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!

 

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.

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.

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.

HP Sprout Pro G2

HP visited Duke’s Technology Engagement Center (TEC) this morning to provide an overview of their Sprout Pro G2. Describing the Sprout is a tricky thing to do considering the unique capabilities of the device. As HP was quick to mention, there really isn’t anything else like Sprout on the market, and until seeing it function, I assumed they were exaggerating… I was wrong.

At the heart of the system is a robust all-in-one Windows 10 computer (i7 processor, advanced graphics, 16GB of RAM, wireless keyboard/mouse, etc.), all the things you’d expect in a higher-end computer. What makes the Sprout unique is that it has built-in dual screens, one consisting of a traditional monitor and the other being a downward facing projector. The projector projects on a touch sensitive pad (HP calls it the Touch Mat) that easily connects to the base of the unit. The device defaults to extended desktop (one on top of the other), which can take a moment for novice users to fully understand. Both screens are touch sensitive, but the Touch Mat can also be used in conjunction with a stylus, and is a joy to use with minimal lag and various levels of pressure sensitivity. It does feel like you are writing on paper. If HP had stopped here with the Sprout, I’d have been impressed. It would have been a nice classroom computer with touch surfaces, annotation, and a document camera built in.

But wait, there is more… in 3D! The Sprout Pro G2 also offers up 3D scanning in two flavors. The first is a “quick scan” mode where you take an object and hold it under the projector. As you run the software and slowly rotate the object, the computer begins to create a 3D model of the item. The scull that HP provided worked very well, but some other items at the TEC didn’t scan as well (perhaps because of their symmetric nature, reflective material, etc). These scans are ideal for simply creating 3D objects for viewing on a computer or virtual environment, and not really for 3D printing.

The second method of scanning is considerably more accurate, using the 14-megapixel camera, but can be a bit more time consuming. In software, you set the level of accuracy you are looking to achieve, and the device scans the item over multiple captures. The level of accuracy was impressive.

No digital media demo would be complete without a few minor hiccups that HP identified as either an issue with a piece of software, our demo unit, or was an update on the near horizon. For example, we weren’t able to share the content from the projector to the TEC monitor. But, HP assured us that this was an issue with our unit.

As with all well-supported technologies, the Sprout Pro G2 receives regular updates, so it will be interesting to see where this device is in 2-6 months. I’d also be interested to see how well this device would perform in a classroom environment. Overall, this is a very interesting piece of technology, especially considering the took place at Duke’s Technology Engagement Center, the de facto hub for all things 3D in the area.

Vaddio Visits the TEC

Earlier this month, Vaddio (now a division of Milestone AV Technologies as of April 2016) visited the TEC to provide an in-depth technical overview of their new RoboTRAK camera tracking system. The system, used in combination with many existing Vaddio cameras, functions by tracking a lanyard worn by the subject. When worn, the camera pans and tilts to follow the subject based on a wide range of technician configurable variables. Setup seemed straightforward, and the Vaddio team was able to have a functioning demo unit configured in under thirty minutes. The base tracking configuration seemed smooth and consistent. Beyond the standard system the RoboTRAK also allows classroom AV integration to further expand the in-room user-serviceable configuration. For example, with a bit of code added to your classroom AV system, the tracking could easily be disabled by default, requiring the guest to turn the tracking on for their sessions. Also, the technician could add “scenes” to the AV system to provide unique tracking capabilities, or to interface directly with the room. Needless to say, it’s very configurable.

Vaddio also showcased their ConferenceSHOT AV, a comprehensive camera, speaker, and microphone huddle-room AV package. The system has the ability to add two mic inputs, good video quality and a surprisingly high quality speaker that could be used in combination with a monitor or TV.

Finally, Vaddio provided a deep dive on the streaming capabilities of many of these devices and how they can be configured to meet a wide range of needs.

 

Say Hello to Solaborate’s Hello

Oh Kickstarter… how you love to torment us.ddmc_hello_2

 

Most AV technicians know that the world of software based video conferencing is rapidly expanding. Every tech company seems to have some form of home-grown video conferencing. Google has Hangouts and Duo, Microsoft (now) has Skype and Lync… I mean Skype for Business, Facebook has Messenger with video calling, Adobe has Connect, Cisco has WebEx, Apple has Facetime, and that’s the short list of conferencing connections we are asked to support.

Enter Solaborate
Solaborate has launched an interesting Kickstarter project called Hello. Basically, Hello acts as an endpoint for their Solaborate service, providing:

  • Video conferencing
  • Wireless screen sharing
  • Live broadcasting
  • Security surveillance with motion detection and more.

What caught my attention is that Solaborate plans to add Skype, Messenger, Hangouts, and WebEx support if they reach their $300,000 stretch goal. Considering they currently have $225,905 pledged on their original goal of $30,000, with 16 days to go, they may just make it. It’s important to note that this is a Kickstarter project… so take some or most of this with a grain of salt. But, if Hello lives up to the hype, it could be a very interesting device for small meeting spaces.

Follow Solaborate’s Hello Kickstarter at: https://goo.gl/3QwB55

Biamp Expands Devio with Ceiling Microphone Option

This past spring, Biamp Systems announced a new collaboration tool for huddle rooms and small meeting spaces called Devio. The system, ideal for “bring your own device” (BYOD) spaces, integrates Biamp’s high quality microphones and acoustic eco cancelation (AEC) technologies with USB webcams and displays. Devio is uniquely suited for integrating small spaces with soft codecs such as Skype, WebEx, and Google Hangouts.
ddmc_devio_mic

Devio originally shipped with a single table-top microphone option. While the mic itself was of a good quality, table-top mics and university environments generally don’t mix (soda: 1 – table-top mic: 0). But, this past week, Biamp added a ceiling microphone option to the Devio lineup.You can also add a second ceiling mic, for large or uniquely shaped rooms.

Learn more about Biamp Deviao at: https://www.biamp.com/devio-unified-communications-collaboration-tool-for-huddle-rooms

Producing Higher Quality Self-Service Recordings

So, you can’t afford to hire a professional videographer to produce your videos. But you still care about quality and want your videos to look and sound as good as they possibly can. There are a few things you can do:

  1. Use better cameras and microphones. Take a step up from the built-in camera and microphone on your laptop. It’s amazing what a difference just using simple USB peripheral devices can make!
    • Cameras: There are lots of great–and inexpensive–USB cameras to choose from. One popular and highly tested option is the Logitech C920, which retails for about $100.00. For a higher quality option, we like the $300.00 Cisco Precision HD, which has a longer focal length that makes faces look more flattering. Like a good quality portrait lens on an SLR, it tends to flatten faces out and has less of a fish-eye effect that makes noses look big. The Precision HD also has great color.  One great thing about external cameras is that you can move them around. Take care in positioning the camera, paying attention to the background. Don’t point the camera directly at a light source, such as a window. It’s best to angle the camera slightly down–i.e., perched on your laptop screen or monitor, instead of up at your face from a table. The image below shows a comparison between the Cisco Precision HD (left) and the built-in iSight camera on a MacBook Pro (right). For both of these shots I used fill light from the LitePanels MicroPro mentioned below.

cam_comparison

  • Microphones: For a room where you might want to record multiple people, the Phoenix Duet (about $150.00 is a great option. For simple one-person narration, one great possibility is the Samson C01U Pro, which retails for about $110.00. You can also consider a low-cost wired lav microphone such as the Audio-Technica ATR-3350 (about $25.00).
    CO1U_Pro_HO-display
  1. Use a light. Lights are getting cheaper and more powerful, and you can find a variety on Amazon for under $150.00, such as the Yongnuo YN-600 600LED, which is currently being used by the production team at Duke  that produces videos for Coursera. Duke OIT has also tested the original LitePanels MicroPro, which is no longer available. It is fantastic, but the followup version, the Litepanels MicroPro 2, is a bit expensive at $349.00 list.
  2. Record in high quality. Spend a little time working with the quality settings in the application you’re using to record. One great option for self-service recordings is DukeCapture Mobile, which uses the the Panopto Windows and Mac recording software. In the Windows Recorder, this setting is a radio button on the main recording screen (see below). We generally recommend using the option that says “High.” (1024×600 pixels at 1000kbps). If you need full 720p video, the “Ultra” setting will produce that.
    Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 1.49.11 PM
  3. Use a studio. There are many production studios nested in schools and departments across campus, so you should check with your local AV or IT group to see if there is one near you. One great central option is the MPS Video Suite in the OIT Multimedia Project Studio (006 Bostock). It contains tools for recording video such as Camtasia and QuickTime, and has a green screen and black curtain to use as backdrops. For recording just audio, you can book the the MPS Audio Suite in the same location. It provides professional quality microphones to allow up to two people to record audio in a sound controlled environment using Garageband, Audacity, or Logic. Use of the audio suite is available by reservation or walk-in. You can also book the sound booth in the OIT Media Lab at American Tobacco.
    The screenshot below is from a webinar by Panopto staff in which you can see the contrast between quality video and poor quality webcam video (click on the image for a larger version). The video of the presenter was shot in a simple studio, where production values were taken into consideration. The video on the right is shot in an office without concern for quality. As you can see, things like lighting and camera angle make a big difference!
    Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 12.59.05 PM
  4. Practice! While all of these technologies are great, practice is something that doesn’t cost anything but your time, and it will enhance your videos tremendously. You will see that the 5th or 6th video you produce will be much better quality than your first, so be critical of yourself and keep practicing – it will keep getting better!

Panasonic Fall Tech Tour – 10/27/15 9am-3pm

The Panasonic Fall Tech Tour is underway and will be in Raleigh next Tuesday 10/27 and Atlanta on Wednesday 11/4.  This will be a great opportunity to see some of our newest technology – including laser projectors, video walls, interactive displays and large screen 4K displays.  Please be sure to register by clicking on the link below.  Also – please invite others who you think would like to attend.  The event will run from 9 AM – 3 PM – breakfast and lunch will be provided.  For locations and more details, please click on the Register Now button below.  Hope to see you there!
Register Now
Steve Schwarz
Area Sales Manager-Higher Education
Panasonic System Communications Company of North America
C: 201-423-3778