Presentation Systems

Control Freak

Got interactive whiteboards and control podia? Watch out: They're about to become obsolete. Here's the inside track on the new super-interactive electronic boards and New Age presentation podia --the ultimate in AV/IT control.

Control FreakTHE HOTTEST TECHNOLOGY trends in higher ed today can be boiled down to two roughly converse capabilities: the delivery of time- and space-shifted instruction to individual students (think podcasts), and the coordination of disparate-source content within the classroom, for enriched group experiences. The first is taking advantage of existing, mostly consumer-oriented platforms such as iPods, web browsers, and PDAs. But the second is driving innovation in two distinct product categories--electronic whiteboards and audio-visual (AV) control systems--whose feature sets are growing, and even beginning to overlap.

"College classrooms have undergone great changes because of computers and the internet," says Randal Lemke, executive director of InfoComm International, the nonprofit association of the AV communications industry. "They now have an amazing array of resources available from the web, content servers, DVDs, and other media, and even other classrooms. But you have to be able to display all of that; manage and interact with it. There's a real need to pull it all together, and that's making higher education the second largest vertical market in our association."

Control FreakAccording to a November 2005 InfoComm study, colleges and universities increasingly see classroom tech as an investment rather than an expense, because of its ability to attract students. Highlighting that growing understanding of classroom tech as competitive edge, the rate at which colleges and universities outfitted their classrooms with AV systems doubled between 2000 and 2005, the study found. InfoComm expects that growth to continue at a rate of 25 to 30 percent per year until at least the year 2010. (The association is set to offer updated statistics at the upcoming InfoComm '07 trade show, June 15-21 in Anaheim, CA.)

Those statistics don't surprise K. Watson Harris, director of academic technology planning and projects at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. "Both students and parents expect the latest technology to be there," she says. "Not only do the students use it to learn the course material, but they gain valuable, marketable skills in the technology itself--in high-end presentation tools, collaborative multimedia interaction, and podcast creation-- and they even gain some experience through simulated case studies and serious games. A couple of projectors and a PowerPoint presentation won't cut it today."

Control FreakIn fact, Harris spends much of her time looking for and road-testing the latest classroom technology. MTSU spends nearly $5 million a year on instructional technologies, and Harris administers those funds; using them to, among other things, try out new products in a special classroom housed in the school's Honors College.

"It's used as a showcase; kind of an experimental lab to introduce ideas to the faculty and the brightest students," she explains. The Honors College provides a "small university experience" within the 23,000-student MTSU campus, Harris says, "so we experiment. If we can introduce new technology in the Honors College, we can see where the demands are and introduce it into our regular classrooms."

Interactive Whiteboards: Morph and Dazzle

FOCUS ON THUNDER

PolyVision's Thunder takes the whiteboard concept and enhances it with a host of computing and collaboration capabilities. The digital flipchart accepts input from stylus, finger, or digital source, and controls multiple 'pages' that can be projected onto nearby walls. Images can be shared, annotated, saved, recalled, displayed, or e-mailed.

Last year, MTSU began testing PolyVision's Thunder Virtual Flipchart System, an innovative electronic whiteboard designed to accept input from just about any source, including laptops, scanned images, and video. The project was really something of a beta test, Harris says, because MTSU was the first university in the country to use the product.

POLYVISION'S THUNDER

POLYVISION'S THUNDER turns a presentation area into a wall of virtual flipcharts for collaboration.

"We were looking for cutting-edge technology," she says. "We wanted something that would encourage students to be actively involved, to do their own research, collaborate on that research, and then be able to bring it back into the classroom and share it. Thunder just makes that a natural."

The Thunder Virtual Flipchart System might be thought of as a super-interactive whiteboard, but execs at Suwanee, GAbased PolyVision prefer not to use that term and, indeed, it's fair to say that Thunder is a category-defining product.

"A whiteboard is a presentation tool," says PolyVision operations manager Gwen Dubois, who prefers to think of Thunder as a "global collaboration tool with presentation capabilities." She explains, "A whiteboard has one window of information, while Thunder provides multiple windows. It's really not the same thing at all."

In truth, Thunder takes the whiteboard concept and enhances it with a whole host of computing and collaboration capabilities. At the center of the system is a "group easel," which serves as the digital flipchart. The easel accepts stylus input (a finger works, too) and controls multiple "pages" that can be projected onto nearby walls. It accepts input from virtually any digital source: servers, local laptops, scanners, DVDs. All images can be shared, annotated, saved, recalled, displayed, and distributed via e-mail. And the images can be shared in real time with other Thunder setups anywhere in the world.

Still, the advent of Thunder doesn't mean that the more traditional electronic whiteboards are going away; they're just acquiring features. For example, one of the best-known electronic whiteboard manufacturers, Smart Technologies, is billing its latest offering, the Smart Board 600i, as "a complete classroom media management solution." The system combines an interactive whiteboard with a projector and an audio system. But it also allows users to connect up to six external media sources (computers, VCRs, DVD players, or document cameras) to an extended connection panel, creating a kind of central media hub. Users can switch among inputs from these devices using the interactive whiteboard's on-screen menu. The whiteboard capabilities allow users to write over video or any input connected to the system. And these notes can be saved to a USB storage device.

Thunder's collaboration capabilities definitely set the product apart, but the way it and the 600i unite the old-school markup features of whiteboards (what InfoComm's Lemke characterizes as "the room to scribble") with a central manager of content sources, is catching on in another product category, as well.

Ultimate Control at the Podium

FOCUS ON SMART

The Smart Technologies system combines an interactive whiteboard with a projector and an audio system, and allows users to connect up to six external media sources, switching among inputs via the interactive whiteboard's on-screen menu. Users can write over video or any input connected to the system, and notes can be saved to a USB storage device.

"There's now a real demand for the ability to annotate or draw on top of whatever information is being displayed," says Mike Carter, director of technical sales at control and automation technology company AMX, who explains that the capability is now built into all of the vendor's touchpanels. The touchpanel interfaces are present in many of the company's AV control consoles, which consolidate controls for groups of computers, projectors, media players, document cameras, streaming media sources, and monitors. The product line also includes a series of personal digital media servers designed to store, manage, and distribute digital audio and video.

At Crestron Electronics, AMX's nearest competitor, touchpanels interface--via electronicwhiteboard- like capabilities--with the company's AV control systems. Crestron's MediaMarker, for one, enables real-time annotation over still images, computer graphics, live video, and even streaming media, directly from the touchpanel display. And touchpanel graphics can be output to an external display, along with speech audio (from the built-in microphone) and stereo program audio.

You see the ability to pull in content from anywhere, and then mark it up, appearing in both the new AMX and Crestron systems. -- Alfred Poor, Pacific Media Associates

"The common thread [among these products] is their ability to control the presentation environment, whether it's the AV control podium or the whiteboard," observes Alfred Poor, senior research associate at high-tech market research and publishing firm Pacific Media Associates. "You see this ability to pull in content from anywhere, and then mark it up, appearing in both systems. This is a popular feature in schools and corporate meeting spaces, because those environments generate a lot of ad hoc content. People come up with ideas; they brainstorm. Teachers and students interact with each other, and you want to be able to capture some of that."

But that doesn't mean that the presenter must be glued to a lectern at the front of any one room or space, or wired to the network, for that matter. Notably, PolyVision offers the Walk-and-Talk Cordless Lectern, an AV controller on wheels. In podium-based control stations, the podia (which are actually lecterns, but carry the now industrystandard misnomer) house computers connected to local area networks, and various media players linked to projectors and sound systems in the classrooms. But the PolyVision product comes equipped with a touchpanel interface that accepts stylus input, remote controls designed to allow users to control computer applications from any point in the room, an eight- to 10-hour rechargeable battery capable of powering two devices, and wireless capability. (The MTSU Honors classroom is equipped with a PolyVision Walk-and-Talk Cordless lectern.)

Predictably, as the AV controller makers squeeze more and more functionality into their products, expect to see them sporting larger touchpanels, Carter says. The demand for the annotation capabilities, in particular, is forcing AMX, for one, to expand its "control surface." The company's Modero touchpanel line, for example, now includes a 17-inch version (in addition to its 15-, 12-, 10-, 8.4-, 7.5-, 7-, and 5-inch Modero offerings). The Modero VG Series widescreen touchpanel can display RGB and component video sources, analog stereo audio, streaming MPEG-2 digital video and audio, and network video. It uses industry-standard Ethernet connectivity for both wired and wireless networking.

To Centralize, or Not?

One trend that seems to be contributing to the evolution in both whiteboards and AV controllers is the move in a growing number of schools to a centralized content-management architecture.

"They're looking at standardizing the technology so they can grow and add capabilities as they need them," says AMX's Carter. "The concept of a handful of classrooms with AV control technology in them is a thing of the past. Now it's virtually every classroom on campus. At larger schools, you're talking about hundreds of classrooms." Though Carter would of course be thrilled to see his company's products in every classroom on every campus, he is not exaggerating the campus interest in centralized control. In fact, for Ernie Bailey, director of audiovisual services in the Office of Academic Services at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, the most useful AV controller innovation of recent years is remote administration--a feature now offered by both Creston and AMX.

"Remote access to the equipment allows me to better manage the technology," Bailey says. "I can check how many hours [the control podium] has been turned on, which buttons are being pushed, and which features are being used. I might notice, for instance, that none of the presenters are using the VCRs, so when I design a new room, I might leave that piece of equipment out of the mix."

FOCUS ON CONTROLLER STANDARDS

Cornell's Greg Bronson is one of the driving forces behind an InfoComm-sponsored Dashboard for Controls initiative to encourage system integrators to provide AV controller interfaces with a consistent look and feel. Supporters believe that operation of a professionally installed AV presentation system should be as easy as driving a car. 'Why should AV controller interfaces be any different?' he asks.

For its part, Crestron offers the RoomView software package with its systems. RoomView provides remote control, monitoring, and resourcemanagement capabilities; it presents a "big-picture view" of a campus' entire presentation setup. Administrators and support staff can use it to perform remote system diagnostics, track the usage of projector lamps, log network activity, and automate tasks through event scheduling. The program even allows administrators to lock out selected rooms remotely, to prevent unauthorized use of TVs, CD players, and other AV equipment. Crestron systems now come with a basic version of RoomView, which supports 25 rooms; an enterprise edition, available for a fee, supports hundreds of rooms and unlimited users.

For system monitoring and maintenance, AMX's Resource Management Suite software includes the Classroom- Manager application, designed to provide real-time system monitoring of equipment status, power usage, and projector lamp hours. A Hot List screen displays equipment and areas on campus that require technical support, while a realtime interactive help desk feature allows users in the classroom to send help and maintenance messages to IT support staff. The AMX software supports preset equipment configuration, recurring reservation scheduling, and conflict resolution. And it provides a web-based graphical user interface (GUI).

Equipment control and management notwithstanding, one of the most useful features of this type of software is the classroom-scheduling capability, says InfoComm's Lemke. The scheduling capability allows administrators to organize not just who gets to use the classrooms and when, but also what equipment and systems (assets) and parts of those systems (features) will be available to each instructor when he or she uses a room. "These days, with college campuses so short on classroom space, the technology managers can use this feature to personalize how much of the available technology the professor sees for his or her room," explains Lemke. "They select, say, PowerPoint, but don't want videoconferencing cluttering up the control pad. They get only the things they use, which results in fewer service calls."

CRESTRON’S ROOMVIEW

CRESTRON'S ROOMVIEW provides a 'big-picture view' of a campus' entire presentation setup.

Standardization is also critical to successful use and management of AV controller equipment, say campus technology pros. UAMS has installed a dozen AMX controllers and two Creston systems in all of its large lecture halls that seat 100 or more students. And from a user perspective, Bailey says, the key to the success of the university's AV control implementations lies in the consistency of the GUIs of the various touchpanels. "Between the two systems, we strive to make the GUI as close to identical as possible, from room to room and from system to system," he says. "The presenters know that the PowerPoint button, the DVD controls, and the volume controls all are in the same place. We never want them to worry about the technology. They shouldn't even have to think about it. They know now that they can walk in, push a button, and everything works."

But Bailey isn't alone in his quest for AV controller interface standards. Greg Bronson, project leader in the Academic Technology Services department of Cornell University (NY), has been evangelizing the standards cause for years. In fact, he's one of the prime movers behind an InfoComm-sponsored initiative to encourage system integrators to provide AV controller interfaces with a consistent look and feel. Bronson served as the first chairperson of InfoComm's Dashboard for Controls group, launched in 1999/ 2000. (UAMS' Bailey was in the group, as well.) Supporters of the initiative believe that operation of a professionally installed AV presentation system should be as easy as driving a car. "Think about it: If I need to rent a car, and I decide that I'd like to get a convertible for a change, I shouldn't have to pull out a manual because I usually drive a hardtop," Bronson explains. "And I don't: The gas pedal isn't on the left and the steering wheel isn't in the back seat, because there are standards in place. The 'interfaces' in both types of cars have the same look and feel. Why should AV controller interfaces be any different?"

The 'interfaces' in cars--gas pedals, steering wheels--have the same look and feel. Why should AV controller interfaces be different? -- Greg Bronson, Cornell

To manage a range of multimedia resources, Cornell has deployed several models of Crestron controllers in classrooms and conference rooms throughout the campus. The controllers are built into lecterns and are flush-mounted on hardware racks. For classrooms integrated with dedicated resources, the touchpanel has become the primary instructor interface, Bronson says. In fact, the InfoComm Dashboard project was an outgrowth of Bronson's work to standardize touchpanel design and function campuswide in those deployments.

"This is primarily an issue of interoperability," Bronson explains. "If you look at the basic premise of a control system in an AV environment, it's really a protocol converter; it has to be able to communicate with all the other devices, so that system has to be based on standards. As more and more of this technology moves toward an IT-based infrastructure, it really has to embrace the standards of the IT department, so it can conform to IT's needs and expectations."

FOCUS ON REMOTE AV

'Remote access allows me to better manage the technology: I can check how many hours [the control podium] has been turned on, which buttons are being pushed, and which features are being used. I might notice, for instance, that none of the presenters are using the VCRs, so when I design a new room, I might leave that piece of equipment out of the mix.'-- Ernie Bailey, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Even as far back as 2000, the school had rolled out guidelines that Bronson describes as a "manufacturer-agnostic" document. Still, "We didn't want to undercut programmer creativity," he says. "We don't say that certain buttons have to be a certain color, or that certain graphic styles have to be used. We do want to see the difference between that convertible and that hardtop." But the Cornell guidelines did serve as the basis for InfoComm's Dashboard for Controls Template, Dashboard for Controls Design Reference, and Dashboard for Controls Integrators Guide, available for free download.

"This project has moved along, with manufacturer and design-consultant support," says InfoComm's Lemke. "Now, as schools start the process of figuring out how they're going to do their control programming, they can download a PDF with examples, design principles, and even a template that they can use to guide them and their system integrators."

Though this initiative is not new, in the end, it is the push for standards that may prove to be the most significant innovation in the AV controller space. The question now is: As interactive whiteboard competitors vie for installation sites, and features and capabilities proliferate, will standardization become essential there, too? Only time will tell.

::WEBEXTRAS :: Tour tech-enabled classrooms at the University of Maryland-College Park, at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2 :: Remote classroom support cuts costs at the University of Richmond (VA) :: Tips for demystifying input/output jacks and maintaining a flexible AV system.

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