of a sticker on the back of receiver. That said, some devices have multiple frequency ranges available, so you’ll need to check with the manufacturer.

Is there any good news?
Yes, the good news is that most of the major manufacturers of wireless devices have a rebate program to help with the cost of the upgrades. The rebates are anywhere from $75-$450, depending upon the number of channels, age of the device, etc. (links below). As always, leave a question below if you have comments or questions.

Rebate Programs: Sure / Audio-Technica

Datavideo HDR-1 Standalone H.264 USB Recorder / Player

A number of products are reaching into and helping redefine what we might think of as the lecture capture appliance space. One sub-category of these includes appliances that, while they could be part of fixed installations in classrooms and other venues, also have the benefit of being portable. A case in point is the new DataVideo HDR-1. The HDR-1 is a a standalone recording appliance (works without a PC) that records to USB drives inserted into the front of the appliance. It is rackable and could be installed permanently in a room, but it could also be taken on location as part of a videographer’s toolkit. The DataVideo HDR-1 has an MSRP of only $499.00 vs. up to 10 times that for more traditional fixed installation “lecture capture appliances.” Granted, it can’t do all the things those more robust appliances can (we’ll be looking, for example, at the much more expensive Extron SMP 352 in a future post), but it’s definitely worth considering options such as the DataVideo HDR-1 when comparing your capture needs to the market as it is currently evolving.

 

 

The DataVideo HDR-1 has the following key features:

  • MSRP $499.00
  • Capture HD Video Up to 1080p30 up to 20Mbps
  • Records in MP4 (H.264+AAC)
  • Record/pause feature produces a single file even if there is a break in proceedings.
  • Simple front panel buttons
  • Integration with YouTube allows immediate uploading after a recording is complete
  • Redundant Power recorder (UPS), will switch to power bank charging when main power is off (with power bank connected)
  • Works without a PC
  • Record video to USB flash drive with NTFS file format (requires USB 3.0 thumb drive to have a write speed faster than 45 MB/s)
  • Instant & Timer Recording
  • GPI and RS-232 control supported
  • Support 3D video Recorder (Top-and-bottom, Side-by-side Half)
  • Built-in video Editor
  • HDMI 1.4b Compatibility

http://www.datavideo.com/us/product/HDR-1