After an AV Market Lull Comes Good News

After a market lull, AV vendors finally have dazzling tools and technologies
for ‘smart’ educators.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen something in the “smart classroom” domain at InfoComm, NSCA, or NAB that has been truly exciting. Sure, the big projectors get brighter, control systems go cheaper, small projectors get even smaller, and the plasma and LCD monitors grow in size a little bit each year, but I’ve missed the Eureka! moment of walking by a booth and seeing something that will set the industry on its ear. That time is at hand again. I’m getting excited about several areas of technology, not because of PR agency spin or inflated manufacturer promises, but because of how these technologies will begin to affect the features, capabilities, and cost structures of tomorrow’s technology-enabled classrooms.

With projectors, the use of LED as a light source for projection has tremendous potential for future application in smart classrooms. Mitsubishi’s first-generation product using LED, the Pocket Projector (www.mitsubishi-presentations.com), is not bright enough for classroom use, but consider the other relevant specifications: 20,000 lamp life hours , and energy-efficient enough to run on batteries. Less energy consumption means less heat; and less heat means less fan noise, which can be a major contributor to the floor noise in a smart classroom. According to Frank Ansures, product manager for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, the initial focus of the LED projectors will be at the personal presentation end of the market, but if the product is successful, subsequent product development will focus on increasing brightness toward the levels now afforded by conventional lamp-lit LCD/DLP projectors.

Multi-image and widescreen capabilities on smart classroom projectors are two areas where some makers are leading the pack. With video moving to the widescreen format, and many new laptop screens sporting 1440 x 900 or higher native widescreen resolutions, smart-classroom-capable projectors are appearing, such as Sanyo’s PLV-WF10 (www.sanyo.com), and Barco’s (www.barco.com) IQ line with multiple-image manipulation and seamless switching. Whether these functions are best incorporated at the projector, or by using outboard hardware, is for the market to decide. But Barco is staking out territory on the leading edge of onboard integration of multiimage, switching, and built-in PC processor capabilities.

The proliferation of DVI-I, DVI-D, M1, and MDMI connectors on smart classroom equipment leaves many scratching their heads about the best way to tackle permanent cabling for highresolution displays. For several years, projector manufacturers have dabbled with various schemes for transporting screenshots over the LAN between a PC and projector, but manufacturers including Avocent (www.avocent.com) and Christie Digital (www.christiedigital.com) are looking to get rid of the wire altogether by using a proprietary 802.11a-based protocol, and achieving 30-frames-per-second video performance with no special software or hardware necessary on the PC end (the transmitter accepts a standard analog HD-15 connector). Note that these products are VGA-only (the keyboard, mouse, and extended speakers), so they won’t work connected directly to a VCR or DVD player, and they’re not Mac-compatible as of presstime.

For an easy, inexpensive way to produce and stream sophisticated- looking presentations, check out NewTek’s TriCaster (www.newtek.com). For $4,995 list, TriCaster provides a live video switcher accepting up to three non-synched cameras or sources, plus the ability to pull in graphics from PC presentations. An optional T-bar switcher interface is available to reduce on-screen clicking. Outputs include composite, VGA/DVI, and live streaming. It isn’t a completely automated system, but is designed for one non-video expert to be able to pick up and use. Smart classroom applications abound, as well as campus news-gathering and broadcasting: Imagine the 6 pm campus news, broadcast from anywhere on campus, produced by students and distributed over the CATV and LAN networks, with all the production equipment fitting into a backpack...

The combo of personal video displays and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth networks may make projection screens a thing of the past. Using eyepiece technology first developed for military applications, follow-on generations to products such as Mitsubishi’s Scopo (global.mitsubishielectric.com) and Icuity (www.icuiti.com) lines may allow students to combine the displays of their cell phones, PDAs, digital cameras, digital music players, and that of the “presentation environment” into a single, discrete wireless device. For those who scoff at the notion that people will ever wear videoglasses, note the sprouting of Bluetooth cell phone headsets on your peers, and imagine a small panel swinging out a few more inches in front of the microphone boom.

Not all of these technologies will be at InfoComm this year in a marketable format for technology-enabled classrooms, but the rate of AV product improvement has been accelerating, so take notes, ask questions, and tell the manufacturers what you want to see. They’re listening. Will Craig is is a Multimedia Systems Design Consultant for Elert & Associates (www.elert.com) based in Stillwater, MN.

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