Hybrid-enabling Spaces at the Taylor Institute

I’d previously written a bit about shifting to more agile/adaptable/flexible learning technologies, and I’ve been meaning to write something about our work to adapt spaces in the Taylor Institute as we try to enable some kind of remote- or hybrid- or mixed- or whatever modality thing we wind up calling this stuff. So… here goes…

When everything shifted online at the beginning of the whole COVID thing, the learning spaces at the Taylor Institute kind of got put on hold for awhile. We focused on online platforms for a year, and then slowly started dipping back into hybrid scenarios where some students are physically in the room and some are elsewhere, wherever.

To prepare for The Return To Campus™, we predicted that there would be two main scenarios:

  1. People who just want to throw Zoom onto the projector in the classroom to share content to remote participants
  2. People who want to display remote participants on a dedicated display (while also being able to use the projector for content etc. for in-room participants) so in-room participants can interact with them and vice versa

Scenario 1: Zoom-enabling Classroom Computers

If you want to display a Zoom meeting on the main display (say, a projector) in a room, there are lots of options. It can be a bit tricky, though, because then you have to decide “do I want to see remote participants, or do I want to see content?” because it can’t be both, unless you have a very fancy multiple-display setup.

Dedicated auto-tracking cameras as video inputs for Zoom etc.

The first adaptation we made to the AV setup in the TI classrooms was switching out the video cameras that were initially installed in the rooms. The original tech was a Vaddio PTZ camera (I forget the exact model) that required the presenter to wear a lanyard with an invisible beacon that was tracked by the camera. It worked, but was problematic - especially if sunlight was visible in a room, which made the IR tracker glitch (which is not ideal in a building with giant windows in every classroom).

1Beyond Autotracking Camera

A newer AI-driven autotracking camera from 1Beyond was installed in all of the main floor classrooms, and integrated as a video input (along with the microphones and audio signal from the room as an audio input) on the PC within the classroom’s teaching podium. This means the tracking camera can be used in Zoom meetings, or in YuJa lecture capture, or in whatever other software is installed on the PC.

And - I just saw that Crestron is buying 1Beyond, so it will hopefully be a sustained product line. We previously had Crestron Capture HD lecture capture devices installed in each classroom, but Crestron end-of-lifed them and they were removed after the things started to fail. I mean, hopefully more sustainable than that…

A quick demo of a YuJa lecture capture from the podium PC, with the 1Beyond camera selected as video source:

Adding cameras/microphones without renovating

So that works well for rooms that have dedicated hardware, or are able to Macguyver something with a webcam. But, what about spaces that need cameras added without a $20K renovation budget?

(Logitech) Webcams on a Tripod

All of the TI meeting rooms have had webcams added, and set as the video input for Zoom and Teams. They are wide enough to capture much of the meeting room, and the microphone is mostly good enough. It’s not ideal, but for less than $200, the meeting rooms are videoconference-enabled.

TI 214 with a webcamTI 214 with a webcam

But, our main TI 230 conference room has a veerrrrrrry loooonnnnnnggg table, and our current strategy of “stick a webcam on a tripod at one end of the room” just isn’t working out:

about half of the loooooonnnggg tableAbout half of the looooooooonnnngggg table

And, with a webcam at one end, it’s non-optimal:

Zoom with a webcam on a tripod at one end of a loooooonnnggg tableZoom with a webcam on a tripod at one end of a loooooonnnnggg table

People at the far end are tiny 12-pixel blurs in Zoom, while people at the near end are giants. In this room, there are 3 microphones installed in the table so the audio quality is really good. But, the video is problematic.

Owl Labs Meeting Owl pro

Next, I want to pick up a couple of Owl Labs Meeting Owl Pro cameras, to improve the experience when using Zoom or Teams from our TI 230 conference room.

The Meeting Owl Pro camera claims to be able to connect multiple cameras into one combined virtual device, with the software automatically switching between cameras depending on who is talking. If that works, we could put one near each end of the long table and it would be able to switch between participants anywhere in the room.

I don’t have an Owl cam yet, but there are some on campus and initial feedback is very positive. As is feedback from colleagues at other institutions who have deployed these. I’m hopeful that it’ll work in our context as well.

Scenario 2: Displaying remote participants on a dedicated display

Neat Board

We also picked up a Neat Board, as a way to quickly Zoom-enable any classroom or meeting space, just by wheeling the board into the room and plugging it in.

Neat Board Zoom meetingNeat Board Zoom meeting

Note that the Neat Board’s fancy software is able to slice the video feed from the high quality wide-angle lens and create individual participants in Zoom for every person in the room. There must be an upper limit, but in the meeting shown above, there’s only 1 person who isn’t in the room. All of the video boxes in the bottom row are people who are in the room, automatically sliced by Neat’s software. It also tracks movement, and can pan to follow a person and rearrange the boxes as needed. It’s trippy. And the beam-shaping microphone works really, really well.

The Neat Board device is not inexpensive, but compared to the cost of installing dedicated displays in spaces, or even picking up a generic display that could be moved as needed, it’s not unreasonable. It comes with what appears to be a dedicated tablet device to run it, and works well over wifi. After the initial purchase cost, there isn’t a direct ongoing cost for the Board itself - but it does use a Zoom Rooms license to there would be additional increases to the campus Zoom license if we pick up any more of these.

Here’s a quick demo of a Zoom meeting recorded from a Neat Board:

And, for bonus points, here’s a demo of a 1Beyond auto-tracking camera and Neat Board in the same Zoom meeting…

Evaluating and Adapting

We are still in pretty early stages of evaluating all of these technologies at small scale within the Taylor Institute. As we learn more about what works (and what doesn’t) and what the implications are for management and support of these, we’ll be using that to inform plans for adding enhanced hybrid-enabled technologies in other learning spaces across the university.


See Also

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Last updated: September 16, 2023