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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.

As control technologies like RoomView and e-Control have evolved, and new classrooms have come online, the videoconferencing system has become bigger, yet easier to manage. And the HSC continues to leverage new technologies that make the system increasingly effective. The latest example is its upgrade to Polycom's VSX 8800 videoconferencing system, which allows VGA to be transmitted with composite video without being downgraded in resolution. According to Garcia, eight HSC rooms are currently enabled with the new technology, with 12 more coming online by the end of the year.

The upgrade overcomes a challenge for HSC videoconferencing administrators, who have been dealing with complaints from students and instructors who say that some content — text on slides, for example — reproduces poorly onscreen when resolution is reduced to composite video.

“Our biggest complaint with distance education has been, ‘We can't read the slides,'” Garcia says. “When slides are kept in VGA, you can actually read them.” “The real beauty of this system was the collaboration of supertalented people in the IT department with people in AV and distance learning to make something that's far better than anything else that could be done with one department acting alone,” adds Baggs.


While its WAN-based videoconferencing system continues to evolve, leveraging the latest codecs and control technologies, the HSC has also taken a forward-looking approach to the AV technology in its classrooms. Recently, the school began converting all of its classroom AV systems to a standard set of designs based on a Crestron's Quick Media technology, which allows for the consolidation of both devices and cables.

The first 10 HSC classrooms to use this approach are located in the new Academic and Administration building, which is in San Antonio, just across a walkway from the main medical school. Notable are the six “combination” rooms, which include foldable partitions. These rooms can be used in a smaller, intimate standalone mode to handle about 40 occupants, or opened up and combined with two other rooms to form a larger, videoconferencing-enabled environment that can accommodate about 150.

Their systems are simple and flexible — each room is equipped with an Epson PowerLite 7850 projector and a cluster of JBL Control 26CT ceiling speakers with a single Polycom VSX 7000 videoconferencing system serving all three rooms in group mode. Each room has a Crestron QM-WMC wall plate and a QM-RMCRX receiver/processor — the latter allows all audio, video, and computer cables to be consolidated into a single Cat5 cable, and includes a 20-watt audio amplifier. All three rooms share a single Crestron QM-MD 8x8 matrix switcher, enabling them to be configured in a variety of ways.

The finite number of components and cables allows for more space in combination mode — the rooms are open, and not as cluttered. It also helps to reduce cost.

“In terms of AV equipment, this enabled them to drive down the number of electronic components to the point where they're not spending $120,000 on a room anymore,” says Tom Baggs, who oversaw the development of the HSC's videoconferencing system.

Daniel Frankel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at

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