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.

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.

Logitech Rally – Sneak Peek

Logitech offered a sneak peek at their soon-to-be-released Rally USB-connected video conferencing solution. While Logitech has had somewhat similar offerings in the past (ie. Logitech Group), the Rally is a bit of a game changer as it competes more directly with the likes of Cisco, Extron, and Crestron in the mid-sized conference room AV hardware environment.

Out of the box, the $1999 Logitech Rally kit has two hubs, one that would sit behind the display(s) and one that would be mounted under a table or in a rack. The two hubs are connected by a single Cat 6 cable that can be ~50 meters long. The table hub sports two HDMI inputs, a USB connection for a laptop/desktop, and a connection for the mic pod (you can have up to seven mic pods connected to the system). The display hub has a connection for the pan/tilt/zoom camera, one (or two speakers, depending upon your configuration) and two HDMI outputs for the displays. So, for under $2K, you have all the AV hardware, minus the displays and computers, you need for a reasonably large conference room or teaching space. Combine the Rally with WebEx, Skype for Business, Zoom Rooms, and you have an impressive turnkey AV solution for under ~$7K.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Rally overcomes a significant limitation of USB. Most “slower” USB devices have a length limitation of 5 meters (just shy of 16.5′) and for high-speed devices (ie, the PTZ camera in this configuration), it’s 3 meters (or under 10′). Once you factor in the table and monitor height, that doesn’t give you much to work with. But, the Rally uses a Cat 6 cable between the pods, so you have a considerably more flexible system, while still using standard USB.

Here is a quick sketch of what a dual-screen Logitech Rally Zoom Room might look like.

Again, this was a pre-release Logitech Rally, so we look forward to getting our hands on a shipping unit in the coming months, but we will be keeping an eye on the platform.

October 2018 Adobe Creative Cloud Update Part 1: Adobe Premiere Pro

It’s fall, pumpkin spice is in the air, the holidays are Christmas decorations are going up, and software giant has just released updates to their entire Creative Cloud suite of applications.  Because the updates are so extensive, I’ve decided to do a multi-part series of DDMC entries that focuses on the new changes in detail for Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop/Lightroom, and a new app Premiere Rush.  I just downloaded Rush today to my phone to put it through it’s paces so I’m saving that application for last but my first rundown of Premiere Pro’s new features is ready to go!

END TO END VR 180

Premiere Pro supports full native video editing for 180 VR content with the addition of a virtual screening room for collaboration.  Specific focal points can be tagged and identified in the same way you would in your boring 2D content.  Before you had to remove your headset to do any tagging but now you can keep your HMD (Head Mounted Display) on and keep cutting.  I’m just wetting my feet with VR but I can see how this could revolutionize the workflow for production houses integrating VR into their production workflow.  Combined with the robust networking features in Premiere Pro and symbiotic nature of the Adobe suite of applications this seems like a nice way to work on VR projects with a larger collaborative scope.

DISPLAY COLOR MANAGEMENT

Adobe has integrated a smart new feature that takes some of the guesswork out of setting your editing station color space.  Premiere Pro can now establish the color space of your particular monitor and adjust itself accordingly to compensate for color irregularities across the suite.  Red stays red no matter if it’s displayed in Premiere Pro, After Effects, or Photoshop!

INTELLIGENT AUDIO CLEANUP

Premiere Pro can now scan your audio and clean it up using two new sliders in the Essential Sound panel.  DeNoise and DeReverb allow you to remove background audio and reverb from your sound respectively.  Is it a replacement for quality sound capture on site?  No.  But it does add an extra level of simplicity that I’ve only experienced in Final Cut Pro so I’m happy about this feature.

PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENTS

Premiere Pro is faster all around but if you’re cutting on a Mac you should experience a notable boost due to the new hardware based endcoding and decoding for H.264 and HEVC codecs.  Less rendering time is better rendering time.

SELECTIVE COLOR GRADING

Lumetri Color tools and grades are becoming more fine tuned.  This is a welcome addition as Adobe discontinued Speedgrade and folded it into Premiere Pro a while ago.  All your favorite Lumetri looks still remain but video can be adjusted to fit the color space of any still photo or swatch you like.  Colors can also be isolated and targeted for adjustment which is cool if you want to change a jacket, eye, or sky color.

EXPANDED FORMAT SUPPORT

Adobe Premiere now supports ARRI Alexa LF, Sony Venice V2, and the HEIF (HEIC) capture format used by iPhone 8 and iPhone X.

DATA DRIVEN INFOGRAPHICS

Because of the nature of my work as a videographer for an institution of higher education this feature actually has me the most excited.  Instrutional designers are constantly looking for ways to “jazz up” their boring tables into something visually engaging.  Now there is a whole slew of visual options with data driven infographic.  All you have to provide is the data in spreadsheet form then you can drag and drop in on one of the many elegant templates to build lower thirds, animated pie charts, and more.  It’s a really cool feature I plan to put through it’s paces on a few projects in place of floating prefabricated pie charts.

All these new additions make Adobe Premiere Pro a solid one stop editing platform but combined with the rest of the Adobe suite, one can easily see the endless pool of creative options that make it an industry standard!

Stay tuned for Part II:  Adobe Rush!

DISH Network SlingStudio DDMC Visit

DISH Network visited the Duke’s Technology Engagement Center (TEC) this past week to showcase their SlingStudio offering. The best way to describe the SlingStudio, in terms of the environment, is a disruptive multi-camera video production ecosystem focused on entry-level to mid-sized productions, the sweet spot of higher education. Historically, producing and streaming a multi-camera event was expensive (as in $10,000 plus expensive), complicated on both a hardware and software level and usually required 2-3 people to pull off even the most rudimentary event. The SlingStudio re-norms those expectations.

The $999 SlingStudio Hub acts as the heart of the system, allowing a user to hard connect one HDMI input and a range of mobile devices (such as an iPhone) to act as alternative inputs. If you’re interested in adding higher-end cameras (DSLR or consumer/prosumer/pro video cameras) you’ll need a $349 SlingStudio CameraLink per camera to connect to the system. Up to ten devices can be added to the platform for a multi-camera event. And, if you’re interested in going mobile, a $149 battery is available.

The software is incredibly easy to use. Having only seen YouTube demos of the interface, I was able to start switching content within minutes… more like seconds. You can simply drag the content you see to the live window, and boom… it switches. The best part is, the SlingStudio Console App walks a fine line between offering a simple user interface and an interface professionals will appreciate. SlingStudio elegantly hides advanced features away… but they are still a part of the platform. Groups that film multi-camera events, where they edit the footage in post-production, can look at this system as a means of significantly reducing the time necessary to get their content to the public, a key advantage in our SEO world, not to mention being “done” with an event.

With such an expansive ecosystem, it’s impossible to detail every aspect of the platform. That said, DISH Network indicated that they would be happy to offer up a demo unit for further testing. If we find the right event, we’ll make sure to post our findings. It’s an exciting time to be AV and marketing fields.

Elgato Link Cam

I’m always a little surprised when an inexpensive piece of AV that I’ve been secretly lusting after actually delivers on the audio and video goodness I seek. Elgato was nice enough to send us a demo unit of their Cam Link that I mentioned in a previous post. The Elgato Cam Link has one core function, and if you understand what it’s designed to do, it performs that function exceptionally well. Oh, and did I mention it’s cheap!

Every AV technician has been asked, “Why can’t I use my fancy new [insert $500+ camcorder or DLSR (with HDMI output)] with WebEx, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, GoToMeeting, etc.? Simple… because you need an HDMI to USB converter… and it’s not as simple as adding a $4 cable from Monoprice (for now). Until the Cam Link arrived on the market, that conversion process was either rather expensive at $300+ or complicated by the requirement of special drivers or software. The Cam Link is considerably more consumer focused in both price and ease of use.

So, what does Elgato’s device do?
In essence, the Cam Link takes an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) signal and converts it to a UVC (USB Video Class) friendly output. So, you can connect an HDMI output from a higher end video camera, AV system, gaming system, laptop, etc. to this device, and the Cam Link will output the video and audio over USB to a computer. And because the Cam Link is UVC compliant, it functions without additional drivers with Windows, Mac, and Linux. Now, this functionality has been around for some time, but at a price… both financial and technical.

There have been a number of articles written about this device from a consumer electronics and gaming perspective, so I’ll focus on how the Cam Link could be used in higher education. I see this device being ideal for:

  • Improving your WebEx, Facebook Live, YouTube, Skype Sessions
    If you are looking to upgrade from a webcam, this is your device. You’ll be able to connect many consumer and professional cameras to the Elgato Cam Link (anything from a GoPro to a $5K+ Sony camera should work wonderfully). You will immediately notice an image quality improvement. Also, depending upon your camera, it may improve and/or simplify your audio capture options (I’ll leave that for another post).
  • Simple Video Conversion
    Yep, occasionally AV techs are asked to make backups (with permission) of VHS cassettes for use in a classroom. If you can find a VHS cassette player with HDMI out (a few now have 1080p upscaling built in). You may be able to throw away that old clunky capture device for good!
  • Content Capture
    I actually used the Cam Link to capture an iPad and iPhone signal for demo purposes, using a dongle, to my MacBook Pro. While not the primary reason to buy the device, it was nice that it had a number of alternative uses. But the Cam Link could also capture connect from a document camera, microscope, gaming system, etc.
  • AV Testing
    Many AV technicians regularly find themselves needing to connect an AV system for testing (“Are we receiving a signal?”). Lugging around a monitor and looking for power isn’t awesome. So, a technician could simply use the Cam Link, connected to their laptop, to check an HDMI output.

I should mention that the device is dangerously ultra portable, resembling a oversized USB thumb drive, so the “walk off” factor is high. It has one HDMI input, one USB output, and a single LED light that indicates that it’s receiving power from the USB drive (so no external power needed). Second, the device only works with a few of the most common HDMI resolutions, so not EVERY camera that supports HDMI will work with this device. ‘d say that about 80%+ of all video cameras should be compatible, but may require that you adjust the camera’s HDMI output. Finally, this device won’t capture High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) protected content, so if you think this is the perfect device to copy Blu-ray movies (or even a MacBook Pro in some situations)… think again. You’ll simply get a blank screen.

The Fine Print
The only gotcha I noticed is that the Elgato Cam Link crashed once (technically lost signal) in the 4+ hours of testing (a quick reboot resolved the issue). Not a critical concern, but something to consider.