Wide Area Conferencing
THE POPULAR colloquialism, ?They do things big in Texas,? certainly must have a lot to do with physical geography. The University of Texas' Health Science Center (HSC), based in San Antonio, illustrates that dynamic in the way it virtually links medical, dental, and nursing teaching facilities that are spread out all over the Panhandle, in places like Laredo and down into the Rio Grande Valley as far south as Edinburg. The HSC has built a vast Polycom-based videoconferencing network, connecting more than 60 disparate rooms ? AV-equipped classrooms, lecture halls, labs, and auditoriums, spread out all over South Texas. And it controls it all over a single wide-area network (WAN) from a head-end location on the main campus in San Antonio.
Of course, developing this sprawling system took time — it was more than a decade in the making. It took resources.
The videoconferencing system went through several stages of evolution, starting with an older system that was integrated into 11 classrooms in 1994 and replaced in '96 with hardware manufactured by V-Tel. By the time HSC administrators outfitted about 60 rooms with Polycom-based systems — and integrated a Polycom MCG-100 bridge into their head end — more than $6 million had been spent on videoconferencing equipment alone. This isn't to mention the many millions of dollars more that were spent on IT network upgrades, as well as sound and projection equipment.
And it took cooperation — not only was development of the system backed at the highest levels, but the project took the joint vision of several HSC departments and outside AV systems integrators.
Coordinating it all was Baggs, who joined the HSC under the title of videoconferencing coordinator back in 1996. At that time, the HSC AV staff deployed 31 mobile video teleconferencing carts to its hundreds of classrooms, lecture halls, labs, and auditoriums — and all of those used 35 mm film and overhead slides for presentations.
“It's a cliché, but when you talk about it, it wasn't really ‘convergence' that brought this system together,” Baggs says. “It was more like a collision.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, the school aggressively began upgrading its classroom AV environments as it went about a rather massive building spree, commissioning either new facilities or renovations not only on the main San Antonio campus, but on such satellite campuses as Laredo, Harlingen, and Edinburg. In all, 11 HSC facilities were either built from scratch or retrofitted. Network capability in these buildings was upgraded, too, to include fiber-optic cable.
As the HSC has integrated the latest AV technology into these new rooms, it's gone back to upgrade the older ones. “They just keep upgrading and upgrading,” notes Doug Winnick, who began working with the HSC while employed by now-defunct Dallas systems integrator Sound Vision Corp. in the late-'90s. He now works with the school as an independent consultant. “Rooms we did way back are now being upgraded with technologies like (Crestron's) Quick Media (see sidebar).”
Presentations given in HSC classrooms and auditoriums can be remotely controlled from the head end or handled directly by the instructor. This lectern, for example, features a Crestron TPS-2000L touchpanel controller.
Development of classroom AV wherewithal has run hand-in-hand with improvements in IT infrastructure. In 1999, as Baggs was busy overseeing the introduction of modern AV equipment into the HSC's classrooms, he was also trying to solve a tricky project for the school's Department of Telemedicine. Specifically, HSC doctors in remote locations needed a better way of communicating mission-critical data to San Antonio — one better than the existing teleconferencing system they currently had, which was very unreliable and required robust operator control on both ends.
“Diagnostic information had to be communicated immediately, but we were only set up with an 8-to-5 videoconferencing crew at the time,” Baggs explains. “If someone in Harlingen wanted a consultation on an X-ray from San Antonio, it couldn't wait until 2:00 on a Tuesday when we could coordinate everything. It made us recognize the limitations of the current system, and change everything.”