Installation Profile: HD Distance Education

University of Wisconsin's Pyle Center upgrade keeps its lead in distance education. 9/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern

Installation Profile: HD Distance Education

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

University of Wisconsin's Pyle Center upgrade keeps its lead in distance education.

The University of Wisconsin classroom

The University of Wisconsin has a more-than-40-year history of providing vanguard distance education. To keep up with technology and to retain the university's solid distance-education reputation, the school had one of its Pyle Center classrooms undergo an HD makeover. This classroom will be used as a template for redesigning the center's other distance-education classrooms.

The concept of distance learning has a contemporary ring to it, but it's rooted less in the high tech of the 21st century than it is in the social revolutions of the 1960s — when higher education became an icon of cultural radicalization in the form of teach-ins, campus protests, and the occasional occupation of an administration building. In the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin (UW) was the first major university in the nation to deploy a televised distance-education program called “Telecon.” The program served its largely rural and, in the upper reaches of the state, snowbound constituency. Funded by the Carnegie Foundation from 1964 to 1968, professor Charles Wedemeyer developed and implemented the Articulated Instructional Media (AIM) program at the school's main campus in Madison. The AIM program combined a variety of communications technologies, including voice and videoconferencing, intended to provide learning to an off-campus population.

Fast-forward 40 years, and the successor to Wedemeyer's vision is still arguably the vanguard of remote education at what is now known as the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) program. This past summer, a systems installation was completed in one of 10 dedicated distance-learning (DL) classrooms at the university's Pyle Center, which has been the home to the distance-learning program since 1998. This multimedia classroom will act as the pilot test bed for the entire program's transition to high definition. This classroom had a high-definition makeover that included replacing a dual 4:3-aspect-ratio rear-projection video system with dual 16:9 rear screens, upgrading to HD and increasing the number of cameras in the room, and replacing two CRT video-confidence monitors with three LCD flatscreens that allow presenters to see their outgoing video and content streams while maintaining eye contact with their remote audience. What transpires in this upgraded classroom over the next several months will be used as a template for the systems redesign of the other nine DL classrooms, as well as 18 other classrooms that are connected to the building's master control room via portable videoconference cameras and monitors.

Jamie Diana Poindexter, technical operations manager for the Pyle Center, says the upgrade was prompted by a number of factors, not the least of which was the fact that analog broadcasting will cease next February.

“It really put the need to update the technology into context,” she says.

Installation Profile: HD Distance Education

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

University of Wisconsin's Pyle Center upgrade keeps its lead in distance education.

Man standing in front of a monitor

Waveguide Consulting ripped out the front wall to accommodate the almost-11ft.-wide rp Visual Solutions 16:9 glass projection screen. At the inustructor's area, Waveguide installed a 17in. Crestron TPMC-17-QM touchpanel and a WolfVision VZ-9 document camera. The company installed three NEC Multeos M40-AV 16:9 LCDs for confidence monitoring.


Trying to time a major technology change these days can be tricky. That's one of the main lessons of the project, according to Scott Walker, president of Atlanta-based Waveguide Consulting. Waveguide Consulting did the systems design and programming on the UWEX project, both for the Pyle Center's original iteration a decade ago and for this most recent update.

“In a way, it's good that the five-year plan we crafted for the Pyle Center in 2003 didn't get its funding at the time,” Walker says. “The HD codecs, cameras, and projectors just weren't ready at that point. Doing the update when we did it this year gives the Pyle Center the benefit not only of a well-developed technology, but one that's become less expensive.”

This pilot project has more riding on it than its estimated $400,000-plus price tag, he says. Refitting an already tech-heavy classroom for HD on a facility-wide scale means more than adding equipment. The new design for the pilot room — classroom 235 — called for replacing the existing two 4:3 XGA projectors with two 5000-lumen Digital Projection Titan 1080p 16:9 digital projectors, a Polycon HDX 9004 codec, and rp Visual Solutions 16:9 glass projection screens. This meant Waveguide needed to tear out the front wall of the classroom not only to accommodate the larger screens, but also to accommodate the greater throw distance of the new projectors. At 6'×10'8”, the screens were the same height as the wall, but much wider.

“This isn't just a technology challenge; it's an architectural challenge, too,” Walker says. “You have to redesign the wall in order to both fit the screens in, but also to make sure that the entire room has the same line of sight to them as before.”

In this case, an existing header above the left screen was extended over both new screens as a platform for program audio loudspeakers and two of the four new Sony EVI-HD1 PTZ cameras the room now has.

Most of the physical changes to the room took place in the instructor's space and in the projector area. The rest of the room, composed of concentric semi-circular tiered desks, remained in place. The changes to the front-of-room spaces are both large and nuanced.

The teacher's desk has been replaced with an adjustable-height podium featuring a variable tilt, a 17in. Crestron TPMC-17-QM touchpanel control screen, and a preview monitor that is linked to a sidecar equipped with a WolfVision VZ-9 document camera. Soffited into the first tier of student seating are three NEC Multeos M40-AV 16:9 LCD flatpanels, which the instructor uses for video-confidence monitoring. These flatpanels replace a pair of 4:3 CRT monitors, and they show dedicated program sources. One displays the outgoing video from the selected Sony HD cameras that are mounted on the first desk tier; the second LCD displays the same content that is being shown on projection screens behind the instructor, so instructors don't have to turn their backs on the classroom; and the third monitor displays the images of the DL students so the instructor can see them. The images of the students can be arrayed in a variety of configurations, ranging from a one-on-one setup to a Hollywood Squares-style setup that shows multiple students via video bridging in the center's main control room.

“The design is intended to keep the interaction between the instructor and the students as high as possible,” Walker says. “The quality of the HD allows the instructor to see remote-learning students more clearly. Keeping the instructor facing the class supports a more natural interaction with the local and remote students.”

There are more than a couple of projectors behind the rebuilt front wall of the classroom, which also houses video sources such as DVD decks and the audio DSP system. The bulky new RG-59 cabling required for the updated HD video would make the lengthy Cat-5 runs used in the previous installation onerous and expensive.

“We wanted to control the cable lengths of the RG-59 because it's difficult to pull, and we wanted to minimize signal loss,” Poindexter says.

Bill Facklam, AV systems project manager for systems integrator Dascom, agrees. “The RG-59 is .5in., plenum-rated, high-bandwidth cable, and it was definitely a challenge to pull it in some places,” he says. His crews figured out that placing a third crewman in the center of a long cable run to pull cable made the process significantly easier.

Even though more equipment was designed to stay in the room, cable runs to the central control room for troubleshooting and preview uses were still necessary.

“We also removed several cable runs from the old installation to the control room that weren't being used, and we shortened some of the other runs that were now going only to the projector room,” Facklam says.

Installation Profile: HD Distance Education

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

University of Wisconsin's Pyle Center upgrade keeps its lead in distance education.


Classroom 235's audio was pretty good to start with. In addition to good acoustics from a band of absorptive material encircling much of the room at ear height, carpeted floors and the lack of parallel surfaces put its background noise level at around NC 25. These features, including the Gentner AP800 conferencing system, were all part of the original 1998 installation. The Gentner AP800 was upgraded with a ClearOne Converge Pro 880T system that features a built-in telephone interface and wide-bandwidth acoustic echo cancellation. Thirty-two Crown PCC-170SWO microphones and their cabling were left in place. Two new Shure UR1 wireless lavalier microphones and a new Audio-Technica U857Q AL gooseneck microphone on the lectern were added. Dascom's crews integrated the microphones with the Converge Pro system. The sound system remains stodgily stereo, mainly because the HDX 9004 codec doesn't have a discrete center-channel component. The revamped header space, however, has room to fit a center loudspeaker that could be placed to create an LCR array in the future.

“What was surprising to me about the audio on this project was the large number of microphones — 32 in all — and the fact that each one's talk switch is also a contact closure used to activate the cameras,” Facklam says.

Switching to high-definition video also required a new approach to lighting.

“When you have the opportunity for the instructor to wander around the space — and when you have multiple cameras feeding the video — you're going to have issues with shadows unless you light for them in the first place, and that becomes more so with HD,” Walker says.

Existing directional fluorescent lighting for the audience area is augmented by Brightline's broadcast-grade illumination system toward the front of the room. Illumination this bright would have washed out SD video images, but the higher brightness of the new HD projectors mean they can handle it and maintain good contrast. The audience light fixtures have 45-degree louvered slats; the Brightline fixtures are aimable and set at the same 45-degree angle as the others to focus more light on key areas. Based on where the instructor can roam in the room, pre-installation computer modeling determined the fixtures' locations.


Classroom 235 is highly automated in order to lessen reliance on live technicians, but you have to look carefully to spot it. Some of the more apparent manifestations of what turned out to be some very complex code-writing include a Vaddio pressure-sensitive pad at the instructor's lectern. When the instructor is standing on it, the video switcher is programmed to go to the camera aimed at the lectern from the front row of desks. If the instructor steps off the pad, the switcher goes to a wider shot from a ceiling-mounted camera. What students won't experience are dizzying pans as a single camera tries to follow the instructor around the room.

More subtle is how the Crestron e-Control system was programmed so that when a student in the classroom appears on camera, activated by touching the talk button on a microphone, the audio DSP will sense the end of a question or comment from the student and automatically switch the main image back to the camera covering the instructor. Even more understated is the fact that instructors can select one of three timing settings for this function from their own control point at the lectern, letting them determine the pace of each individual class.

“One of the overriding goals of the programming and the design of the room and the systems is to present the classroom as though it was a production, with the kind of basic production values you find in most broadcasts, like switched camera views instead of static or panned ones,” Walker says. “It's more like a show than a class, and that helps keep interest levels up.”

In a facility pioneering web-based H.323-codec educational videoconferencing when most others were still relying on ISDN lines, the leap to HD for in-class and distance education was intuitive. But like many pioneering propositions, it has roots that go back before the new technology was invented.

“The program here has its roots in public radio, which funded the early applications,” Poindexter says. “We have a background in patch bays for routing here, very hands-on. I think that really helped make this upgrade as workable as it is. It's not technology for its own sake, but technology that addresses the practical issues of education in a digital environment.”

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