Monday, February 17, 2014

Can you walk before you Zoom?

Web-based videoconferencing is one of those things that looks like voodoo to some, but to others it's about as new and exciting as brushing their teeth.  We use it for a number of synchronous classes, making sure to always record the class sessions and make them available to students later.  (Hey, people have real lives.  If you hold a class for 20 people with real lives, a few of them will have sick kids, job overtime, or computer crashes. Life happens.)

Our two "supported" web videoconference systems are Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate. Frankly, both of them are enough of a pain that I'd love to find better alternatives, but they have specific advantages for formal classroom use.  We find it best to have an online moderator actually run the meeting while the instructor concentrates on the class and the content.

BUT - holding more casual online meetings and business meetings is a different deal!  We've found a very handy tool for those, and it's not Skype.  It's called Zoom.  http://zoom.us/



So far, our uses have been small meetings for supervisors and staff, and it has become a great way to avoid travel for these meetings. The good news is that it has been working very well, technical issues have been minimal (for those who are past the point of thinking their CD drive is their "drink holder"), and it has been very cost effective. People REALLY like it, they find it easy to work through the installation and setup, and they have had no problems using their webcams and even screen-sharing for presentations and conferences.

One thing we have discovered: Zoom is much more dependable when you're on a hard-wired connection than wireless.  To be fair, that's true of all web conferencing applications, but you have been warned.

Also, any time you use any web conferencing tool, you are smart if you set up a pre-meeting check in for those who haven't used it before.  I guarantee you will have some minor problems that people will have to work through the first time they connect using any web-based tool.

As is typical for a web tool like this, free accounts are available.  The free version allows an unlimited number of meetings with up to 40 minutes of connection time each. Also, essentially all the features of the program are available for users of the free version - which is rather unusual.  Frankly, if you can't do it in 40 minutes, you should think about other ways to do it...or take a break and come back to a separate meeting.

If you really like it, pricing plans can be seen here: http://zoom.us/pricing. For $10 a month you get unlimited meetings with up to 25 participants, for $50 a month you get up to 100 participants.

Zoom claims to connect with H.323 systems using a "Room Connector" option which costs an additional $50 per month.  We haven't tried this, as we don't use H.323 systems for instruction. We make it it a point to be web-connected and avoid proprietary equipment of any kind.

Bottom line for us is that this tool has come in so handy for small meetings that one unit on campus immediately bought a year's license for $120.  That's less than the cost of two round trips from our campus to Denver, 60 miles away...and it will definitely save many more trips than that.

On a scale from Necessary to Sustain Life to Abandon All Hope, Zoom rates "Worth a Good Test Drive."

Monday, January 27, 2014

Remote Desktop Access and Computer Control Made User-Friendly

For the past couple of years, my tech unit has been using remote desktop software called TeamViewer.  They describe their software this way:  "Remote control any computer or Mac over the internet within seconds or use TeamViewer for online meetings"

You can check it at http://www.teamviewer.com. There is a free version you can download for private use, and I'd suggest installing it on your computer at home and on your office computer.  You can connect one to the other and learn a lot about how it works.

Why use this when Windows has its own remote desktop client that can be run with a mere master's degree in computing, plus a few weeks of study in the official Microsloth Certified Monk Retreat, devoting your time to esoteric remote desktop studies?  Well, the ridiculous question reveals the answer: mere human beings can actually USE TeamViewer without spending a week learning how to use it! 

The user interface is very friendly, and it allows you to assign a name to every computer which has it installed and see that list of computers.  Assuming control of any computer (whether or not someone is already logged into it) is as simple as a double-click.

When you install it, you get this intro screen which orients you to some of the functions:





But the real fun starts when you get into commercial use and add more computers to the account.  Here's a look at the TeamViewer program showing part of our computer list:




This bears some explanation.

In the left side panel, you see an area labeled "Allow Remote Control."  This is information you can give to anyone who is running TeamViewer that will let them login to you computer and run it.  This is very powerful, as it gives you a way to do tech support in just seconds when there is a request.  The customer can download and install TeamViewer, give you their ID and password numbers over the phone, and you can connect to their computer.

Finally, click on the top of the pop-up screen where it says "Meeting" and you can initiate a web-based videoconference.






In reviewing the pop-up screen, you can see that you can schedule a meeting and see a list of meetings.  You can set up each meeting to use online (web) audio or to use a standard phone bridge.

I started an instant meeting and turned my video camera on, which opened this control bar to run the conference. The desktop can be shared, and there is even a whiteboard function. 



To have full access to a list of computers you work with, plus having a videoconference function built in, is powerful!

Although this is free for personal use, if you want to run your classroom computers with this, it's going to cost you. Our current contract is $2500 per year for installation on an unlimited number of computers, and we can have up to three live remote sessions taking place at any time. Don't forget that those remote sessions can be running on any computer anywhere on the Internet!  A student across the US from you can call with a problem and you can help them. Given the power of the tool, it has been well worthwhile for us.

Why don't you download it on a couple of computers, run it and try it out?  I think you'll like it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What's Old is New Again: How the Blue Yeti Mic Re-Invents the Famous RCA 77DX

Few microphones are more famous or visually identifiable than the classic RCA 77DX.

RCA 77DX (introduced in 1937)

I happen to have a fully functional 77DX, and I love what it does for my voice. But pertinent to this blog, its claim to fame is that it can be switched to multiple pickup patterns: Uni-directional (one direction), Bi-directional (essentially a figure 8 pickup pattern with less sensitivity at the "waist" of the figure 8) and Non-directional (picking up all around the mic with no pattern.)

Ribbon mics of this type were accurate and warm sounding when reproducing the human voice, and were especially useful in radio dramas; mounted on a face-high mic stand and set to bi-directional, two actors facing each other on opposite sides of the mic were equally audible, and if one wanted to sound like he/she was walking away, all they had to do was move to one side of the mic and they sounded more distant.

OK, so what does this have to do with any modern microphone?

It matters when you know how to actually USE microphones.  In today's world, we use mics for such things as web video conferencing, web conferencing, and classroom discussions and lectures. We also need mics that connect to computers via USB, so we can easily incorporate them into recordings and conferences.

There are plenty of cheap mics out there, and also plenty of mics that sound cheap.  But occasionally I find one that's designed intelligently and sounds good, and the Yeti mic made by Blue Microphones (creator of the Snowball and other mics you may have heard of), found at http://bluemic.com/, is a prime example of both.

The Yeti replicates key functions of the RCA 77DX in this respect: "The Yeti features Blue's innovative triple capsule array, allowing for recording in stereo or your choice of three unique patterns, including cardioid, omnidirectional, and bidirectional, giving you recording capabilities usually requiring multiple microphones." (Quoting from their website.)

As Garfield might say, "Big, fat, hairy deal."  Why should you care? 

Because that bi-directional pattern can be a lifesaver when your speaker is on one side of the mic, your audience or conference participants are on the other, and you don't have the chance or the room configuration to connect multiple mics.  The Yeti will fix you up, and it looks quite a bit like the classic RCA 77DX, which is very classy!



This is not a small mic - it's 11 inches tall and weighs 2.2 pounds, so it doesn't hide - it's as visible as the dummy mic on David Letterman's desk. It self-powers from its USB connection to your computer, and passes audio via USB.  Its base is threaded for a standard full size mic stand, but it comes with the removable desk stand you see in the photo.

It has more controls than most mics...

On the front:
  • Master gain control
  • Push-button mute button
On the base:
  • Threaded mic mount
  • USB cable connection
  • 1/8" headphone jack with no latency (no delay), amplifier and volume control

On the back:
  • Mic gain control
  • Pickup pattern control with four options: Stereo, Omnidirectional, Cardioid and Bi-directional
While having two controls for volume presents some danger in the hands of the unschooled, it gives anyone who knows audio or who reads the manual nice control over the audio, which is clean, crisp and pleasant.  The mic is sensitive, but will also tolerate sound levels up to 120 dB with 0.5% THD. In a 25 x 12 conference room, it picked up all voices clearly regardless of the speakers' position in the room.

All this comes in a classy looking mic that can be bought online for about $120, which is a great price for a versatile unit like this. If you have a conference room or other application that fits its qualities, it's a good one to consider.

Pros:
  • Multiple pickup patterns
  • Good sensitivity for multiple voices/users
  • USB output
  • Powers via USB - no power adapters needed
  • Multiple controls including mute button
Cons:
  • Big (you're not going to hide this from a camera)
  • Heavy
  • Easy to steal, so it can't be left in a room unless leashed
  • User-accessible controls may confuse
For the right application, this mic is cost-effective and a great tool.

Need a way to capture preseentations by faculty or students? Try PresentationTube

Just this week I tripped over a new presentation recording tool called PresentationTube: http://presentationtube.com/

It looks really interesting and handy - but fair warning: I just found it and started playing with it.  I haven't checked it out in all respects.

It's software that you can download to your PC (NOT for Mac yet), install and in moments you can start recording:

  1. Your computer screen
  2. Microphone audio
  3. Webcam

You can decide whether to include the camera shot, and you can select from various layouts of presentation and camera. This flexibility is quite comparable to proprietary commercial recording options such as Panopto and Echo360 Personal Capture.

PresentationTube offers both a Lite and Pro version....more on that in a moment. Both versions are fully enabled, but there are differences in how you can use them.

PresentationTube has these computer requirements: Windows (XP/Vista/7/8), MS PowerPoint (2003/07/10/12) and Webcam/microphone. The download page is here: http://presentationtube.com/record.php.

You must create an account to use the software, and make sure to use an email address you check often, because each recording will be confirmed with an email that contains the URL to access the recording. You can also login to your account and find the URLs of any recordings you have made.

The Lite version is free, but is limited to personal and educational use only, and most important, has a limit of 15 minutes per recording.  This is long enough for student presentations, and frankly, it OUGHT to be long enough for all teacher presentations as well.  If you need to jabber for more than 15 minutes, either edit your comments or make a second recording.

PresentationTube provides online cloud storage and access for the recordings.

The Pro version includes lifetime software license, 1 year free upgrade, 24/7 technical support, uploading unlimited number of video presentations, with unlimited video storage space and delivery. Pricing today is $50 individual, Teamwork (up to 12) $450, and site-wide license for a school, university or company is $950. Trust me, compared to other systems which capture presentations, this is not a bad deal.

I installed the software and found it extremely intuitive and easy to use. A typical text slide with camera shot looks like this while you are recording it (image taken from PresentationTube website)


Various controls appear across the left side and around the upper and lower margins, and if you can't figure out how to compose a recording within a few minutes, you need to find a high school kid to provide tech support. PowerPoint, drawing tools and a "whiteboard," which functions more like a chat box where you can type in text, are the primary display tools.

The drawing tool is of limited use unless you have a tablet or touch-screen (to be fair, that's not specific to this software - it's true of any drawing program). Drawing with a mouse stinks, and you're not going to be able to generate a lot of good looking graphics without a touch-screen drawing tool of some kind.

Interesting note - making a recording creates two files.  One is a file with the media, the other is a data file. Both must be uploaded to the cloud site in order to have a viewable recording.  For that reason, you might want to make a folder for your recording files just to keep your desktop or other folders uncluttered.

There is a PresentationTube channel on YouTube, and I haven't had time to see what it contains or where your recordings will show up - but you can bet they will appear somewhere there.  I couldn't find my first test by a title search, but it had been only a few minutes since I made the recording.

Some Pros:
  • Recording is easy and intuitive
  • There are very handy tools built in
  • Uploading is very easy
  • You get an automated email with a link to the recording after each upload
Some Cons:

  • You are limited to 15 minutes with the Lite version
  • This is NOT protected content, although you can mark a recording as "Private". Whether your classmates or instructor can see them if so marked is not clear to me yet
  • You don't have final control over the recording, so don't record anything you don't want others to see, now or in the future
Overall, this looks like a program with nice potential for students  and teachers to use for recording assignments or presentations that don't require security or protection.  It could really make it easy for students to record presentations to share with a class, and it doesn't require support from an IT department.  Best of all, the price is right.

Friday, November 15, 2013

FInally, a USB camera with Pan/Tilt/Zoom

If you've done any work with presentation or lecture capture software, you've dealt with the gap in USB camera technology.  Webcams make decent video if you're within 3 feet of them, but get farther away, and you look like you're in the next room - or the next county.

It stinks.  And so do the camera options.

Sony, Canon, Vaddio and others make nice P/T/Z cameras as long as you don't mind paying $2000 to $4000 or more per camera.  Not something most people - or most schools or universities - can pay for in large multiples.

What to do? You either get the $80 consumer webcam or you're stuck for a megabuck camera if you really need USB input to your computer.

At this dramatic juncture...enter the VDO360 camera. Website:  http://vdo360.com/products


This camera isn't perfect, but it's a big step in the right direction.  Retail is about $1400 and educational price will come in around $1200. Not cheap, not ridiculous.

For that, you get a camera with 180-degree tilt range vertically and 180-degree pan range horizontally.  You also get a 12-power optical zoom lens, meaning it's not a fake zoom which magnifies pixels.  Control is via RS-232 and also via the handy IR handheld remote included with the camera.  Most users will surely use the IR remote, but I'm sure that the RS-23 will come in handy for many.

Mount this camera on a wall-mounted monitor or electronic whiteboard using the handy mount which is included with the unit . You will be able to shoot anywhere in the room 180-degrees from side to side, and from straight up to straight down.

The biggest fault I found with the camera (other than the price, which I'd like to see closer to $600) is that although it is autofocus, it does not focus continually.  That means that if you have a wide shot and zoom into a close-up,  the camera shot goes badly out of focus during the act of zooming. However, once you complete the zoom, the autofocus kicks in and the camera re-focuses immediately.  All things considered, that's not a fatal flaw, and it's sure not worth paying another $1000 for most users.  The 12x zoom is capable of capturing close images in a 40'x40' or larger classroom, is very well suited for conference room applications, and the camera image is clear and crisp.

The camera does come with a wall wart (AC adapter), meaning that AC power must be available within about six feet of the place where the camera is to be used or mounted.  That's also not a fatal flaw for most users, although many simpler cameras power themselves from the USB port on the computer where it's connected.

If you need a capable USB output camera with P/T/Z capability and a nice 12x zoom, this could be the one for you.

As Drive-In Movie Critic Joe-Bob Briggs (http://www.joebobbriggs.com/) used to say, "Check it out."

Specs from the website:
Specifications
Lens: low-light CMOS
Lens area: 1 / 2.7"
Effective pixels: 1920.1080 Pixels
Zoom: 12x zoom lens
Focal length: 4.0 ~ 48.0 mm
Lens angle: maximum 43 °, minimum 7 °
Video format: MJPG, 1080p, 720P, 1280x720, 640x480, 848x480, 800x600,VGA, CIF, QCIF
Pan: 300 ° left to right
Tilt: 90 °
Operating voltage: 12 V external DC
Operating Current: 800mA mechanical PTZ
Video unit: 110mA
Dimensions: W90 x L110 x H105