Case Study: City University, Hong Kong

Hurrairah bin Sohail finds out the challenges of creating an AV solution that can meet the needs of teaching and learning the specialised skill of interpretation.

Specialised skills require specialised technology to be taught. Illustrating this point is City University of Hong Kong [CityU] which has a complete programme to train interpreters for the congress and conference market. Deep Batra, IT manager (smart campus), computing services centre, CityU, says: “Universities have a big part to play and CityU has one of best programmes for interpreters both regionally and globally. Interpretation is a very difficult skill to master, and it requires a lot of practice. Of course, it is our job to provide students with the right tools and environment where they can master the skills required for their trade.”

With this, the focus shifts to technology and Batra summarises the current state of the market: “CityU was using a solution from Sanako’s Lab 100, which is a specialised solution for teaching interpretation skills. Unfortunately, the technology is heavily monopolised and is over 10 years old and was not able to serve the increasing needs of the faculty, students and technical staff. Sanako’s Lab 100 system deploys systems using touch tone and analogue systems using telephone wires for cabling.”

He continues: “There were significant shortcomings in Sanako’s Lab 100 solution as the audio quality was not the best and had a low bitrate, but it was still serviceable. However, when CityU upgraded its OS from Windows 7 to Windows 10, Sanako’s Lab 100 system was expected to be upgraded as well. We were looking at a significant investment in software, without upgrading any of the hardware, just to keep the solution running.”

CityU had a clear idea regarding the way forward and Batra details: “The idea was to let the student just touch a panel and record their own voice. They could then use this as a tool to practise what they were learning. For the teachers, CityU wanted them to be able to distribute speech or video, whether by Obama or a Chinese leader, to the students and have them interpret the content in their target language simultaneously. And CityU wanted these sessions to be recorded so that the students would be able to review their quality of interpretation and their work progress at their convenience. This user experience was not possible with the existing equipment. CityU was not able to find a solution that could enable this outcome either.”

The responsibility to design a system that met CityU’s requirements fell to Batra, and Asia Theatre Engineering was appointed as the integrator for the project.

Batra says: “After a thorough review of the user requirements, it was evident that the solution would have to be completed using a large audio matrix of 256 inputs and 256 outputs. Without AV over IP, this project was completely inconceivable and what we aimed to achieve would not have been economically viable either. We took on the challenge to deploy one of the biggest Audio-over-IP solutions of its kind in Asia because we thought it would be highly rewarding and scalable. We could go from 30 workstations to 100 workstations by just increasing our network switch capacity. Secondly, all we had to do was to lay one single type of cable, Cat6. With AV over IP, Dante and AES67 we could make sure that all signal transmissions could be easily accomplished. We did not lay a single audio, video or speaker cable anywhere in the premises.”

The most challenging aspect of the project had to be addressed early. Batra details: “The hardest part was finding a Dante or AES67 matrix that was big enough to accommodate our requirements. We have 30 workstations, each having a headset, microphone and recorder, so we had to account for this. I did a lot of evaluation and real-life testing. I obtained loan units and licences from Audinate to test their 32 by 32 software matrix. I borrowed microphones and headsets and Tascam Dante Audio recorders and Asia Theatre was also involved in this testing phase. The Crestron and QSC programmer, Eric Chau from Asia Theatre, kept on manoeuvring through the dark because what we were trying to achieve had never been done before and there were basically no references of such deployments anywhere in the world before. He was definitely one of the core members of the whole development team, in my opinion.”

The testing period resulted in a clear direction with regard to the AV system to be deployed. Batra details: “QSC Core 510i was selected as the heart of the system and we are using one of its biggest 256 by 256 matrices. This really helps us support the 30 terminals that we have and allows us to have a touch panel and Tascam recorder for every student along with their own headset microphone. The QSC Core 510i is central to what we wanted to achieve.”

With the selection of the audio matrix being critical to the success of the project, Batra explains how a decision was reached: “When it came to selecting an audio matrix we knew that we needed a 256 by 256 matrix and only QSC and Clear-One had a suitable product. QSC has a strong presence in Hong Kong and multiple deployments across theatres, cinemas and education facilities. Support was a key consideration and QSC has a number of staff and also a training centre in Hong Kong operated by PCI-HK. Lastly, the availability of an evaluation product was also a very important factor for us. We wanted to make sure that we test drove the system to see how it worked. QSC’s main distributor in Hong Kong, PCI-HK, was able to come through and provide a loan unit.”

Audio from the headset microphones is transmitted via AES67 to the Tascam recorders that each student has access to. From the recorders the signals are transmitted via Dante to the QSC Core 510i.

Batra explains the outcome of his choices: “The new system has drastically improved our learning and teaching. Perhaps the most significant change we were able to implement is the recording of content which can be done properly and saved in four different ways simultaneously. The Tascam recorder saves a copy, and we can save it to a USB thumb drive that is plugged in on the desk; we can save it to a NAS storage device on the teacher’s desk and we can also save the content to a web server. These options really give teachers and students the necessary reliability and flexibility in how they want to review the content and use that to improve the skills of the students.”

Visuals in the teaching space are provided by a Sony projector and a Smart Board sold by Sharp in Hong Kong. Signal transmission is over IP with Crestron NVX. Batra says: “Video to the projector and to every monitor available at the student terminals is transported over IP. Do note that the student monitors are not connected to any PCs. They just display the broadcast images from the teacher’s desk. If you think about having to support 30 different student terminals with traditional AV, there would be an amazingly large number of traditional video cables to deal with.”

Crestron control is used to tie the AV systems together and allow the users to interact and issue commands.

To conclude, Batra summarises his experience of implementing this upgrade: “This was probably the first installation of its kind in the world and in Asia. We didn’t have any references to leverage so the design had to start from scratch. The proof of concept took a long time, lasting approximately three weeks. And to top it all off, we undertook this project during the middle of the Covid-19 crisis which made requesting sample products and loan units difficult. Thankfully the manufacturers, distributors and integrators were extremely helpful. Battling so much disruption while still trying to do something revolutionary was difficult, but in the end, I think we managed to pull it off and the results speak for themselves.”

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