Hi-def distance education system links 19 sites in 2 provinces
Medical education in Canada got a shot in the arm, as an extraordinarily innovative high definition video conferencing system went online in September, 2010, linking 19 sites at two university campuses and, soon, four New Brunswick hospitals, in Dalhousie University’s new Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick program, established in collaboration with the Government of New Brunswick, the University of New Brunswick and the Horizon Health Network.
“A key principle is that all students must have a comparable learning experience,” said John Robertson, Dalhousie’s director of academic computing services and Med IT in charge of the project. “So whether a student is sitting in Saint John or Halifax, that student must have the same access to the educational content, the same quality of information, and the same ability to interact with the lecturer or classmates in other locations. The challenge is to achieve that objective of comparability,” he said.
Three 11-foot projection screens (left) and reverse angle showing presenter's set of three 42-inch confidence monitors in Lecture Theatre A at Dalhousie's Halifax campus
The program’s mandate is to deliver lectures and educational content from any one of the school’s 19 medical facilities to one or more of the other facilities, offering students an experience comparable to a face-to-face lecture, including high quality visuals and audio, and enabling participants at various sites to engage in interactive discussions.
“In sheer complexity and performance, I’m not aware of anything quite like this in video conferencing distance education in all of Canada,” said Philip Giddings, president of Engineering Harmonics Inc. who designed the Dalhousie video conferencing system and earlier distance learning systems at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s Hospital, Queens University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo, and other institutions.
The firm specializes in simplifying the labyrinthine difficulties of video conferencing across multiple sites, a task made even more complex by the impending switchover from analog to digital broadcasting next year. Unlike conventional analog systems, digital video distribution incorporates HDCP copy protection that restricts the number of displays and other destinations that video can be sent to—and that can shut down an entire video conferencing system if not properly managed.
On top of the standard prescription for a good video conferencing system—proper acoustics, lighting, sightlines, and a lightning fast, reliable network connecting facilities across hundreds of kilometers—Engineering Harmonics wrote a massive amount of custom software to manage the entire process behind the scenes, while offering users a simple, intuitive control interface on touch screens.
“We have some very traditional teachers in our program who literally could not imagine how they were going to be able to teach without a blackboard and chalk. If we hadn’t had Engineering Harmonics on board, we never would have been able to get our teachers to understand how they can teach better with this technology,” said Joanne Power, policy and planning officer in the office of Dalhousie’s dean of the faculty of medicine.
“We learned a great deal from the other schools that have already gone down this path,” said Robertson. “We’d like to think that the bar has been raised with this installation.”
An innovative feature never before implemented in video conferencing systems is host switching. Control of the entire video conference can be transferred in real time to another site in the network, including control of the currently active microphone queue, cameras, lighting, sources and content.
Lecture theatres at the Halifax and Saint John campuses mirror each other with three screens at the front of the room displaying in high definition the lecturer, educational content, and students at the remote location. The images are crisp and very easy to see—high contrast DNP Supernova front-projection screens in the large theatre each measure over 11’ wide.
“The projection screens are so clear they look more like plasma displays,” said Engineering Harmonics’ project manager Andrew Kozak, who has helmed nine of the firm’s previous distance learning and medical education projects, and whose experience was heavily leveraged at Dalhousie. He noted that the new screens are twice as bright and offer close to seven times the contrast of standard front-projection screens. The smaller classrooms are equipped with 85” flat panel plasma displays.
Lecturers have their own duplicate set of 42” confidence monitors mounted immediately in front of the lectern in each room so they never have to turn around to view what students are seeing. A camera focused on the lecturer from the back of the room shoots over the top of the student-screen in the centre of the lecturer’s set of three confidence monitors, so that when the lecturer looks at a remote student’s image on screen, the eye-line is such that it appears the lecturer is making eye contact. Eliminating parallax in this way is a very necessary requirement in achieving the objective of comparability for participants in remote locations.
Microphones on student desks can be activated either automatically or manually to allow for questions or class discussions. Cameras mounted at the front of the room are tied into the microphone switching system so that when a student speaks, that student’s image is automatically displayed on the student-screen at the remote location, while a second camera moves to focus on the next student in the microphone cue. An automatic microphone matrix system eliminates feedback by reducing the level of microphone signals in nearby loudspeakers, regardless of the number of active microphones or their locations in a room.
A pair of 30-seat video conference rooms at the Halifax campus equipped with two screens each are set up to facilitate clinical education with similarly equipped rooms at the Saint John Regional Hospital, and ultimately Moncton Hospital, Miramichi Hospital, and Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton. In each room, one screen displays the content under discussion, and the other shows the participants in the remote location. A number of smaller video conference rooms are similarly laid out at the Dalhousie and University of New Brunswick Saint John campuses.
Room lighting was designed to be easily switched for use in video conferencing, presentation, and low light theatre situations, and room layouts were designed to incorporate optimum sightlines so that all participants have a clear view of everything displayed at the front of the room. In the largest lecture theatre, additional flat panel displays mounted below the main projection screens permit easy viewing by those in the first few rows of seats.
The system was designed for ease of use by professors, students, technicians, administrators and lay people, groups with widely disparate interests and aptitudes. That meant putting extensive effort into designing all rooms to have a common look and feel, as well as automating room lighting, projection and microphone switching, and camera operations, so that all the technical aspects recede into the background, allowing the essential business of medical education to remain the primary focus.
“The fact that the consultants wrote the software programming is probably the most important—and exciting—contributor to the success of the project. For example, microphone queuing across multiple sites and associated camera control would probably not have been implemented if an integrator had provided the programming, because the client’s unique set of requirements wouldn’t have been as fully elucidated as it was in the continuous exchange of ideas that is unique to the consulting relationship,” Kozak said.
“Because we had a great client with a great vision, the end result clearly shows what can happen when you couple that with an experienced, knowledgeable team. Together we have produced an amazing system that is going to pay off in providing tremendous health care benefits to the larger community through expanded medical education in Maritime Canada,” he added
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Engineering Harmonics Wins AV ARCHI-TECH Award
Toronto’s Engineering Harmonics has been named a recipient of the eighth annual ARCHI-TECH AV Award for the integration of outstanding architectural design and advanced audio-visual technology in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, TX. Also named as co-winners of the award are Clair Brothers, the systems integrator, and Foster + Partners, architect.
Proscenium stage of the Margaret McDermott Performance Hall (left) and exterior lobby of the Winspear Opera House (photos: Iwan Baan)
“It is an honor to be named for our work in connection with this landmark project, and we are gratified that the innovative design of the audio-visual system has been recognized and acclaimed in the awarding of this esteemed prize,” said Philip Giddings, president of Engineering Harmonics Inc. Sponsored by ARCHI-TECH and announced June 9 in Las Vegas at InfoComm by the International Communications Industries Association, Inc.® (ICIA), the ARCHI-TECH AV Awards program honors outstanding examples of the creative and effective integration of technology into nonresidential buildings.
“The ARCHI-TECH AV Awards program showcases the quality of the products and the firms involved in creating these award-winning audiovisual projects,” says Leah Garris, managing editor, ARCHI-TECH.
“These winning entries represent the pinnacle of design, functionality, and technological achievement,” said Randal A. Lemke, Ph.D., executive director, InfoComm International.
Designed by Foster + Partners under Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas was engineered specifically for performances of opera and musical theatre. Its stages have been designed and equipped with appropriate flooring for performances of ballet and other forms of dance.
A 21st-century reinterpretation of the traditional “horseshoe” opera house, the Winspear Opera House's principal performance space is the 2,200-seat Margaret McDermott Performance Hall, featuring retractable screens, a spacious fly-tower, and variable acoustics designed by acoustician Bob Essert of Sound Space Design.
Completed in October 2009 at a cost of some $150 million, the Winspear Opera House was praised by The New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini for its exceptional combination of “richness and resonance” and its bright, clear sound.
Bill Winspear, who donated $43 million to the project, insisted that the new house be first and foremost for opera, with other kinds of performance, such as dance and touring shows, taking second place. Essert aimed for a warm, voluptuous sound best suited for the mainstream 18th- and 19th-century operas featured by the Dallas company, with variable acoustics being incorporated into the hall to support performances of musical theatre and other events requiring the use of a performance sound system. Engineering Harmonics has gained a well deserved reputation for designing performance sound systems that integrate amplified shows into the prized natural acoustics of concert and opera halls.
Working in collaboration with Theatre Projects Consultants, theatre design consultant for the Winspear Opera House, Engineering Harmonics provided its unique blend of design, consulting, process management, and attention to detail that has been acclaimed in its contributions to the Michael and Sonja Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, the Overture Center in Madison, WI, and the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Vancouver, among many other facilities.
This is the second time that Engineering Harmonics has been honored with an AV ARCHI-TECH Award. The firm previously won in 2004 for excellence in audio-visual design in the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Alan Hardiman of Associated Buzz Creative prepared both successful award submissions.
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Design Innovation at Koerner Hall
The fabulous new Michael and Sonja Koerner Hall at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music features a number of unique technological innovations achieved by consultants Engineering Harmonics of Toronto. Chief among them is an ingenious and visually elegant voice-lift system that integrates with the performance sound system in a way that is truly unique to provide complete coverage to every seat in reinforced applications, where such coverage might otherwise be much more costly or more complex to achieve.
Built over three years at a cost of some $110 million, the 1,135-seat concert hall is the jewel of the new TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The hall achieved the highest possible acoustic rating—N1—rendering it ideal for the finest acoustical performances of classical music, jazz, and world music. The incorporation of variable acoustics makes it equally well suited to amplified music, lectures, and film presentations. The hall features two balcony tiers above the main orchestra level, and a third technical balcony, finished to provide optimal sightlines for live televised broadcasts of performances.
Centre cluster (left), rear view of voice-stick behind centre cluster (middle), and close-up of voice-stick showing house mix position (right)
For reinforced performances, the voice-lift system can be integrated with the flown performance sound system in an ingenious way to provide complete coverage of the orchestra level and the seating in the chorus levels above the sides and rear of the stage.
Yet another design innovation was provision of a permanent mix position at the rear of the parterre level on the centreline, just steps from the door to the sound control room. Touring professionals who may be unfamiliar with the venue will appreciate this, since it gives them a comfortable place to mix in the same acoustic space as the performers.
Read the full article by Associated Buzz Creative's Alan Hardiman in the April 2010 issue of Lighting & Sound America. More information can be found in our coverage in the March-April 2010 issue of Broadcaster.
Photo credits: Tom Arban (left and middle), Bill Coons (right)
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Hidden Sound Systems a Success at Winspear Opera House
Toronto AV consultants Engineering Harmonics designed and specified a hidden voice-lift system and retractable music system in the brand new Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. Designed by Foster + Partners under Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, the 2,200-seat hall was engineered specifically for performances of opera and musical theatre. Its stages were designed and equipped with appropriate flooring for performances of ballet and other forms of dance.
A 21st century reinterpretation of the traditional “horseshoe” opera house, the hall features seating that spans five levels: orchestra, box circle, mezzanine, dress circle, and grand tier. While professional opera singers have no trouble being heard in every seat, some amplification—referred to as voice lift—is occasionally required for child singers, announcements from the stage, and voice support for off-stage chorus.
Five seating levels seen from the stage (photo: Iwan Baan) Right: Engineering Harmonics' senior designer Martin Van Dijk
Moreover, the incorporation of variable acoustics by Bob Essert of Sound Space Design was required to support performances of popular music, touring Broadway shows and other events requiring the use of a performance sound system.
Engineering Harmonics has gained a well deserved reputation for designing performance sound systems that integrate amplified shows into the prized natural acoustics of concert and opera halls, which are usually tailored to the performance of acoustic music, and—not coincidentally—funded largely through the philanthropy of patrons of symphony, opera and ballet. A substantial portion of a performing arts centre’s revenue, however, typically comes from other types of performance, such as musical theatre, which is sometimes amplified to levels that can swamp the acoustics so carefully crafted into a hall, unless the performance sound system is properly designed.
The mere presence of voice lift or performance sound systems in an opera house, however, has long been anathema to the opera community. The general director of the Seattle Opera and former host of TV’s Live from the Met, Speight Jenkins, once told The New York Times, “If we give in to amplification or enhancement or whatever the catch phrase is, the very personality of the voices will change. If you go beyond this, which is to me a question of morality, you get close to a place where you are taking away one of the most important characteristics of our art form.”
Such terms as “give in,” “catch phrase,” and “morality” in reference to the use of amplification reveal the intense personal feelings that surround the issue. Regardless of the reasons for the antipathy toward electronics in the opera community, it is preferable that there be no visible evidence of the existence of sound systems in the Winspear Opera House. For this reason a hidden voice-lift system and retractable music system were specified by Engineering Harmonics.
A total of 10 Renkus Heinz digitally steerable Iconyx arrays were installed in the walls running up vertically on either side of the proscenium and aimed at precise angles to cover each of the five seating levels. Iconyx units lend themselves readily to inconspicuous installation, each IC8 array being just over 6” wide and about 3’ high. Four IC8s ranging up the proscenium wall on each side of the stage cover respectively the orchestra, box circle, mezzanine and dress circle. An IC16—comprised of two IC8s arranged one above the other some 6’ high—on each side provides coverage of the grand tier’s expanded upper balcony seating.
Additional delay and surround loudspeakers were hidden in the under- and over-balcony balcony areas where sound energy from the stage may be inadequate to satisfy all patrons. Eight Renkus-Heinz PN82/9s were installed for over-balcony coverage, and, according to Engineering Harmonics' project manager Paul Alegado, these are never switched off. Imagine that—in an opera house, where sound reinforcement is a dirty word, we have a hidden voice-lift system, as well as over-balcony speakers that are always on! This is a testament to how amazingly clean the system is, so well designed that even super critical opera buffs will never become aware of its existence.An all-digital network was designed by Engineering Harmonics’ senior designer Martin Van Dijk to transport audio from the house console to all loudspeaker systems in the hall. In a configuration used here for the first time in a fixed installation, the network has two components: CobraNet and Rhaon (Renkus-Heinz Audio Operations Network). Digital audio is transported over CobraNet from the Yamaha PM5D house console on CAT6 network cable to the sound rack room in the lower basement level under the parterre. From there, it is transported over fiber-optic cable for the much longer run to a small equipment rack on a catwalk high above the stage. There the fiber is converted back to CAT6 for interfacing with the Rhaon system, over which audio is distributed both to the Iconyx arrays in the voice-lift system and 12 STLA-9 self-powered loudspeaker units that comprise each of the two retractable line arrays in the performance sound system.
The Rhaon system not only transports digital audio; it also permits programming of precise aiming of the Iconyx systems using Beamware software, so that voice-lift intended for each of the five seating levels is delivered exactly where required within tightly controlled angles. The efficiency realized from such precise aiming allows for the maintenance of lower than normal volume levels, which helps the voice-lift system go unnoticed.
When different manufacturers’ digital audio systems are combined into larger systems, even with their individual implementations of the same digital audio network—in this case CobraNet—issues relating to latency times and negotiation between the different components invariably arise.
"It was a challenge to maintain low latency among all devices in the digital audio network, and to ensure that all digital-to-analog conversion times are consistent," Alegado said. "For example, when the audio signal arrives at one loudspeaker box in a 12-box array, it is essential that the signal latency is identical to the other 11, otherwise the array will behave unpredictably, and not as designed. We had to work very hard with the three manufacturers of the major system components—Yamaha, Biamp and Renkus-Heinz—in order to achieve this."
Engineering Harmonics also served as AV systems consultants for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, the new home of the Canadian Opera Company.
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