Connectivity, collaboration, and clarity: These were some of the key themes that emerged at InfoComm 2005, the audiovisual (AV) communications industry’s largest trade show. What will these developments mean for schools? New products and technologies that allow for greater connectivity and control of AV devices; more opportunities for collaboration in a distance-education environment; and sharper, more natural digital images projected onto a screen, among other things.

Now in its sixth decade, InfoComm brings together buyers and sellers of AV and presentation solutions, including digital projectors, large-screen monitors, document and video cameras, interactive whiteboards, videoconferencing equipment, and video editing software. At this year’s event, held in Las Vegas June 8-10, more than 700 companies convened to show off their latest innovations. Here are some of the highlights:

Greater connectivity

Sampo Professional, a maker of flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs and plasma monitors, now offers what it claims are the industry’s first IP-addressable displays, which enable users to control the devices remotely through a local or wide-area network.

In addition to basic control functions such as power on/off, picture-in-picture (PIP), picture-over-picture (POP), and screen and sound adjustments, users also can switch video sources remotely, giving them the ability to change displays to a predetermined video source for applications such as video paging or broadcasting mass messages–all from a simple web browser interface.

The new functionality has several applications that could prove useful for schools, said Brian Ballard, vice president of Sampo Professional. Using this capability, school leaders can turn off all units after hours from a single location, thereby saving power. They also could dedicate a channel for broadcasting emergency information only and switch over all units to that channel instantly in the event of a crisis.

“With our 2005 line of IP-addressable digital displays, we’ve taken flat-panel displays to a new level of functionality, giving organizations of all sizes the ability to realize decreases in deployment costs, increases in operational efficiencies, and expansion of their mass-communications capabilities,” Ballard explained.

Though it did not formally announce its latest technology until after InfoComm had ended, Dukane Corp. previewed a new software application called the ConVA Media Control System. This Windows-based program unites the various multimedia devices found in classrooms and meeting rooms, giving school leaders the ability to monitor and control these devices remotely from a single workstation, Dukane says.

ConVA is a non-proprietary product that, once configured, reportedly controls almost any type of AV equipment with a unified, “activity-based” approach. (To control a DVD player, for example, users would choose “Watch the DVD” from the software’s menu.) Built on Microsoft’s .NET framework, ConVA enables control of any device that uses an infrared remote and has an RS-232 connection, a LAN port, or any other control interface, according to the company–including digital projectors, document cameras, VCRs, DVD players, and even screen operation or room lighting controls.

With the ConVA software, school administrators reportedly can get centralized alerts of equipment failure or reminders of necessary maintenance. They also can schedule activities on a calendar basis for any room or group of rooms. In addition, the software keeps comprehensive, time-stamped logs of every control action taken for later analysis. This feature gives school leaders the data they need to correlate technology use with classroom performance, Dukane says.

In another example of enhanced connectivity for AV devices, SMART Technologies Inc., the leading supplier of interactive whiteboards to schools, now gives customers the ability to control their SMART Boards remotely through any Wi-Fi enabled personal digital assistant (PDA) or smartphone running Windows Mobile software.

To take advantage of this new functionality, users must download SMART’s LinQ Mobile 1.0 remote-control software from the company’s web site. Once installed on a PDA or smartphone device, the software–which costs $49–allows you connect to any SMART Board on your network. You can use the stylus or keypad on your handheld device to bring up a menu with options to write notes in digital ink, zoom in, or release control of the board.

The LinQ software gives educators another way to access their SMART Board wirelessly, allowing them to walk freely around the room as they use the board to teach. The company already sells a wireless slate for controlling the boards, called AirLiner, which is a more expensive solution.

“SMART customers are looking for products that maximize existing infrastructure and provide a variety of methods for users to interact effectively with their group collaboration tools,” said Nancy Knowlton, SMART’s president and co-CEO. “LinQ Mobile software provides another easy-to-use wireless control option for the growing number of PDA and smartphone users in classrooms, board rooms, and meeting rooms.”

SMART also unveiled a new 17-inch interactive pen display at InfoComm, called the Sympodium DT770. The device takes advantage of a recently developed proprietary technology called dual-touch DViT (Digital Vision Touch), which allows users to touch the screen with their finger to navigate control menus–and automatically switch to using a battery-free, tethered pen to control desktop applications and write notes in digital ink.

Because it comes with the same software that drives the company’s SMART Boards, yet carries a suggested list price of $3,999 (about half the cost of a typical board), the DT770 gives educators a more budget-friendly option for making interactive presentations in a classroom or meeting room environment, SMART says.

Enhanced collaboration

Another maker of digital whiteboards, PolyVision Corp., previewed a new patent-pending technology (code-named “Thunder”) that promises to take education and collaboration across distances to a whole new level of interactivity.

Thunder aims to replace one-dimensional tools, such as a traditional flip chart or videoconference, with an environment in which local and remote users can collaborate by sharing, annotating, saving, recalling, displaying, and distributing information live over the internet. Marketing manager Mark Cummings compared Thunder to online conferencing software such as WebEx or NetMeeting–but with the added ability to annotate slides and documents online. “It’s like a virtual whiteboard environment,” he said.

The technology is rather high-end–an entire system will cost schools about $50,000, Cummings said–but it could be useful for research institutions, such as colleges and universities, as well as virtual K-12 schools. The product is expected to be available starting this fall.

PolyVision also introduced a new line of interactive whiteboards at InfoComm that it says are the first and only “calibration-free” boards in the industry.

Most other interactive whiteboards must be re-calibrated when either the projector or the screen are jostled or move slightly during use. Re-calibration involves touching each corner of the projected image to align it with the projector. But a majority of respondents to a recent survey said calibration is the most frustrating issue they face when using interactive whiteboards–and nearly half said their boards need re-calibrating between one and six times per day, PolyVision said.

This user research inspired the company to create a line of calibration-free boards, called Lightning. The devices use photonic array technology, or sensors embedded in the boards that can read light, to determine the boundaries of the projected image. The technology works in just a few seconds at the push of a button, eliminating frustration and allowing users to focus on their audience and not the technology, Cummings said.

Advanced Media Design, a creator of AV-over-IP (internet protocol) solutions, introduced a number of new products designed to streamline videoconferencing and enhance online collaboration.

The company’s new DNP200 Digital Network Printer gives users the ability to send files and documents to the network printer of their choice with the push of a button. In essence, the device allows you to “hand” a piece of paper through the web during a videoconference, converting digital files to hard-copy documents on the fly, said company representative Stephen Villoria.

And its DMR series of Digital Media Recorders, which connect directly to the codec device that a school uses for videoconferencing, can record, date-stamp, and name up to 1,600 hours of digital content automatically, allowing you to webcast a videoconference live as it’s taking place or stream it to stakeholders who request it later–with no administrator intervention necessary, said Villoria, who likened the technology to “a distance-education TiVo.”

DMR-series devices range in price from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the desired resolution; the most advanced unit, the DMR300, also records multiple streams simultaneously (images from the local video camera, the remote cameras, and accompanying digital files or other content).

“None of the archiving technologies that are on the market now can approach this price point,” Villoria claims.

More clarity

Makers of digital projectors were touting several different projection technologies at InfoComm. Among the most notable of these was 3LCD, a three-chip design that uses a series of mirrors to break up light into red, green, and blue waves–similar to how the human eye perceives images. The result, proponents of the technology say, is brighter images with more natural color that are easier on the eyes, meaning they can be viewed more comfortably for longer periods of time.

So far, at least 11 projector companies–including Epson, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Sanyo, Sony, and ViewSonic–have rallied around this standard and now use it in their machines. And, because of the unique characteristics of the technology, developers say they have created a new 3LCD projection panel that allows for 3,500 ANSI lumens and SXGA-quality images using only a one-inch-square surface area, enabling manufacturers to meet the future demands for brighter, higher-resolution capabilities in projectors that are more compact.

Canon has embraced another projection technology that it believes is even more capable of delivering ultrahigh-resolution (SXGA-plus) images. Called LCOS, or Liquid Crystal on Silicon, the technology is being used by Hitachi, Sony, JVC, and others in very large, stationary projectors. But Canon says it is the first company to take the high-resolution benefits of LCOS panels and bring them to smaller, more portable devices.

The first such device is Canon’s Realis SX50. At $5,000, it’s on the high end for portable projectors, but Michael Zorich, marketing director for the company’s video division, said he expects the price of LCOS technology to come down eventually; plus, he added, schools qualify for special pricing.

If you need to show data-intensive applications to a large room of students, the Realis SX50–which features 2,500 ANSI lumens and a contrast ratio of 1,000 to 1–might be worth the investment now. In a special demonstration for eSchool News editors, a spreadsheet with some 40 or 50 fields of data appeared crisp, sharp, and easily legible from at least 15 feet away.

In another recent development, Texas Instruments has added a new color-processing algorithm to its DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology. This new innovation is called BrilliantColor technology, and TI claims it offers brighter images and truer, more vibrant colors. Mitsubishi is one of the first manufacturers to come out with a projector that takes advantage of the technology: the XD460U and XD490U models, which weigh 6.5 pounds, feature XGA-quality resolution (1,024 x 768 pixels), and emit 2,600 and 3,000 ANSI lumens, respectively.

Mitsubishi also might lay claim to the world’s smallest projectors: the PocketProjector and PocketProjector SD. Each weighs 14 ounces and fits easily into a purse, coat pocket, or the palm of your hand. The SD version is equipped with a secure digital memory card slot, allowing photos or files saved in PDF format to be viewed without connecting to a computer. The PocketProjector units are launching with a special suggested retail price of $799 and $899, respectively.

Related story:
More news from InfoComm

Links:

InfoComm
http://www.infocomm.org

Sampo Professional
http://www.sampoamericas.com

Dukane Corp.
http://www.dukcorp.com/av

SMART Technologies Inc.
http://www.smarttech.com

PolyVision Corp.
http://www.polyvision.com

Advanced Media Design
http://www.mediapointe.com

3LCD technology
http://www.3lcd.com

Canon
http://www.canonprojectors.com

Texas Instruments
http://www.ti.com

Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America
http://www.mitsubishi-presentations.com