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.

Enhance Your Next Video Conference Audience with Mentimeter

It’d be hard to find anyone in the past three months who hasn’t been a part of a video conference meeting, webinar, training session, symposium, graduation, book reading or even a cocktail party. With the increase in the use of video conferencing solutions like Zoom and WebEx, it’s great to add interactive and engaging tools that help elevate the user experience for both small and larger events.

I was a part of a large symposium last week where a word cloud was used. Even though word clouds aren’t new, it really stood out and was extremely effective. In this case, since there were thousands in attendance, the responses came in fast and the cloud grew quickly with the many different responses.

The tool used was Mentimeter and there are many positives about the product.

Pros:

  • The good news is there’s a free version available for educators and students that contains many attractive features, especially if you only want to use it occasionally.
    • Unlimited audience size
    • Unlimited presentations
    • Unlimited Quick Slides
    • Core question types
    • Q&A
    • Image and PDF export
    • 2 questions per presentation
    • 5 Quizzes per presentation
    • Help Center
  • There are multiple types of questions/layouts available besides word clouds, such as, multiple choice, open ended, scales, ranking, image choice and Q&A. This is great since most video conferencing solutions don’t have the variety available as part of the their built-in feature set.
  • Another plus is the ease of use. I set up an account and had a presentation created and launched in under 5 minutes without having to read documentation. 

Cons:

  • One downside I see is with the level of flexibility and customization that comes with the free version. The paid versions, for example, gives you the ability customize themes, logos, prevention of audience downloading the results, owning your data, importing of PowerPoint or Google presentations, etc.
  • Purchasing the Basic or Pro versions require a yearly subscription and can’t be purchased on a monthly basis.
  • There’s a limit to the number of questions and quizzes you can have in one presentation, therefore, if you need more than you’ll need to create additional presentations that’ll need to be launched separately.

Overall, it’s a simple and inexpensive way to add to your next video conference. 

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!

 

Kuando Busylight

Many businesses and universities have transitioned to open floorplans for staff. It’s efficient, flexible, and saves a considerable amount of money. But, for the employees, having unscheduled disruptions can be distracting, causing loss of work or worse, general fatigue. The Kuando Busylight hopes to resolve that issue by integrating a simple light to your daily workflow. It works in a few different ways. First, you can run the light in a manual process (self-selecting your color) to alert those around you of your availability. Perhaps green for available, red for “leave me alone,” and yellow for when you are on a break, and purple for “NO, REALLY, leave me alone!” Because the light inside is an RGB light, the device can create thousands of different color combinations. It runs off of a standard USB plug, no no extra power is needed. Simple and clean.

But, if you want to, you can integrate the device into a range of platforms. For example, the light also integrates with Microsoft Teams so it will automatically change color based on your availability. Also, in a call center, this might be a good way to keep tabs on your employees. As long as the office agrees to use the lights, it can work well.

During our testing, we found the device to be simple enough to get working in just a few minutes for basic availability sharing, yet sophisticated enough to properly integrate with Microsoft Teams and Zoom (both are Windows only).

But wait, there’s more!
The Kuando Busylight can also work with a Panopto appliance to show the status of the device. In our install, we’re testing a Matrox Maevex 6020 with Panopto. We plugged in the Busylight and to the Matrox box, and when a recording started, the light turned green. Literally, you just plug it into the USB port and it worked. Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but it’s nice to have that confirmation that the recorder is working. Well worth the very low price of the Busylight.

The Busylight comes in two different sizes, and both worked very well during our testing. My only input… make a Mac driver for Teams and Zoom 🙂

Google Jamboard Visits Duke

The Google Jamboard may not be newest technology to hit the market, officially announced in late 2016, but the 55″ 4K touchscreen still delivers a wonderfully playful experience in 2019. To start, the hardware “feels very Google” (well organized cables, stylish design, solid materials) and while I was a bit concerned about the two giant boxes the device shipped in, I had the entire system connected an running a software update in no time (granted, with the help of another person when connecting the display). The device is essentially a monitor/computer combo with a wide range of features.

The best way to describe the interaction is fun.

Pros:

  • The hardware is heavily rubberized and should withstand any normal office environment (no small feat)
  • It works seamlessly in the Google ecosystem (Google Drive, YouTube, etc.)
  • Working in a synchronous and asynchronous way, for large projects, is a breeze.
  • The handwriting recognition is amazing!
  • The touch screen is of a very high quality, with 16 points of touch and a 60Hz refresh rate
  • It’s cross platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. and it just works)

Cons:

  • At $4,999 (not including the $1,349 stand), it’s kinda expensive, not to mention the annual management and support fee of $600. [all MSRP]
  • The device works wonderfully in the Google ecosystem, but doesn’t necessarily work well with other environments (WebEx, Zoom, etc.). If you aren’t a Google shop… this may not be for you.
  • Like any technology, there is a learning curve… even for those inside of Google’s ecosystem on a regular basis.

So, what do I think?
If I worked in a smaller office environment (say 20-100 employees) and we were 100% a Google House (Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, etc.) I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this device. But, if you living in a mixed unified communications world, it’s a more difficult decision, especially with the likes of Microsoft and Zoom floating around.

Remote Directing With Zoom

I needed to produce a short video about my department’s role in building the new Karsh Alumni & Visitor’s Center at Duke. One problem, I was 3000 miles away from Durham. Zoom to the rescue. The producer for the project, Mich Donovan had the great idea of mounting his iPhone to the camera so that I could see pretty much what his camera was seeing and I was able to provide feedback in real time to the actors and Mich to make sure we got the shots we needed for the project. There were a few glitches when we went outside making sure we had cell service and almost running out of battery (next time we’ll have an external USB battery), but all in all it was a tremendous success.

Recording an Interview with Zoom

For one of our online courses, we wanted to include some video testimonials with former students to discuss how the class prepared them for the real world. The only problem was that some of former students we wished to talk to lived in California – not particularly conducive for a quick recording session in our studio on campus. Instead, we used the video conferencing tool Zoom to facilitate the call and I used Camtasia to do a screen recording of the interview. While the concept is simple, I found some tips that can make the execution feel a bit more professional.

First, the basics of remote video recording still apply. The subject sat at a desk that faced a window which provided a lot of natural light. It was also around 7am in his time zone so it was pretty quiet as well.

In some scenarios, to get the best possible video quality, I’ll ask the subject to record themselves with an application like Quicktime and then send me the video file. While this helps bypass the compression of streaming video and screen-capture, it comes with a couple drawbacks. First, I as the video producer don’t have direct control over the actual recording process which is a risk. Second, subjects are usually doing you a favor just by agreeing to the interview, and the less you ask of them the better.

Ruling this option out, there’s two other choices. Using Zoom’s built-in recording tool, or using a third-party screen capture tool like Camtasia. They each have their plusses and minuses. Zoom’s built-in tool allows the user to simply hit record within the interface and save the file either to their local computer or the cloud. This will generate both a video file and an audio-only file. However, if the meeting unexpectedly shuts down or the conversion process is interrupted, the recording files could become corrupted and non-recoverable. With Camtasia, the recording is isolated from the conferencing tool so I can better trust that it will record successfully, even if the call drops.

Recording with Camtasia does present another problem. If anything shows up on my screen, be it an email notification, or my mouse moving and activating the Zoom room tools, that is all recorded as well. Zoom’s local recording tool will capture just the video feed.

For the purposes of this video, I would just be showing the subject and would edit out the interviewer’s questions. For this reason, I wanted to make sure that Zoom only gave me the video feed of my subject and did not automatically switch video feeds based on who was talking, which it does by default as part of the Active Speaker layout. By using the Pin function, I can pin the subject’s video feed to my interface so that I will only be seeing the subject’s video, whether I record by screen capture or by local recording. This won’t affect other participants’ views, but it’s also important to note that it would not affect the cloud recording view either.

While facilitating the interview, I muted my microphone to ensure no accidental sounds might come from my end. And because we would be editing out the interviewer’s questions, we coached the subject to rephrase each question in his answer. For example, if we asked “Why is programming important to you?” the subject might start their response with “Programming is important to me because…”

Ultimately, it was just a simple matter of starting the video conference, pinning the subject’s video, and hitting record on Camtasia. From there I could just sit back while the interviewer and subject spoke. Like a lot of video production, proper planning and research will make your job a lot easier when it’s actually time to turn the camera on.

Meeting Owl Review

We had an opportunity to test the Meeting Owl from OwlLabs this past week and wanted to share our thoughts on this unique conference room technology. The $799 webcam, mic, and speaker all-in-one unit is intended to sit at the center of the conference room table. What makes the Meeting Owl worth nearly $800? If I were reviewing the device simply on the speaker and mic array, I’d say this isn’t all that exciting of an offering. There are plenty of <$200 mic/speaker combos that would perform as well or better. But, the Meeting Owl’s unique 360 camera at the top that makes the unit stand out from its peers.

When sharing video, the device segments the camera feed into zones. At the top, there is a side-to-side 360-degree view of the room, and below is either one, two or three “active speaker” zones intelligently selected by the Meeting Owl. So, when two people in the room start talking, the camera segments lower area of the camera feed to accommodate the conversation. Overall, we found the intelligence of the camera to be rather good. Infrequently, it would pause a bit too long on a speaker that had stopped talking, or incorrectly divided up the lower section, prioritizing the wrong person… but considering the alternative is physically moving the camera… it’s a nice feature that livens up the meeting experience.

Pros:

  • Incredibly easy to setup and configure (under 10 minutes)
  • 360 camera works as advertised
  • Good quality internal mics
  • Platform agnostic (works with Skype, WebEx, Zoom, Meetings, etc.)

Cons:

  • The image quality isn’t great (it’s a 720p sensor, so the sections are only standard definition, or worse, and it shows)
  • Split screen can be distracting when in overdrive (sometimes it moves too slowly, other times it seems to move too quickly… this may be improved with a firmware update)
  • At $799, OwlLabs is in the Logitech Meetup zone. While the products are rather different, each has their pros and cons depending upon the expectations of the user.

Closing Thoughts:

Overall, we enjoyed the product and can see it being deployed in a range of spaces. It also signals a new era in intelligent conferencing technologies. The local group at Duke that purchased the device also has plans to deploy this in a classroom where Zoom will be used for hybrid teaching sessions (some students local, others remote). It will be interesting to see how the far side reacts to the automated pan/tilt of the camera and if it can keep up with some of our most active faculty. My primary complaint about the device is that the image is too blurry. Also, the 360 lens tends to have the faces centered in the lower image area. Ideally, it would crop to a few inches above the top of the head of the active speakers(s). Perhaps we’ll see an HD or 4K version in the future that addresses a few of these shortcomings.

Zoom Room TV Control – A CEC Story

One energy-saving feature of Zoom Room is Zoom Rooms Operation Time. This feature allows the room administrator to schedule business hours for an organization, say 8am to 5pm. During regular hours, the Zoom Room display(s), control interface, and scheduling panel will operate as normal. But, when the business (or university in our case) is outside the operational hours, the control device (usually an iPad or Android device) and scheduling display will dim to conserve energy and expand device longevity. Also, the display(s) will turn off during this period. The one catch is that the computer and monitors must support CEC (Consumer Electronic Control), and not all do. In fact, Macs don’t support CEC control over HDMI.

So, what do you do when your computer connection doesn’t support CEC? Simple, you buy some dongles! Zoom details this process (with details regarding the hardware setup) on their website, but in essence, you’ll need to configure the display (or displays… as Zoom Room can accommodate up to 3 screens) as seen below using a USB – HDMI-CEC Adapter by Pulse-Eight and a Lindy HDMI CEC Less Adapter by Lindy.

While this does add to the overall cost of the hardware design, it will more than pay for itself over the life of the install.

 

Classroom Conversations – 2018 Edition

Due to the joyous snow conditions around Durham, Classroom Conversations 2018 technically took place in… 2019. Classroom Conversations, a Duke Digital Media Community (DDMC) session to recap and explore 2018-2019 classroom technology trends focused on two main topics, active learning and Zoom. While these topics may sound somewhat dissimilar, it was interesting to see how the two topics overlapped in many ways.

Jim Daigle, Director, IT, Pratt School of Engineering, started the conversation off with a recap of their research and development of active learning with regards to how it may be implemented at their new building, currently under construction. Overall, the consensus seems to be that active learning means different things to different people and needs to be faculty-driven to succeed. Jim cautioned that it’s somewhat easy to build advanced AV systems capable of active learning, but that if the faculty’s curriculum is incompatible with the more advanced AV configuration, the overall satisfaction with the environment will be poor.

Ed Gomes Jr., Senior Associate Dean, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, mirrored many of Jim Daigle’s comments, highlighting that active learning isn’t AV exclusive. “You could create an active learning environment with whiteboards and flexible furniture,” highlighting a common misconception that active learning is directly tied to advanced AV.

To bring the session to a close, Tim Searles, Director, Fuqua School of Business Multimedia provided an overview of how they have deployed Zoom and Zoom Rooms in a few select teaching environments. Tim’s team has painstakingly engineered Zoom and Zoom Rooms into a hybrid configuration where students are offered the flexibility of attending class sessions in person or via Zoom. As with active learning, Tim conveyed that the best AV solution is one where the faculty member is comfortable enough with the environment where the technology starts to disappear, and they can “just teach.” Also mirroring active learning, Tim mentioned that Zoom is capable of so much, but that designing the space in a way that mirrors the natural teaching environment (placement of monitors, sound configurations, etc.) are a key component to success.

We’re looking forward to a strong year and can’t wait for Classroom Conversations 2019.