AV control tech is key for lecture theatre management

As universities employ increasingly sophisticated AV equipment the control vendors are racing to provide solutions that ensure control remains simple and intuitive for teaching staff. Anna Mitchell talks to some of the people making sure universities have high-end solutions and accessible control.

When you are standing in front of 400 students you don’t want to be thinking about how to operate technology and you certainly don’t want anything to go wrong. And yet as technology becomes more sophisticated lecturers will find multiple sources, visualisers, sophisticated projection systems, lecture capture solutions and video conferencing all at their disposal.

And as tuition fees rise students expect more. Whilst technologies can be used to enhance the learning process, they should never distract the lecturer’s focus. A successful technology deployment should have a strong emphasis on ensuring the lecturer can control AV assets easily and intuitively. Furthermore is should take certain operations out of their hands and facilitate efficient, effective and centralised control by university technicians.

Major vendors, most notably Crestron, AMX and Extron, have responded to these needs with sophisticated management tools, while integrators are showing increasing levels of ingenuity with how they integrate AV assets into these systems and design intuitive control interfaces for teaching staff.

Jeremy Curtis owns Harkwood Services, an IT and AV consutlantcy firm, and has worked on many major new build university projects in recent years. He argues that it is important to keep control options for lecturers limited and simple.

"Primarily they want to be able to switch equipment on and off, select the input that they want on a projector or preview screen, mute the microphone, operate lights, blinds, videoconference and volume," he explains. "As a rule these functions will be handled by a single touch screen at the front of theatre. Additional control can be provided from a booth at the back where a technician will have the same control options as the lecturer but will provide support by handling more technical operations."

Curtis says automation in the control system is vital. "If you want to put the Blu-ray player on you probably want to watch a film," he explains. "So you provide two buttons on the touch screen. One is ‘Select Blu-ray player’, the other is ‘Play film’, If you select the film button then the lights should automatically go down, the blinds shut and the disc start playing.

"Behind the scenes it’s getting a lot more complicated because the range of things people would like to do is getting bigger. But with some clever programming the interface for lecturers should get simpler."

Kristian Cutting is a sales executive at GV Multimedia, a leading integrator in the UK education space. "There are cases where a university will want to restrict access to certain parts of a system. For example if they purchase an expensive, high-end projector, they may not want that to be used for PowerPoint. It may be reserved for certain applications such as film viewing. In that instance we would implement a passcode in the system which will only be given to certain users."

"Auxiliary microphones, such as wireless microphones, gooseneck microphone, lapel microphones, will have the levels pre-set," adds Curtis. "When you stage an event like a debate you may have additional sockets for fixed microphones on stage, or a microphone that can be passed around the audience. These units need to be balanced but you wouldn’t provide this level of control to a lecturer. You simply don’t program these options into the touch panel."

"We hide the equipment calibration and adjustment controls because non-technical staff might change settings by mistake," says Abdulla Alansari, executive director of Qatar headquartered integrator Techno Q. "We just don’t show these functions. I can recall some installations where the client initially asks for more detailed control before calling us for support. When we’ve visited the installation we see that they have made unintentional changes to the system and it has caused problems."

"Normally we provide lecturers with Crestron touch screens to control the main functions," he continues. "For centralised control we will use mostly Crestron, AMX or Extron solutions."

Cutting says: "Control of lighting, volume and source switching will normally be accessed though a Crestron, AMX or Extron touch panel. Lecturers like to have a central point of control. You don’t want a situation where they are twisting one knob for volume control and pressing buttons in different areas of the lecture hall."

He continues: "We always provide custom interfaces. Universities want a unified interface throughout all rooms so lecturers feel comfortable regardless of the room they are in. If you change something on one, that change is generally implemented across all devices. It’s really important to talk with the university and develop something that is truly personalised. For example, some establishments want to control visualisers via the touch panel, others prefer a more tactile feel and want to operate the visualiser from the unit."

"Some [end users] think control via consumer touch devices, such as [Apple’s] iPad, is a wonderful idea but in practice it can be a real pain," says Curtis. "The iPad must operate on a wireless network and if you’ve got a room with 300 to 400 students all on the same wireless network it can get a bit congested. It generally doesn’t work. Furthermore, in many cases, suppliers charge high prices for licenses to run their control software on devices like iPads."

Alansari agrees that consumer devices are not entirely suitable for these applications. "I think it’s better to use dedicated control panel devices. Apple iPads work on wireless networks and if something happens with the network you loose control. Dedicated control panels have a separate communication system to the hub or control equipment so are more reliable."

Cutting concedes that tablet devices, such as iPads, could face problems on increasingly congested wireless networks but says in principle they are suitable for control and represent a lower cost solution. "We’re seeing people looking at this as an option," he says. "However, it’s certainly not mainstream but we have carried out some projects where iPads are integrated for control functions."

There are times, when however simple the touch panel interface, it is necessary for the lecturer to be supported in control of the system. Curtis describes a recent project where a lecture hall had two-way communication into an operating theatre via videoconferencing.

"If you are having to bring different sources and presentation materials on to the screen as well as presenting and teaching it can be very difficult," he says. "Lining up different sources is hard to do when you are the person talking. This is when you need the functionality in place to have someone in the background co-ordinating elements of the presentation. If the lecturer has too much to do then the teaching quality degrades."

Lecturers will also need to bring teaching materials into the room. Cloud services would be an obvious solution in an environment where teaching staff need to access central resources from various rooms that, in some cases, aren’t even on the same campus.

However, according to Cutting the market hasn’t embraced the technology yet. "At the moment lecturers want to use laptops to access material. We can’t forget that lecturers are all ages and we need them to be comfortable with the systems they are using. But there is no doubt that cloud services are starting to enter the market and I think we will see more of an impact in the future.

"You get a lot of people who just use laptops," agrees Curtis. "But some universities are getting into document and curriculum management where they will store course notes and teaching materials centrally."

Where cloud services have been slow to take off, lecture capture solutions have been snapped up by universities. Alansari says TechnoQ has installed systems from Echo360 and solutions based on Vbrick and Haivision offerings.

"Lecture capture is increasingly common," agrees Cutting. "It’s usually considered in the first stages of an installation now. The technology has overcome initial hurdles, such as concerns surrounding people being filmed. There are hardware and software solutions on the market. Universities will typically go for a managed service to start with but after about a year will bring the system onto their own server and, in most cases, are fully capable of running it themselves. Providers like Mediasite will offer a hosted service and some vendors, such as Echo360 will sell directly to the client so our involvement is limited to integration of the solution."

Whilst operation of equipment is important, lecturers also need to know they will be supported quickly in case of errors or equipment failure.

"The vast majority of universities have dedicated AV Service teams that come under the umbrella of IT," says Cutting. "Years ago it used to be under estates but with so many AV assets on the network it is a much better idea to get AV and IT departments together to integrate the AV equipment into the network and issue IP numbers."

"Management systems can be implemented so a central technical team is alerted if there is a problem with equipment," says Alansari. "This also means, in many cases, equipment can be serviced or replaced before failure. Remote asset management software from vendors such as Crestron and AMX provides these teams with a great deal of visibility and knowledge about the AV systems they are managing.

"IP has had a huge impact on control," he continues. "Without this, centralised control would be incredibly difficult and have a huge impact on cabling infrastructure and signal distribution. But now most AV equipment has an IP port, you connect to the LAN and you can remotely monitor and control your assets."

Cutting says: "Room management solutions such as AMX RMS, Crestron RoomView and Extron’s Global Viewer have transformed the market. The perspective and information they provide is invaluable. AV service teams have a level of knowledge they always craved for and it’s had a huge impact on maintenance and future procurement.

The ability to place virtually all AV assets on network has allowed universities to implement more centralised control. The next question is whether this level of remote management will allow certain service and support functions to be taken out of the universities and placed with integrators or central support teams.

"It possible," concludes Cutting. "Personally I haven’t seen it before and response time would be a major issue. Universities definitely require on-site AV support. If you have a problem during a lecture and you need to wait an hour for support you will have a problem."

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