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THE SVC INTERVIEW: Billy Morris, University of North Carolina Law School, Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina Law School, Chapel Hill had been making do with a fairly primitive AV setup in their moot courtroom. Billy Morris of Kontek Systems of Durham, North Carolina explains how the system was modernized to better suit the flagship law school.

SVC: First tell us something about Kontek Systems.

Billy Morris: We’re about a 28-year-old company, locally-owned and locally-grown. We’ve been here in Durham the whole time and we’re primarily a design/build integrator. We do projects mostly here in the triangle region of North Carolina. Most of our business I would say is in the higher ed market particularly in the graduate school level of program. We do work at law schools, business schools, medical schools, nursing, dental. We also do quite a bit of work in the medical world. We do presentation systems and installations in both clinical spaces and procedure rooms as well as administrative and conference spaces supporting physicians and their work. And also we do a fair amount of corporate work; boardrooms, video conferencing rooms, digital signage, things of that nature.

For this moot courtroom what capabilities did they want to add?

This room probably hasn’t been upgraded since the ’70s. It had burgundy carpet and walnut paneling and AV was all kind of cobbled together analog stuff that just didn’t suit their needs any longer. So their goal was to give the room a complete facelift aesthetically and modernize the room itself and then bring all of the AV technology up to current digital standards.

Obviously from what you mentioned before, Kontek Systems has done quite a bit with courtrooms.

We have work that we’ve done for the North Carolina and the federal court systems with locations in North Carolina all over the state and it seems like we’re always heading out to do another project for them. It’s good work and those courtrooms represent the real world environments that these law students are being trained for over at the law school at UNC.

And the focus of this new system, I believe is on Extron switching and signal extension so tell me about the Extron system you installed there.

Right. We engineered a system based on, at the time, a fairly new XTP digital matrix switching system from Extron. It’s great equipment. We’ve worked with Extron for a couple of decades and they pretty much build bulletproof stuff. And we felt like this would have represented the most flexible and capable switching system that was out there. We also ended up installing it because of the need that they had for annotation. The Extron annotator device, which was again fairly new at the time, has proven to be a real winner for this project.

Of course this is a training environment but you equip it just like a real courtroom and a number of people would have control of what the jury sees. So who exactly can control the input to the jury displays?

The room has two functions. One is to be a mock courtroom for training purposes for law students. The other is it functions as a classroom environment for relatively small classes that are taught in there. So in courtroom mode when you’re actually teaching the methods of dealing with actual courtroom environments you’ve got, of course, attorneys’ tables, you’ve got the prosecutors and the defense attorney tables. You’ve got the judge’s bench, the witness stand. In this case there was a presentation podium in the center of the room that was built on a turntable that lets it spin around 180 degrees from facing the judge’s bench when an attorney is addressing the bench and in classroom mode you spin the lectern around and it addresses the gallery where students are seated. You’ve got the jury box, of course, and each of those locations has monitors and can view and hear evidence being presented. The two places where folks can control the system and sources are the presentation podium and at the judge’s bench.

Okay, so the judge can have ultimate control over what the jury sees based on what is deemed to be admissible or not.

That’s right. I think the idea is that you’re really trying to simulate a real world trial where the judge would perhaps preview some evidence that an attorney wants to present and it is not viewed in the public. There’s a large flat panel at the front of the room that the gallery can see and the jury can see it. There are 12 jurors of course and there are six monitors in the jury box, one for each of the two jury chairs. So the judge can block any video from appearing on the jury box or even the witness stand while they review it and then they would approve that for public viewing.

The room has two functions. One is to be a mock courtroom for training purposes for law students. The other is to function as a classroom environment for relatively small classes that are taught in there.

Did you hit any snags anywhere?

I think the challenges for everyone really were the age of the building and the fact that it had asbestos. It needed abatement and some of the infrastructure, electrical and conduit and lighting and all really had to be torn out all the way and rebuilt from scratch. So I think every contractor involved in the job had more work on their plate than they might have anticipated.

Well, it looks like you may have had a significant obstacle with the courtroom’s concrete floor.

Yeah. The concrete floor, half of the room was kind of built on – almost on grade; very small crawlspace underneath, places where we had to get signal cables to and from. So it was a challenge doing core drills and we ended up finding other routes for wire. The contractor on the job was just great and they worked with us to help find pathways for wiring cable that otherwise would have been tough to handle.

Did you install anything in the judge’s chambers?

The judge’s chambers really is just a modest system with a large flat panel and a laptop input. It’s set up for basic web conferencing but not much more than that. The jury deliberation room has a similar AV presentation system where jurors could review evidence from a trial they have just heard and then the only twist in there is they want it to be able to monitor both what is being said and see the jurors with a camera. So we’ve got a network camera in there and a couple of ceiling microphones that will be controllable on the UNC network from a distant location and they can keep track of juror progress and kind of hear what they’re saying and help coach them on that sort of thing.

We talked about the control aspect of it but I wanted you to tell us a little about the Vaddio WallVIEW HD-19 cameras you put in. Why did you pick those?

We’re a big fan of Vaddio products. We’ve used them for a long time. They’re very reliable, with great performance and features for the price. We just needed good quality pan-tilt-zoom cameras that can be used for both views of the judge’s bench and the attorneys when they’re in courtroom mode, and a view of the presenter’s podium for recording when they’re in classroom mode. As we said earlier, this courtroom functions in two different ways and UNC Law has adopted across its enterprise the Echo360 lecture capture platform, so we are feeding camera views that are switchable to the Echo for recording. Another reason to use the Vaddio products frankly is they offer a USB video output for connection to their permanent PC in the lectern so that they can do web conferencing.

And you used some sort of USB extension?

Yeah. The breakout boxes for the Vaddio camera video feeds and USB feeds are back in an equipment rack that’s located in a little side area right off the judge’s chambers and then we used USB extension to get out to the podium for connection to the PC.

Sometimes an even trickier part of these things is the sound system, so how do they pick up and distribute the sound in the courtroom?

Well a number of ways. There are ceiling mics in the gallery area, four of those. It’s really mostly for classroom mode of the courtroom picking up student questions and all during a discussion for recording. There are a couple of mics over the jury box that would pick up jury questions during a mock trial. There are lectern mics at the judge’s bench and the two attorneys’ tables and the witness stand and the podium so that whole mic mix is sent to various places. We used a Biamp Nexia platform, a couple of chassis, to distribute and mix audio. Audio goes to a mix minus system for speakers in the gallery and speakers above the attorney tables, speakers above the judges and witness stand and speakers above the jury box. So that was an interesting system to dial in and get it just right. And then we’ve got audio going to the Echo box for recording and to the PC for web conferencing.

I think you also put a Shure wireless system in there. Who uses that?

Yeah. That’s probably primarily used by the instructor when the room is in classroom mode. Of course they always have the option of using it on a person who might want to roam around the courtroom and not stay put at one of the fixed mic locations.

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