Upgrades at City University Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Hurrairah bin Sohail speaks with Deep Batra to discover how City University of Hong Kong is upgrading its learning spaces with careful consideration of how space, people and tech come together.

The relationship between education and technology has been altered. This has resulted in reorganisation at educational institutes with regard to how technology is procured and deployed. At City University of Hong Kong [CityU] a change in approach is paying dividends as the university upgrades its spaces.

Deep Batra, IT manager (Eng & Desg Svc), Computing Services Centre, CityU, says: “There has been a change to how we approach technology, AV in particular. At CityU, AV used to be under facility management, but now it is with IT or what we call Computer Services Centre which means that we have greater control over AV and naturally we want it to reside on our networks which makes AV over IP very attractive to us. We have started to heavily leverage AV over IP across multiple spaces, and it is already helping us provide flexibility, combine spaces together and get spaces online. On top of that the price has come down, which makes it more feasible for CityU. To be honest, the only roadblocks right now from our perspective to a wider AV-over-IP rollout are the product shortage and long delivery lead times.”

CityU has recently overseen an upgrade of the infrastructure at multiple lecture theatres and after Batra’s comments it is no surprise that AV over IP was chosen for the project. He details: “Everything used to be analogue in these lecture theatres, we were running everything on coaxial cables. With our upgrade we have been able to replace everything with Cat6a cabling and that has really simplified matters.”

For Batra, going with a network-based solution was a no-brainer: “If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you’ll know that the city is packed and our lecture theatres are no different. They are full on a day-to-day basis, but when we have special events, like a Nobel laureate guest lecturer coming in to speak, students would fill up the theatres and then start to take up any space that is available in the theatre, even the floor. With our previous infrastructure, it was not impossible but extremely difficult to do a simultaneous broadcast from one theatre to other spaces. But with AV over IP, it is now possible and can be done in a very simple and easy way. The AV-over-IP upgrade has allowed us to create overflow spaces that can provide value to the students of CityU by making sure they don’t miss out on an opportunity to learn because of space constraints.”

There were also practical reasons for AV over IP’s selection. Batra adds: “Cabling was a huge factor in our selection of AV over IP. With AV over IP we only have two cables going in and out of a box and that is with redundancy built in. If you look at something like HDBaseT, which is point-to-point, you need a cable for everything. And AV over IP meant that we could just strip the old coaxial cable out and reuse the same containment runs and conduits, just placing Cat6a cabling instead.”

CityU is using seven sets of Crestron NVX encoders and decoders for AV over IP transmission and all audio is over Dante.

Video transmission over IP comes in many flavours and Batra talks about why CityU chose Crestron NVX: “Before we selected our AV-over-IP platform, we did an internal shootout with the options available on the market and in our testing, we found that Crestron had the lowest latency. Then there is also the fact that Crestron has high market adoption and when we look at other universities and education facilities to benchmark, they are also using Crestron. So, for us going with Crestron made sense.”

The CityU team was new to the Crestron NVX solution, and this was the cause of the challenges faced during the course of the project. Batra says: “There were teething problems at the start, especially with the integration between the Juniper switches and Crestron NVX. There were some issues with heat dissipation in the lecture theatres. The encoders and decoders run 24/7 but the air-conditioning switches off at night in our lecture theatres. We had to put in some additional fans to solve the problem. But a lot of these issues were down to us being new to the product as well and as we’ve gained experience with NVX we have become more comfortable. In fact, there are plans to adopt NVX across CityU spaces in the future.”

Another interesting aspect of the upgrades is the widespread deployment of Sony AI cameras and Huddle cameras. Batra says: “Our lecture theatres are very camera-dense and that is because we are really adopting hybrid. The reasoning for the Sony AI cameras, is for two reasons. Firstly, they are recommended by Zoom which is our preferred VC platform. And secondly, they are good with tracking faces. Some of our lecturers are animated when teaching. Therefore, we wanted to make sure that they could just teach freely rather than have to worry about how it looks on the far end.”

Laser projection has been retained in the lecture theatres for display.

Jumping over to audio, Bose speakers and processing have been deployed in the lecture theatres. Poly Sound Structure ball microphones are present for audio input. Audio is transmitted over Dante. Batra explains the selection: “Bose has great audio and everyone knows the brand, so for our team it is easy to bring it up to management and procurement and doesn’t require a lot of justification. Bose also has great local support and it has a five-year warranty which is not available with every brand.”

He adds: “Poly Sound Structure ball microphones had quality audio input, which did not require a lot of setup. We didn’t have to fiddle around with conversions or high-pass, low-pass filters. And the ball form factor takes up much less space when compared to a ceiling microphone ‘tile’. Before we deployed the Poly microphones, we asked them if the product would be supported for the next five to 10 years. We are a university after all, and we can’t be devoting budget to upgrading AV technology every two years. Poly was able to provide us the assurance that the Sound Structure product line is one of their best sellers and they expect to support it for a long time to come.”

In addition to the AV upgrade in the lecture theatres, CityU has also invested in acquiring its own portable LED videowalls. Batra details: “We did the calculations, and we found that if we purchased our own LED solutions, the savings that enables when staging an event would mean that we would break even on the cost of the tiles in three to four events.”

Regarding the selection of the LED products, Batra says: “We are using Unilumin, LED Man and CLT. Price was the most important factor. CityU is a government funded university and we have to be mindful with how we use our budgets. The second consideration was sturdiness. We knew we wanted to have portability and that meant that the LED we selected would have to deal with some knocks here and there. We knew we needed chip on board technology which is weatherproof and shockproof. After we had set up these parameters it was just a matter of finding what options from the market fit our requirements.”

The drive for the upgrade at CityU was not just about getting better technology systems. Accessibility was also a key consideration. Batra says: “CityU wanted to make sure that everyone who came to these lecture theatres felt that they were welcome and that no one was excluded because the right provisions or the right infrastructure was not in place. From a technology perspective, we worked on a request basis in the past and when accessibility options were required, we would have to get different equipment or solutions. With the upgrade of the lecture theatres we have been able to build accessibility into the spaces. For example, our lecterns are height-adjustable and the technology systems in them have been arrayed to be compatible with that.”

The team at CityU was assisted in the upgrade process by local integrators Vega, Asia Theatre, Majestic and UAT Group. Batra says: “Our process at CityU is that we draft the specifications and the draw the diagrams ourselves. We have a very robust testing and benchmarking methodology, so we are confident in our ability to request for demo units of products and also confident in the choices that we make. In essence, we perform the role of the consultants ourselves. But with our approach, we can ensure that we get the systems and the outcomes that CityU wants. And of course, we then reach out to our integration partners to ensure that the projects are successfully implemented.”

Batra believes that the upgrades at CityU put the university in prime position to tackle the challenges faced by the education sector as tertiary institutes try and decide what hybrid looks like in application. He concludes: “I had the opportunity to present the upgrades and advances we have made with technology at CityU to a special interest group for education users in Hong Kong. Hybrid learning and teaching was the core topic of discussion and CityU’s approach to creating camera-dense spaces to enrich content creation and improve the experience for lecturers and remote students was very well received. That is giving us the motivation to see how we can continue to innovate in the education space.”

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