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Taming The AV Monster

As a result of the high workload at the University of California, San Diego, Media Services department, it began researching alternative methods of handling the media needs for the university. It determined that installed AV systems in the classrooms would be best, but that simplicity in control was mandatory.

Simplicity and repeatability are the key to the AV control systems implemented at the University of California, San Diego campus. The wall-mounted box on the right conceals a DVD player and push-button controls for a projector and other equipment.

Simplicity and repeatability are the key to the AV control systems implemented at the University of California, San Diego campus. The wall-mounted box on the right conceals a DVD player and push-button controls for a projector and other equipment.

CHALLENGE: Find a streamlined approach to delivering the AV needs of a campus of over 25,000 students.

SOLUTION: Transition from a model of physical delivery of portable systems to locally controlled, network monitored installed systems that are simple to operate for non-technical users.

At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), one of the 10 campuses of the University of California System, the Media Services department handles all the campus' media needs. In the past, it's operational model was based on the physical delivery and set up of media equipment for classrooms on an as-needed basis: Equipment would be brought in to the classroom, set up for the class, and then picked up when the class ended. Over the years, this model of media services became labor intensive as more professors began requesting projection, DVD, and other services for classes. Additionally, the numbers of students and instructors continued to increase (in 2004, enrollment was over 25,000 students), further adding to the workload. By 2001, the Media Services department was handling as many as 150 deliveries and pickups per day (300+ total jobs daily).

As a result of the high workload, the department began researching alternative methods of handling the media needs for the university. It determined that installed AV systems in the classrooms would be best, but that simplicity in control was mandatory. The Media Services team found their solution in control products made by SP Controls of San Francisco — specifically, the SmartBox+ and the SmartPanel control interface.

“As we did our research, we found that there were a lot of options out there, from building racks to touch-control systems, but none of the other options would allow us to implement it on a wide scale, both in regards to a financial as well as a simplistic operational scale with this type of success,” says Howard Laurence, UCSD media services/videoconference facilities manager. “Ultimately, we decided on SP's model and phased it in over a three- to four-year period. It provides a solution for approximately 80 percent of our classroom applications.”

More than 100 classrooms and lecture halls plus a half dozen conference rooms were set up with what Laurence calls “core equipment” — a projector, DVD player, laptop PC connection, wired and wireless Internet, and audio equipment. The UCSD Media Service team installed about half of the rooms; CCS Presentation Systems, a nationwide system integrator with offices in Southern California, installed the rest over a three-year period. Laurence says that as with many school installations, the classroom retrofits had to be completed within a very tight window during summer break.

Everything in the AV system is controlled by the SP Controls' SmartPanel and SmartBox+, which also holds the DVD player for the room. In smaller classrooms, 70 volt, 100 watt power amps, also made by SP Controls, are used ,while TOA amplifiers are employed in larger rooms feeding Electro-Voice loudspeakers. Both wired and wireless microphones are provided in the lecture halls. Shure ULX frequency agile microphones are easily tuned to different frequencies if any interference is experienced. For students with hearing disabilities, UCSD Media Services staff have devised a unique system to link wireless microphone signals to an outsourced captioning service.

Cabling needs for each room were cleverly addressed by the department as well. In each classroom, required cabling — such as a network VGA cable, Ethernet connection, and audio mini jack — is bundled into a single shroud, then an extender VGA cable of about 1 foot in length is added to the cable and tied into place. Laurence explains that VGA cables are subject to considerable abuse and can otherwise be service-intensive: “If a connector breaks or pins get bent, it's much easier to replace the 1-foot extender cable than to have to work through 12 feet of wired and dressed cabling.” All cables for the classroom are provided on a wall-mounted hook. When a teacher enters the classroom, he or she removes the cables from the hook, makes the needed connections, then adjusts the SP control panel.

Also in it research, Laurence's team discovered a key element to running a smooth operation with so many AV-equipped rooms on site: No matter whether users are in a small classroom, a large lecture hall, or a conference room, control of each room is identical. A professor only needs to learn the control system once. Color-coded buttons, a quick-start instruction sheet, and a telephone for emergencies have given professors a “comfort zone” that they like. The Media Services team has taken additional steps to ensure professors' comfort levels by offering training courses, which are available online or in-person. Laurence says that at first, training sessions were given three to four times per year, but training needs have reduced considerably as the teachers have become more comfortable with operating the equipment.

With so many classrooms having highly desirable AV gear, theft deterrence was also an issue that needed to be addressed. While the SP wall box conceals the DVD player and microphone when not in use, Laurence took the security of the system a step further by installing custom spacers and combination locks on the wall boxes. “Again, we wanted to keep it simple,” he explains. “We needed something easy and didn't want to deal with the labor requirements around locks that use keys, so the combination lock was an easy solution.” A professor only needs to remember a simple three-digit number in order to gain access to the system in the classroom he or she is using. Most classrooms use either Epson or Sanyo LCD projectors, which are all ceiling-mounted and enclosed in steel cages supplied by Chief Manufacturing and Display Devices. For added security, motion-sensing theft deterrence devices are located in cages adjacent to the projectors. Flashing red LEDs warn away potential thieves.

Keeping the AV equipment running smoothly in this many classrooms could pose a significant challenge, but the UCSD Media Services department found a cost-effective time saver in another product from SP Controls: the CatLinc Net with SmartView. This plug-and-play network interface brings a real-time display, showing the status of each room's system, directly to the Media Services office. In addition to AV equipment status, other details are shown. For example, when a projector bulb reaches 10 percent of its remaing life, the team is notified that the bulb needs to be replaced. Disconnects and other equipment problems independently trigger an e-mail, which is immediately sent to a cell phone, making it possible for Media Services field personnel to receive notifications of trouble without having to go to their desks.

For setup or operational problems, real-time assistance for professors is available between 7:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. If a teacher experiences trouble, heor she simply picks up the phone next to the control box and dials the number. The Media Services Help Desk can then pull up that classroom's status on a monitor, help the teacher troubleshoot equipment problems in the classroom, make adjustments via the CatLinc Net if appropriate, and then determine whether someone needs to be sent to the classroom to assist. “We can take care of about 60 percent of the problems that happen either over the phone or through the remote capability of the system,” says Laurence. If not, a field tech is dispatched to the classroom within five minutes of the call.

Karen Gardner, an information specialist at the UCSD Media Center, agrees that the new model and systems vastly improve customer service while minimizing what she calls “panic calls.” Before the implementation of the new self-serve model, the phone calls that came into Gardner's desk were usually questions on what equipment to order for a presentation (frequently PowerPoint presentations); questions on how to place an order; urgent calls from the administrative assistants saying that a professor was waiting for his equipment; and panic calls from customers needing something at the last minute because they forgot to place an order.

“Since the new model has been in place, I still get calls like first two, but they are far less frequent because the number of on-line orders has dropped about 70 percent,” Gardner says.

The panic calls have diminished, too. Calls from administrative assistants “have all but disappeared, and panic calls are minimal,” she shares. “I do get other calls, though, from users in the classrooms who are having trouble with the installed equipment.”

Identical AV access and control point, available in more than 100 classrooms and lecture halls at UCSD, gives instructors an easy way to control projectors, DVD players, and computer content. An instruction sheet and emergency phone are also available in every room.

Identical AV access and control point, available in more than 100 classrooms and lecture halls at UCSD, gives instructors an easy way to control projectors, DVD players, and computer content. An instruction sheet and emergency phone are also available in every room.

Laurence says the new model has greatly increased the efficiency of his team, as his group's field jobs have been reduced from more than 150 deliveries and pickups per day to fewer than 20. “Unfortunately, our staff hours didn't change,” he says. “We are still needed on-campus from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., six days per week.” Laurence says most of his team's requested jobs now involve one-time requests, such as streaming, videotaping, or managing video and sound equipment for high-profile jobs such as outdoor events.

Other job duties of the team have been altered to meet the requirements of the new model. In addition to the special AV needs on campus, the staff provides real-time support to instructors, maintenance of the classrooms' AV systems (usually removing chalk dust and replacing projector lamps and filters), and installation of new classroom AV systems.

Quarterly polls are sent to professors and other AV users to assess customer satisfaction with the new AV model. Laurence says the polls regularly indicate an approximate 98 percent approval rating. Users say the system is easy to operate and keeps their classes running efficiently.

“We're very pleased with our system,” says Laurence. “As any new building goes in now, we work with the facility design team so we can make sure the proper infrastructure is in place, make sure the conduit is in, and make sure our needs are in the plans. With the way the university is growing, you have to have a solution such as this to be able to keep up.”

Elaine Jones is principal of Elaine Jones Associates, a independent marketing/PR firm based in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at elaine@ejonespr.com.

 


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