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Illinois State University and Kramer Team Up for Advanced AV Pt 1

Show 170, Part 1

SVC Podcast – Show Notes – Show 170-1

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Doug Smith, director of learning spaces and audio/visual technologies at Illinois State University about the ongoing upgrade of AV switching in the ISU classrooms. Doug discusses the challenges of serving a wide range of users and dealing with a high uptime AV environment.

 For Part 2

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This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor Magazine with Doug Smith of Illinois State University. Show notes and equipment links for the podcast are on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at

At Illinois State University they wanted to improve the classroom teaching technology experience with new switchers from Kramer Electronics. The deployment has successfully covered over 300 classrooms. Doug Smith, director of learning spaces and audio/visual technologies is here to tell us how he did it and how it’s working now.  Coming up next on the SVC Podcast.

Doug, thanks for getting with us on the SVC Podcast from Illinois State University. Director of Learning Spaces and Audio/Visual Technologies. Sounds like they probably have you pretty busy up there all the time.

Well, that definitely opens the door for projects.

And you’ve had an ongoing project of classroom upgrades and making the technology a little more user friendly. What did you have in the classrooms there prior to the major upgrade project that I think has taken a while over time.

We’ve had two sort of parallel projects going on as is the case in most university situations. The classrooms are divided up into categories, one being the general use. Anybody can use them, typically assigned through the registrar’s office, etc. And then there are rooms that are assigned specifically to departments or colleges. When I first came ISU the general use classrooms were ours to maintain and so over a course of about 10 years we took all of the 150, some of those rooms, got them all up to the same level of digital standards and same equipment lists available for faculty to go into those rooms. About four or five years ago our provost took a look at the data that we’d created for our rooms and the feedback from faculty and said she wanted us to take that model and move that out into the rooms that are assigned to departments and take over all construction of audio-visual for basically all classrooms on campus. At which point she gave us some funds and we moved the project along across a three-year span effectively doubling the number of rooms that we manage and theoretically creating the potential for a lot more challenges. But as it turns out it’s been a fantastic upgrade. [Timestamp: 2:37]

And I noticed that Kramer Electronics switchers are at the heart of this project. Why did you decide to go with Kramer gear for this ongoing project in the classrooms?

Well, that was also ongoing. We had started with Kramer products 12 years ago in those general assignment classrooms and their products and especially their support have been top flight. Not to mention that the cost was very attractive. So we really felt like we were getting our money’s worth. Once they started rolling out digital capable scalers and came out with this switcher product that was just fantastic for our needs we just stayed with it. So when we got the funds to do those remaining 150 classrooms there was no question. We just continued on with what we were already in the process of doing. [Timestamp: 3:22]

And just stick with what’s been working. No problem with that.

And, you know, the long and short of it that, though, is not only are my guys first in what we have, because we’ve reduced our inventory dramatically. We’re down to basically a single switch manufacturer and almost a single platform across all of the 320-some rooms that we manage. We don’t have to stock near as many parts and Kramer’s warranty is exceptional and their support is just outstanding. [Timestamp: 3:51]

I know that some of the biggest challenges to successful AV control systems in the higher education environment have got to be the wide range of tech savviness of the users and you’ve got a very high up-time situation with that, too.

You’re correct on both those points. The expectation is that our rooms work and I like to refer to that as the auto-magic that all of us in IT do. Our goal is to make sure that faculty walk in and don’t have to think about what’s going on behind the scenes, they just teach. And we’ve got data that shows that our up time or the percent of time where our rooms are functional and ready to roll are in the 99 percent all the time and that’s just spectacular. As far as the tech savvy of faculty, sure. That’s always going to range all over the map. Part of the way that we’ve solved that – I don’t know whether we’ve solved that – but we landed on a consistent user interface and use it everywhere. So wherever the faculty goes they know that if they want to turn on a projector or select a PC, they know what the button looks like and where it’s going to be placed. [Timestamp: 4:56]

6It always really helps when they can go from one room or one building to another and find the same familiar user interface, the same buttons and the same source equipment.

Exactly. And that has had the best effect. Our support calls have dropped precipitously as we’ve increased our rooms both because of the quality of the equipment that we’re using and because our user interface at least is familiar. I won’t say that it’s perfect. I don’t know that any user interface is perfect. But it’s at least been out there long enough that our faculty know it and it doesn’t create any new problems. So going into any room knowing that the same set of buttons are there it’s working well for us. [Timestamp: 5:35]

And just to get into the signal conveyance a little, how do you get your HDMI video up to the projectors?

We have switched over to category distribution. We’re going HDBaseT almost everywhere. We’re in the process of retrofitting those last few rooms. But everything for the last three years has been over category. [Timestamp: 5:51]

And I think the first implementation phase of that was physically separate transmitter and receiver modules and that has evolved into having that capability built into a lot of the switching and display equipment now.

That movement is still ongoing in the industry as far as I’m concerned. We have Kramer switchers and we have Epson projectors and both of those now have HDBaseT ins and outs. So we can go directly from our switcher right to a projector if we choose. I still continue to find some oddities in terms of all the things that HDBaseT is supposed to be able to do. Sending lots of different signals up that same wire we still continue to see some things we can’t explain away when we try to push everything up that one wire. So general rule we only use the HDBaseT as a transfer for video and hardwire the control. [Timestamp: 6:41]

So are your sound systems completely separate using ceiling speakers in the classrooms?

No. For the most part our classrooms are smallish; 30-40 seats. We tend to stay with on-the-wall. We’ve run into a lot of issues with ceiling speakers because so many of our classroom buildings are plenum space so then you get bleed over from one room to the next. So by putting them on the walls we can contain a little bit of that sound and not have as many faculty complaining that the guy next door has got his sound up really loud. [Timestamp: 7:10]

I’ve run into that, too. How do you manage to balance the user interface uniformity with the specific needs that some classrooms may have? Say, biology labs and things like that don’t always need the same AV equipment as maybe an English class.

Well, the approach that our administration asked us to take was to make sure that all of the rooms that we manage have the exact same equipment and accesses. So every room has a computer, has a projector or display of some kind and has a user interface, has a document camera, has both a VGA and an AC mic cable and a sound system into the room so they know what they can expect to find in the location plus knowing that the cables are there for connectivity then they can bring in their other devices. We really haven’t seen a lot of need beyond that for any kind of specialized pieces. There are, of course, you mentioned a biology lab. There are some one-off research labs where a microscope or there’s some kind of electronic device of some kind. Depending on its age it’s either a VGA or an HDMI cable. So this configuration, our switch platform is a Kramer scaler so we can handle pretty much anything, inputs and then output to a display resolution that works in the room that we’re working with. [Timestamp: 8:26]

And since so much AV gear now has to be on the network for full functionality, do you have network switches in the classrooms?

For the longest time we did not. Our telecom folks wanted to have every device that we had on a single port and was as much as management security – there were a number of reasons, some of which were just political. The last two years we’ve been able to convince them that the cost and complexity for us to have some of our classrooms have both a Mac and a PC, plus a switcher, plus a projector, plus an AMX master controller. Having all of those ports come into a room sometimes was logistically a challenge, but it’s also a cost. And we were successful in finally arguing the case to them that if any one of those pieces stops working then the entire room system stops working. So it didn’t make any sense for us to keep buying all these individual ports when a small switch inside of our instructor station could handle the controlled passing of video with in the room, not leaving the room. So now we are rolling out our rooms with a small switch in our rack and all the devices can talk to it and then one port leads to the network. [Timestamp: 9:47]

Well, that’s always an advantage so that if you lose something in the router closet the local equipment items in the room can keep communicating among themselves.

Well not only that, but devices come and go so quickly nowadays. Of course everything wants a network port or a wireless connection, on our campus anyway. To put devices on wireless is not impossible, but it’s a bit more work and it’s certainly more management to maintain that because of the rules of engagement for connecting to the wireless network. So having that switch available to us means that we can quickly meet a one-off need for device A that wants another network port. [Timestamp: 10:25]

So what is the most common problem that you hear from faculty members on the classroom AV systems, just “my laptop won’t display”?

That’s one of them. We’re still at an odd point in time where legacy machines with VGA are coming into the room. So knowing how to turn on that external port. HDMI, of course, all the digital standards with the hot swap built into the protocols is a complete 180 reversal of the training that we worked so hard to give faculty to understand in the analog days when the instructions were plug everything in and then turn it on. Now the electronics want you to turn everything on and then plug it in to initiate the hot swap. So that’s a bit of a challenge. [Timestamp: 11:06]

And how long do you think that VGA is going to remain to be part of classroom AV technology? There were signals of its demise a good while back but it’s still around in most places.

Well, you can’t take it off of old systems. So we had a student this semester come in. he was still carrying around an older hand-me-down laptop, I assume, and VGA was the only output. I can’t get rid of that and as long as those are out there we’ll have to accommodate those as long as there’s a need. Fortunately the particular Kramer switcher platform that we standardized on supports both and we don’t have any issues with that. [Timestamp: 12:30]

Well, this has certainly been interesting for me to hear your experiences on this since we’re pretty much in the same game with higher education AV. It’s been great having you with us Doug. It’s Doug Smith, director of learning spaces and audio/visual technology at Illinois State University, keeping all of the classroom AV up and running and we’ll see you again in Part 2.

Great. Thanks.

Thanks to Doug Smith of Illinois State University for joining us on the podcast. Show notes and equipment links are on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at Next week Doug will tell us how he deals with the bring-your-own-device movement, RF coordination and AV budgeting. That’s on the next SVC Podcast.

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