WIRED FOR THE FUTURE

The State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) is a relatively small public institution offering a curriculum
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WIRED FOR THE FUTURE

Apr 1, 2002 12:00 PM, By Bruce Borgerson

The State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) is a relatively small public institution offering a curriculum focused on natural science and applied technology. Tucked away in the shadow of Syracuse University's Carrier Dome arena, this respected school is regarded as a highly competitive institution — even though it does not field athletic teams like the famed Orangemen and Orangewomen next door. Instead, it has vaulted to the front ranks in another area of increasingly intense interscholastic competition: building high-tech facilities for lectures, presentations and distance learning.

To leapfrog into the top tier of tech-savvy institutions, SUNY-ESF placed a strong emphasis on learning technologies in planning the recent remodeling of the Baker Laboratories, a 1957-vintage structure that houses many of the school's classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls. The first phase of the multiphase project, completed in late 2001 at a cost of $9 million, included a $500,000 investment in technologies for audio reinforcement, video and data display, and distance learning.

To implement this new level of technology, the school administration entrusted lead architect Matt Kluznik of QPK Design with overall responsibility for realizing the grand plan. Kluznik then assigned the task of technology design specifics to a cooperative venture of two consultants, Dan Myers of the Myers Group (Enidcott, New York) and Frank Emanuel of Emanuel Audiovisual Consultants (Fort Lee, New Jersey). Additional design details were contributed by the systems integrator for the project, Doug Montcrieff of Univisions in Syracuse.

The showcase audiovisual facilities of the Baker Lab project are installed in room 139 (84-student capacity) and room 140 (131-student capacity). The two rooms are nearly identical in their high-tech capabilities, with only a few exceptions: room 140 has two additional slide projectors and, though both rooms have audio conferencing facilities, only the smaller room 139 has full video conferencing and distance learning capabilities. A third, smaller room (135) offers high-tech solutions for small classes, seminars and meetings. (See “Room 135: Technology for a Tight Space.”)

Myers was the key player when it came to drafting a master plan for overall technology implementation. He realized from the outset that, despite some budget constraints, both audio and visual display quality had to be paramount considerations. Incorporating high-quality display technologies proved to be relatively easy from a design point of view, though it did involve some tricky control issues. The audio system requirements were more complex, because the school wanted to create the aural illusion of a more intimate space and also provide for seamless conferencing and distance learning.

“We needed high-fidelity program sound in both rooms,” Myers said. “We also needed a system that would make the reinforcement process essentially transparent. We proposed a zoned voice-lift system with microphones at the student seats, so if a student spoke softly in the rear of the room the voice would be reinforced evenly everywhere except in the nearest overhead speakers.”

Realization of the ambitious design ran into several complexities, first due to the number of audio sources. The program audio comes from a VCR, a DVD/CD player or the audio channels from Altinex computer interfaces embedded in stage floor boxes. Instructors may choose from Shure lavalier or handheld wireless systems, or select the overhead beyerdynamic SHM22-5HPW shotgun ceiling microphones. If a panel discussion is desired, the systems accommodate Crown PCC-160 boundary microphones through more floor-box inputs.

To keep the students involved in two-way discussions, the system provides a desk microphone for every two or three seats. The system in room 140 includes 48 multizoned Shure MX392C Microflex Series boundary microphones, with 40 of the same microphone in room 139.

As if that weren't complex enough, remember that voice-lift microphones also needed to go to the distance learning and teleconferencing systems, as well as to the hearing assistance system required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Myers devised a room overflow mode wherein audio and video from one room could be shared with the other. The program audio remains in stereo, with voices summed to a phantom center channel and routed to the program audio speakers.

The sheer amount of matrixing, mixing, mix-minusing, gating and equalization necessary to make the system work — in multiple modes, with no trained technician on site — is daunting to say the least. In his first round of design, nearly two years prior to project completion, Myers devised a complex mix-minus system comprising discrete microphone auto-mixers and multiband equalizers, and the bid was awarded to Univsions with this early design specified. However, during the interim period, Montcrieff received preliminary information on the forthcoming XAP800 from Gentner and recommended the substitution to Myers. It was quickly accepted. Essentially, the XAP800 rolls all the required functions into one powerful digital signal processing unit, providing a full 32-by-32 crosspoint matrix, internal and global microphone mixers, noise and echo cancellation, four input filters on each of the eight microphone level inputs, and comprehensive computer programmability through Gentner's G-Ware software architecture.

The final, as-installed system employed eight of the XAP800 units in room 140, and seven in 139, with outputs feeding a Gentner PA870 8-channel power amplifier in each room. For dial-up audio conferencing, each system also included a Gentner XAP TH1 telephone hybrid.

“I think we got the first 15 XAP800s to come off the line,” Montcrieff said. “It was a great relief. Here I had a system with 64 microphone inputs and 13 buses dealing with 12 separate mixes, and doing without the XAP800s and G-Ware would have been a long and trying experience. But with the G-Ware and the processing functions available, I had many options that I've never had before. It was a joy.”

According to Montcrieff, most initial programming of the units was done in the shop prior to installation. Using a couple of microphones and the internal signal generator, he set up the routing and approximate levels. Every now and then he would hook up an amplifier and speaker to confirm that the virtual metering in G-Ware was true to life, and it was. Once on site, Montcrieff tweaked the levels and made EQ adjustments for the acoustics of the room.

“It was easy to use the processing to create very narrow 60dB notch filters when I needed them,” he said. “I found the first three rings in the room and made them go away without messing up overall clarity. The system does not have to be loud to be heard. It's not even close to feedback. You turn it on and let it run.”

Myers was pleased and relieved by the change in plans. “It has worked out wonderfully,” he said. “It has greatly simplified and automated the system. It now [has] simpler installation, testing and, perhaps most significantly, maintenance. You don't have to go back and constantly tweak it. Once it's set up and balanced, it's good to go.”

At the loudspeaker end of the system, implementing Myers's plan was fairly straightforward. Two separate reinforcement systems were specified for each room: a program audio system for the playback sources and a voice-lift system for instructor and student voices. Program audio in each room is carried (in stereo) by four JBL Control 28 loudspeakers powered by Crown CT-410 70V amplifiers. The student and instructor microphones are routed to the voice-lift system, which feeds 30 Atlas/Soundolier C803AT72 ceiling speakers (in five zones of six) in room 139, and 36 of the same speakers (in six zones of six) in room 140. Ceiling speakers are powered by Gentner PA 870 8-channel amplifiers.

VIDEO SYSTEMS

although the two consultants shared an overall conceptual design, it was Emanuel who took the lead in several aspects of visual display implementation. Chief among Emanuel's concerns were screen configuration and placement, projector selection and location, and keeping the operator functions as simple and straightforward as possible.

One of Emanuel's first decisions was to insist on three screens in each room, rather than a single large screen in the center. That not only allows projection of multiple images simultaneously from different sources but also permits instructors to use a chalkboard or whiteboard in the traditional fashion while images are projected to either side.

The most difficult projection problem faced by Emanuel was mounting the slide projectors. Unlike electronic video and data projectors, optical slide projectors have no keystone correction, so proper positioning in relation to the screen is critical. Also, easy access is necessary to change slide trays. Emanuel's solution was to mount the projectors (Kodak Ektagraphic III) on drop-down scissor lifts, which descend just below the ceiling for projection and down to chest level for loading. Gavi autolamp changers are incorporated to prevent unforeseen interruptions in a presentation.

Slide projection may seem an antiquated technology for such an installation, but well-produced 35mm slides still have a slight edge in resolution detail. But the gap is closing with the new higher resolution video projectors, such as the JVC DLA-G20Us (SXGA 1, 365-by-1,024 native) installed in each room in the Baker Lab project.

“The new high-resolution projectors are coming close to slides, particularly when the image is captured by a high-quality digital camera,” Emanuel said. “Unfortunately, the transfers from 35mm slides to digital usually don't do as well as the original images. I understand the school has a slide library of more than 100,000 images, so I expect the slide projectors will be needed for some time to come.”

In addition to the JVC units, each room also has a pair of NEC GT-1150 LCD projectors (XGA 1,024-by-768 native) suitable for all but the most demanding projection tasks. All six projectors are equipped with networking facilities that allow remote system checks and maintenance. Room 139 also incorporates a pair of ceiling-hung NEC plasma screens, which are used only in the distance learning mode (at least in the current configuration).

Video sources for each room include a Sony DVD and a Mitsubishi S-VHS VCR, both conveniently located in a stage wall cabinet, with computer graphic inputs from either the resident host computer in the lectern or laptops connected to the floor pockets. In addition, because the host computer or laptops can connect to the university network (and to the Internet as well), sources available for projection are virtually limitless.

“Many professors prefer to prepare their PowerPoint presentations on their office computers and then access it through the network,” Montcrieff said. “That way, even the most absent-minded professor cannot possibly forget to bring presentation materials to the lecture hall.”

To route the many video and data signals to their proper locations and to prepare them for the output devices, the Baker Lab project includes a bevy of video and data processing gear, including Altinex matrix switchers; RGB Spectrum scalers, a scan converter and a quad split processor; and a Polycom VS-400 30fps video codec with multipoint bridge for the distance learning and videoconference requirements. Most of the equipment is housed in a media storage room adjacent to the two lecture halls.

CHALLENGES MET

without question, the biggest overall challenge faced by both consultants and the system integrator was making all the technology easy to use — and virtually impossible to misuse. To keep operations as smooth and transparent as possible, each room is programmed for a number of automatic modes on an AMX Netlinx-based system using 15-inch ELO color touch screen control interfaces mounted in each lectern. In most uses, the room can be set up by pressing a few buttons on the touch screen: microphone selection, source selection, student mics on or off, and so on. Choosing video-projection mode, for example, automatically lowers the screen, dims the lights, turns on the projector and activates Play on the VCR. Specific control of a presentation in progress, whether from computer, slides or video, can be accomplished either through the touch screen or by using 32-button RF remote controls. Those operate anywhere in the room with no pointing necessary. The integrated AMX system was set up by Montcrieff with programming assistance (both in person and remote online) by AMX staffers Ron DeStasio and Mark Epstein.

In addition to all the necessary controls for automated or manual operation, the ELO touch screen also displays any images — moving or still — as projected by either or all of the three video/data projectors, or as fed by any source other than optical slides. That lets a lecturer view the images from the lectern without over-the-shoulder glances to see what is on the large screen.

The lecterns in each room may be positioned at either of two floor box connecting points, one at center stage and one off to the side. Each floor box has all necessary audio, video, data and networking connections, as well as dial-up access for notebook computers. In addition to the ELO touch-screen controller, the lecterns provide a Crown LM301A microphone, a VGA screen for the internal host computer, power and network connections for notebook computers, a document camera, a clock, and a hinged ADA-specified access shelf (30-inch height) that serves as a handy surface for extra notebook computers, water glasses and papers.

Slow Renovations. An early and optimistic timeline scheduled full operation of the two rooms on opening day of the 2001 fall semester. However, the many difficulties involved in renovating an older structure extended the schedule. The basic room construction was done by September, but all the technology was not yet in place. Univisions completed installation and testing during the fall semester, in between lecture hall uses, and final testing and training was carried out during the holiday break in December 2001. Initial responses were enthusiastic, particularly in regard to the quality of the visual images and the audio clarity.

“I am very pleased by the way the voice-lift worked,” Montcrieff said. “It is very transparent. You can tell that your voice is being amplified, but you can't tell from where. You feel confident that you're being heard in the far corners.”

Brian Boothroyd, the facilities program coordinator at SUNY-ESF, supported Montcrieff's evaluation. “To have somebody in the back of a 130-seat lecture hall ask a question in a soft voice and have it heard perfectly by everyone is just outstanding,” he said. “The instructor never has to repeat questions.”

Regarding the visuals, Boothroyd responded with similar enthusiasm. “I think there has been a quantum leap in quality over the past few years, and in particular what you have to pay for that quality,” he said. “With the new digital document cameras and projectors, we can show details that could not be seen in large screen projection. That will mean a lot more flexibility in the future.”

Certainly the future was much on the mind of Myers and Emanuel from the outset of the project. They knew that the room's technological evolution wouldn't stop with the end of the contract. “We left open pipes to add future capabilities,” Myers said. “We can videoconference IP and stream IP, so they can set it up to allow students to attend lectures [online]. All the piping is digital video capable, so they can make that move without pulling new wires. They're talking about adding recording facilities to capture a lecture in digital form and upload it to a server. We kept the basic architecture open to allow for that.”

Bruce Borgerson is principal of Wavelength Communications, a marketing communications and consulting firm in Ashland, Oregon.

Room 135: Technology for a Tight Space

Room 135 in the Baker Lab was designed to serve as a multifunction space for smaller classes, meetings and presentations. The challenge was to configure the limited space to accommodate 32 seats, each with a clear view of the presentation screen, within the confines of a 25-by-28-foot floor plan. The inward focused, twin-U seating arrangement allows clear sight lines to the NEC 50MP 1 plasma screens and enables the inner U to be used as an intimate space for staff committee meetings and thesis reviews.

The room does not require voice reinforcement, but high-fidelity program sound is provided by a Bose AM15 speaker system that carries the mono, stereo or 5.1 surround sources from the Sony DVP-9000S DVD/CD player, Mitsubishi HSU746 S-VHS VCR, the resident host computer or any notebook computer connected through the Altinex ISC2000 interfaces.

Audio, video and lighting is controlled through an AMX Netlinx system equipped with a 15-inch ELO touch-screen monitor. Because of the limited space in the lectern, the single ELO screen is switchable to serve as a dedicated monitor for the host computer or as the touch-screen controller.

Room 135 is not equipped with a conventional chalkboard or white board, but instead offers a SMART Technologies Smart Board 580 touch panel overlay on one of the plasma screens, which allows users to freely draw or diagram over a neutral background or over any image brought up on the screen from prerecorded sources, computers or the document camera.

For More Information

Altinex
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