MIT Does Distance Learning

A Scalable Network with Broadcast Quality This distance-learning network was designed for scalability and versatility with an eye toward future expansion.
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MIT Does Distance Learning

Apr 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Charles Conte

WHEN THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (Cambridge, Massachusetts) launched into distance learning three years ago, they came in at the top. MIT committed to delivering broadcast-quality courses to their distance-learning partners. They used 3-chip cameras and production switchers in a central campus location comprised of three studio classrooms, each complemented by adjacent production control rooms and staffed by skilled technicians.

Pressed to expand distance-learning operations, MIT was faced with the economic impracticality and technological difficulty of extending the established broadcast model to lecture halls across the campus. Could they adopt the flexible, networked model and still deliver broadcast-quality production values and transmission capabilities? They were determined to try.

MIT's initial step to expand its distance-learning program had to be based on a strategy for a complete solution. But before MIT would commit to a radical departure from the broadcast model, the staff had to be assured that the result, as the system designer put it, would be more than just “a video conferencing system on steroids.”

BECHTEL HALL: THE NEW MODEL

Bechtel Hall (Building 1, Room 390) on the MIT campus has been “on the air” since September of last year, delivering learning sessions regularly to universities from Singapore to England via the Internet2 broadband network. (Internet2 is a consortium led by over 180 universities working with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies.) Bechtel is the first of what is planned to be several rooms on campus linked via single-mode fiber-optic cable to a central distancing-learning hub.

Bechtel Hall is a third of a mile away from the master control hub in Building 9. Fiber-optic cables carry all audio and video signals to master control for production and connectivity to centralized codecs that accommodate ISDN connectivity. Bechtel was installed with three dedicated ISDN mainly as backup to the primary delivery system. However, the preferred delivery path to Singapore is over IP via Internet2. Dedicated fiber also allows remote control via Crestron's e-Control™ technology: Technicians have real-time control of all cameras, source devices, room lighting and other classroom equipment.

But this is really a very complex, hybrid system, one that can operate in “broadcast” default mode where an operator in master control, via one of two Crestron TPS-6000 15-inch touchpanel control systems, manipulates equipment in real time. Cameras are controlled by a combination of auto-tracking technology, automated presets activated by push-to-talk mics, and Crestron's joystick-equipped CPC-2000 camera control unit. But the system was also designed to be operated by an instructor using a TPS-5000 tilt model touchpanel control system in front of the lectern. (In-room assistance is available from a technician via another TPS-5000 panel, but normal operational mode is via an instructor with a technician in master control as support and backup.)

Instructors can control an entire session without assistance — everything from placing a speed-dial call to Singapore to room lighting or sending whatever video and audio signal they want — all from the lectern position. Two SXGA projectors, multiple auto-tracking cameras, a wide range of audio-visual presentation technologies, from traditional slides to multiple computer inputs, and a 3-chip document camera located in the ceiling above the lectern can all be directed by the instructor in Bechtel or by a remote technician in Building 9. (A feature of the setup is that the instructor has both audio and visual contact with the technician in master control, whose video image is windowed in the touchpanel.) The technician, via a quick preset, can also route all the video through a production switcher, do full production fades, as well as graphics and character generation, resulting in a broadcast-quality production.

“Of course, in order to make this sort of functionality seem relatively simple,” said A/V and acoustical consultant Scott Walker of Waveguide Consulting Inc. “There's an immense amount of complexity in the control code that's completely transparent to the instructor in Bechtel Hall.”

Bechtel is only the first of many lecture facilities across the MIT campus that will be linked to an expanded master control hub. The hard part is done: The conceptual framework of an expandable distance-learning system is in place. “Scaling the system campus-wide is relatively simple now,” Walker said. “Essentially, the team created the beginning of a campus-wide TV studio with high-bandwidth links to the outside world.”

FROM THE OLD MODEL TO THE NEW

As an Internet broadcast studio, Bechtel Hall represents a radical departure in concept and design from the distributed, broadcast model on which MIT's distance-learning program was originally based.

Building 9 used to be home to the old centralized model: three classrooms and adjoining production suites. With the demand for more distance-learning sessions, this single facility could not accommodate all of MIT's needs. The challenge was how to scale this broadcast approach to production across a large campus without compromising the transmission and presentation quality, given MIT's limited technical staff size.

“When we started to explore this idea, we first settled on using Bechtel Hall to house a dedicated control room for each venue,” said director of MIT Video Productions and member of the Center for Advanced Educational Services, Larry Gallagher. The 70-seat hall had been refurbished only four years before when it was outfitted with side-by-side video screens and a projection booth at the rear with a codec. “But spending all that money to convert the projection booth into a dedicated video-control room for just one lecture hall was prohibitively expensive,” said Gallagher. It was not a solution for Bechtel; and it was obviously unworkable as a cross-campus strategy.

“Crestron's e-Control allowed us to think outside this distributed model and take a different approach,” Gallagher said. “We could build a centralized control room that could accommodate Bechtel from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Then, by simply re-routing signals, we could control another classroom at another location on campus.”

This new centralized model also allowed the consolidation of campus learning resources, where one technician from a central master control room could control and produce a broadcast-quality session in a remote location — or more than one remote location. At the same time, full control of system functions would not irretrievably pass from the lecturer to a technician. Control could be at the finger tips of both the person at the front of the lecture hall and the person in the remote master control room. In fact, the new model would be a hybrid of centralized and distributed control.

A DISTANCE-LEARNING CENTER FOR “REAL ROCKET SCIENTISTS”

According to Scott Walker, Waveguide projects take place over three to four years on average, from first contact with the client to completion of client training on a system. The time frame for the MIT project, for all practical purposes, was under six months.

“MIT went on an extensive search for a company that had been involved in a project of this scope,” said MIT's Gallagher. There was no one company that had done such a project. However, Crimson Tech (of Wilmington, Massachusetts, and Rocky Hill, Connecticut) and its director of the systems group and business development, Michael Goldman, came up with a viable idea: Assemble a team of comprised of a systems integrator, an engineering firm and a control system manufacturer. Gallagher and Goldman met with a representative from Crestron quickly — so quickly that Waveguide's Walker was unable to make the meeting on such short notice. When Walker did join the team across the table, it did not take him long to realize what they were up against.

Did designing the most complex distance-learning system in their experience for the most prestigious technical institution of higher learning in the country, in three months, rattle Waveguide a bit? It certainly did. “Building a distance-learning center for real rocket scientists,” is the way Walker put it, and the time frame required a different way of delivering the standard product.

In response to the tight schedule — as well as MIT's apprehension at heading into the project — one of the first things Waveguide did was to take MIT's project team to the Pyle Center at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Madison, Wisconsin. This Waveguide project, one of the country's premier distance-learning facilities with 28 distance-learning rooms of varying sizes and configurations, was completed in 1998. The Pyle Center was also the first large-scale distance-learning center to use e-Control, an Internet/browser-based control technology that allows connection with and control of most A/V or environmental devices via a LAN, WAN or Internet connection.

“The Pyle Center is a highly automated system,” said Walker, “designed so that two or three technicians can operate multiple simultaneous conferences. The folks at MIT had not seen this done successfully before.” Walker added that the entire Pyle Center project had been rapidly re-cast around the e-Control product when it became available in the summer of 1998.

The MIT project came about on the heels of INFOCOMM 2000 and the introduction of the Crestron TPS line of touchpanels.“I suggested immediately that we change to this panel so that we could do all that was asked of the controls system,” said Crestron's Villiard. “The TPS-6000 for the master control center would give us the real estate to manage multiple rooms, as well as the horsepower to run the system smoothly. TPS-6000 memory (up to 96 MB of memory and 70 mips performance), along with the fact that we could add more as needed, was key as I looked at our long-term goals.”

At the same time, a Crestron TPS-5000 in the classroom would make the user interface with video and audio a single point of control and help the user focus on the task of teaching instead of on juggling multiple pieces of gear. “The user interface designed by Waveguide is simple to understand,” said Villiard. “The support for multiple modes, from an automated distance-learning mode to a fully controllable broadcast mode at master control, is functional and easy to navigate.”

“It took an incredible leap of faith to commit to the design of a system where the central router and all the associated equipment would be a third of a mile away from the first model classroom,” said Gallagher. But Waveguide and MIT did not make the leap blindly. “We built in redundancy in the form of a separate, backup codec that could be moved from master control to Bechtel in the event that the fiber connection from Bechtel to Building 9 did not work at all. In order to do 384 video, we added three dedicated ISDN lines to Bechtel.”

Neither the backup codec nor the three ISDN lines have been used since the new network went online. “We're using leased, dedicated bandwidth via Internet2,” said Gallagher. “So as the new system has proven to be robust, we have no need for ISDN connectivity in the other classrooms we plan to bring online. And this has an important economic implication as an ISDN connection can cost hundreds of dollars an hour, far more than Internet2 connectivity.”

A “codec farm” in Building 9 is key to the system's scalability. A codec farm is a group of codecs located together in a single location that service multiple rooms. The concept is fairly new and, according to Villiard, the opportunity to work with one was “a cool factor, and to do it at MIT was even cooler.”

EVERYTHING IS REPLACEABLE, EXCEPT…

Without downplaying the importance of quality equipment — project suppliers included Crestron, Extron, Barco, PictureTel, Gentner, TVOne and others — Walker admits to an epiphany while working late nights to bring this challenging project to completion.

“I realized that all of the hardware in a project is replaceable. If you don't like the projector, you can find a dozen other models that will work just fine. The one thing that holds everything together, that's not interchangeable, that's custom and one-off, is the control program. It's the one thing that gives meaning to everything else in the system. It's the window into the system that the client relates to — the logic of the system, the interface, its functionality, its reliability. It's all about control. And for this project, the control resides in the 30,000 lines of code that are the glue of the system.”

Villiard expands on this: “When you put many pieces together like we have at MIT, and you create human interface that people can then use no mater what level of technical ability they have, everything comes down to the programmer [who] writes all the lines of code so that all the equipment works in harmony.

“I don't dream up grand ideas like Scott [Walker] does,” said Villiard, “but I put them into reality. Scott brings the spark that ignites my skills. He uses my talent to bring all types of devices and machine languages together to create a single interpreter for a human to command…I love what I do, but it is a tough position to be in most of the time.”

“God bless the A/V industry control system programmers,” said Walker, laughing. “Theirs is a lonely pursuit.”

THE FUTURE AT MIT

Operationally, the MIT distance-learning network now functions with maximum productivity from the equipment and from the technical staff. Even use of non-network elements of the system has been maximized: A full, broadcast-quality studio was retained in Building 9 for uses such as a recent CNN interview segment. “Prior to installing a fiber link to a central hub at TVOC in Boston, we would have had to rent a satellite uplink truck and plug in at Building 9,” said Gallagher. “Now we lease the fiber line from the Verizon Communications network, far less costly than bringing in an uplink truck, and send the signal to TVOC for satellite broadcast.”

With all the centralized elements of MIT's distance-learning network either in place or in planning, Gallagher has a clear vision of how the system is evolving. “I see Building 9 as a sort of air traffic control center where all the technicians are doing their jobs at individual control consoles while a supervisor offers assistance where needed.” For applications other than distance learning, he sees multiple classrooms linked back to a centralized help desk.

Two other classrooms are set to go online in the fall of 2001: a totally renovated 60-seat hall and a 20-seat multipurpose computer lab/classroom/distance-learning room. As the successful rollout of Bechtel has established, according to Villiard, ”We are not limited to one room/one control processor, and this is opening doors for other projects like MIT Bechtel.” In a sense, what the design team for the MIT distance-learning network conceived of and built was nothing less than the future of the system itself.

Charles Conte is sole owner and proprietor of Big Media Circus, a marketing communications consulting company specializing in high-tech products and services. He can be reached via www.bigmediacircus.com and bmc@home.com.

Normally, a project such as this would take 12 to 18 months from concept to completion. The schedule for the MIT project was a mere five months.

Concept to Completion: The Team and The Project

THE TEAM

  • Waveguide Consulting Inc. (www.waveguide inc.com). Formed in 1996, Waveguide Consulting, Inc. in Decatur, Georgia, is an acoustical and audio-visual design firm with extensive experience designing conference rooms, board rooms, training centers, distance-learning facilities, and performing arts centers and production facilities.
  • Crimson Tech (www.crimsontech.com). The installer of the MIT distance-learning system, this is one of New England's leading providers of A/V and presentation products, systems design and engineering, and video systems for many applications. At its Massachusetts headquarters, Crimson Tech provides manufacturer-authorized service and demonstrations.
  • Crestron Electronics (www.crestron.com). Headquartered in Rockleigh, New Jersey, Crestron is a leader in the design and manufacture of control and automation systems for the corporate, industrial, educational and residential markets. Crestron e-Control™ allows connection with and control of most A/V or environmental devices via a LAN/WAN/Internet connection.
  • The Center for Advanced Educational Services (www-caes.mit.edu). The client for the MIT distance-learning project, and system design partner as well, CAES is the main source of MIT continuing professional education to the campus and the community, often via distance learning. MIT Video Productions (www.mit.edu.mvp) was also a participant in the distance-learning project.

The project was funded in large part by the Singapore MIT Alliance to support its needs for distance education delivery. For more information, see web.mit.edu/sma.

THE PROJECT

Given the groundbreaking scope for the systems to be designed and installed, it's not surprising that little about the Bechtel Hall distance-learning project followed established formulas.

Initially, MIT contacted New England-based Crimson Tech in March 2000, revealing the extremely tight schedule for the project — a mere five months to completion. Normally, a project such as this would take 12 to 18 months from concept to completion. Crimson Tech's director of the systems group and business development, Michael Goldman, immediately realized that an extraordinary project with this timeframe required an extraordinary team-building effort. He suggested a partnership that would link an A/V consultant with experience in large-scale distance-learning systems and a control systems manufacturer who could provide the latest technology, technical support and programming expertise. Crimson contacted Crestron, who contacted Waveguide Consulting Inc.

“Michael and Crimson Tech were certainly the driving force behind the team approach to the project,” said director of MIT Video Productions, Larry Gallagher. “The project never would have been completed without it.”

Waveguide included in its quotes that all programming would be done by the manufacturer because companies such as Crestron retain highly experienced, dedicated programmers who are at the forefront of dealing with networked control-system programming and whose exclusive job it is to write code.

Waveguide's Scott Walker said, “We deal with the same programmer for multiple projects — in this instance, Crestron's senior systems engineer and praogrammer, Alex Villiard. By developing good working relationships with various programmers, we can offer our clients solutions that have been refined over several projects rather than starting at square one with each new job.”

The already tight schedule went by very quickly. “Six months…” said Villiard, “It seemed much shorter!”

MIT Master Control Equipment

AUDIO PROCESSING: Spirit Folio Fx16 audio mixer (1)

VIDEO EQUIPMENT: Sony PVW-2800 Betacam deck VTR (1) • Sony RMM110 rack mount kit (1) • Panasonic AGDS555 SVHS VCR (1) • FEC Rack Mount Kit (1) • Sony DSR 30 (Control S) DVCAM recorder (1) • Panasonic AG-2560 VHS VCR (1)

A/V routers/switchers: Extron 6400 Series Matrix Router 64×64 stereo audio & composite video (1) • Ross RSV 216A 16-input video production switcher (1)

VIDEO PROCESSING EQUIPMENT: Telecast Diamondback & Adder fiber transceiver (4) • Picturetel Concord 4000 codec (1)

MONITORS: Panasonic Ct-1387VY 13" monitor/receiver (2) • Sony PVM-14M4U 14" preview & program monitor (2) • Sony PVM8045Q monitor (1) • Panasonic WVBM503 tri bank 5" B/W monitor (3) • Sony PVM4B1U monitor (1)

REMOTE CONTROL SYSTEMS: Crestron TPS 6000 15" touch panel (2) • Crestron CNMXSXPRO Mini System Pro (1) • Crestron CNXENET Ethernet card (1)

TEST EQUIPMENT: Tektronix TSG200 w/options 1 and 2 signal generator (1) • Tektronix 1740a waveform/vector (1)

EQUIPMENT RACKS: MAP WRK44-32 44 rack unit 32" deep equipment rack (11)

MIT Bechtel Hall Equipment

MICROPHONES: Crown MB-3 audience microphone (36) • Shure UD14/85 wireless microphone (2)

MIXERS/EC/HYBRID: Gentner AP800 automixer/EC (6) • Gentner AP400 telephone hybrid (1)

AUDIO PROCESSING: Shure DFR11 EQ (4) • Crown CT-210 dual-channel amp, speech audio (1) • Crown CT-410 dual-channel amp, program audio (1)

LOUDSPEAKERS: Frazier CAT 46 program speaker (2) • Frazier CAT 40 speech speaker (1)

VIDEO SOURCE EQUIPMENT: Crestron ST-TUNE CATV tuner (1) • Parkervision CPC-2013 A3N 3-chip tracking camera (1) • Sony DXC-950 3-chip room camera (4) • Pioneer DVD-7400 DVD player (1) • Panasonic AG-1980 SVHS VCR (1)

A/V INTERFACES/ROUTERS: Extron MAV 1616 Router 16×16 stereo audio & composite video (1) • Extron Matrix 200 8×8 RGBHV router (1) • Extron RGB302 universal interface (2) • Extron 130XI w/MBC spark buffer Sun workstation interface (1) • Extron 202XIVTG dual input interface (1)

VIDEO PROCESSING EQUIPMENT: Telecast Diamondback & Adder fiber transceiver (4) • RGB Spectrum SV1000-2 video window processor (1) • Tvone Corioscan Pro SG scan converters (2)

DISPLAY DEVICES: NEC Plasmasync 3300 33" plasma monitor (2) • Barco Reality 6400DLC 14" preview & program monitor (2)

REMOTE CONTROL SYSTEMS: Crestron TPS 5000 12" touch panel (2) • Crestron CNMSXPRO Mini System Pro (1) • Crestron CNXENET Ethernet card (1)

Building a Scalable Network for Bechtel Hall

Bechtel Hall represents the first phase of MIT's effort to build a campus-wide distance-learning network. At the core of this initial phase was the idea that the design had to scale. The development and installation of Bechtel established specific scalable elements of this new model.

  1. A design for distance-learning room systems across campus that can be duplicated, tweaked and morphed, but would not need to be re-conceived for each project.
  2. A master control facility to which production pods and codecs can be added to allow more concurrent distance-learning sessions.
  3. A basis for design of the production pods, similar to the classroom design, that can be duplicated.
  4. A control touchpanel user interface design and control program that can be carried forward on additional projects.
  5. An environment where MIT technician's can operate multiple remote rooms from one location (master control) so that staff resources are centralized and support one another, rather than operating alone at remote corners of the campus.
  6. Room standards for acoustics, lighting, lectern design, camera/monitor placement, etc., that can be used as benchmarks in the development of future rooms.

Because scalability was one of the main challenges in the Bechtel project, solving it, according to Crestron senior systems engineer Alex Villiard, meant that “each system added, though each will certainly have its own set of obstacles and opportunities, should incorporate smoothly into a whole campus control system.”

Building 9, home of the central control room for the growing distance-learning network, will be expanded to accommodate new wired classrooms as they come online. “The square footage has already been allotted. Nine more control consoles for a total of 15 planned classrooms,” said director of MIT video production Larry Gallagher. “But the beauty of it is that as the network grows, we only need to make marginal increases to the size of the central router. The brain power is already in place.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Barco
www.barco.com
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Crestron
www.crestron.com
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Crown
www.crownaudio.com
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Extron
www.extron.com
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FEC
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Frazier
www.frazierspeakers.com
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Gentner
www.gentner.com
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Map
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NEC
www.nectech.com
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Panasonic
www.panasonic.com
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Parkervision
www.parkervision.com
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PictureTel
www.picturetel.com
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Pioneer
www.pioneerelectronics.com
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RGB
www.rgb.com
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Ross
www.rossvideo.com
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Shure
www.shure.com
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Sony
www.sony.com
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Spirit
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Tektronix
www.tektronix.com
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Telecast
www.telecast-fiber.com
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TVOne
www.tvone.com
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