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. 

Ultra-Cheap HDMI to USB Capture Device

In the golden age of AV, when confronted with the joyous task of converting an HDMI signal to something a local computer could easily ingest, you would simply fork out $2,500+ on a proper 1U device that would elegantly make that digital transition with ease, and call it a day. The single-purpose device was robust, came with dozens of features and capabilities (many of which weren’t utilized in the higher education market), and would work well for five to seven years with minimal issues (except for the faculty and staff that would tinker with the settings – which I’ve been guilty of!). This is during an era when HDMI to USB conversion was a luxury, reserved for those with deep pockets.

But, during the past 3-4 years, we’ve seen the rise of HDMI to USB dongles. Generally speaking, these dongles were much less expensive (usually in the $500 to $300 range), offered fewer features, and generally worked well. But, they were still $300+ and not something most technicians felt comfortable simply handing to a faculty, staff, or student in fear of the device going missing.

Enter 2020… and Amazon seems to be awash with this very inexpensive HDMI to USB thumb-drive style devices, listed under multiple manufacturers (usually not a good sign). Willing to roll the dice on a $32 purchase, my supervisor gave me permission to test the device. To my surprise, IT WORKED! I plugged it in, and the device was immediately recognized as “USB Camera” in Quicktime, Zoom, etc. by using the universal UVC (USB video device class) driver that ships with all modern Mac and PC computers, no driver software needed!

To check compatibility, I threw some oddball hardware at it to see how it would respond. First, I connected my aging Canon 5D MkIII DSLR at it, and it performed well. This is how good a proper DSLR can look in Zoom.

I then connected a game console to the device, and sure enough, it worked! I kept the connection alive for a few hours, and the image never dropped.

Conclusion:
So, do I completely trust this device? Maybe… it hasn’t failed me yet, but it was only $32, and it should cost $300! It’s hard to wrap your mind around such a device when the cost is so low. “There must be something wrong with it!” I keep thinking to myself. That said, I’m probably not going to recommend it as a complete replacement for our more reputable dongles for the foreseeable future. That said, this does make a nice device for testing or possibly handing out to faculty/staff/students to try in unique setups.

Here is my shortlist of Pros/Cons:

Pros:

  • It works!
  • The video quality looks great
  • It’s incredibly flexible for situations where you would like to capture a higher-end video camera, document camera, etc. Anything with an HDMI out!
  • Audio also seems to work (but honestly, I’d like to spend some additional time testing how robust the audio capabilities are).
  • It is C-H-E-A-P!!!

Cons:

  • My main beef with the device is that I don’t like “hard” dongles connected to my desktop. AKA, I wish it had a flexible USB connector between the device and my laptop to allow for some flex. It acts as a perfect lever and could damage your computer if directly connected and someone pulls on the HDMI cable. This wasn’t an issue as I was using my MacBook Pro dongle to connect the device
  • It’s “only” 1080p – 30 fps or 720p/60fps (no 4K here!)
  • The latency is surprisingly good for $32, but it’s not amazing
  • If you are buying this to stream games… you may want to spend the extra money
  • The HDMI to USB processing happens on your computer (some more expensive dongles perform the processing on the dongle, freeing up those extra processing cycles for your computer. This WAS a big deal, but modern computers have the extra bandwidth)
  • It’s USB 2.0, so the image quality is somewhat limited to USB 2.0 speeds, but it also works with older devices, so perhaps this is a pro?

Purchase Location: Amazon

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!

 

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.