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By Jason Oster
When schools shut down this past winter and switched over to remote learning via laptop, I knew we needed a workable solution in my home.
As a Product Manager for Crestron Home™ software, I wanted to share some things I learned and easily implemented in my house this last school season. My goal is that you too will find this useful, not only for yourselves, but for your clients as well. This is especially important now that it is not 100% clear what the coming school year will look like. It’s time to get ready.
Problem Statement: During the pandemic, how can I keep my 2 young daughters’ lives, including their learning, as normal and productive as possible?
Solution: Let any available room with a TV become usable for work, class, or an extracurricular activity.
But what is really the root of the problem and how does that solve it? They have their school-provided Chromebooks, so why can’t they sit at the kitchen table or in their rooms and work through their lessons? It sounds great in theory, but after the first few days I learned why it was not working:
•Kids get antsy and need to move. It is distracting to have both kids on an interactive call at the same time, in the same room.
•It is not ideal to wear earbuds, or a headset, all day
The solution does not magically make it like they were in school, interacting in person with their teachers and friends again, but it certainly helped us in various scenarios.
From a Product Manager perspective, it is best to start with the “user stories.” In other words, start with the solution and how the user interacts with the product. Then, we will dive into the details of the “what” and “how.”
Case 1 – Music class
If you had a chance to read my previous blog then you are familiar with The Trumpet Incident. Completely unrelated, other than the same daughter and trumpet. Music class is more vibrant on the big screen TV and through the surround sound system (assuming I am not on a call).
This platform gives my daughter a change of room scenery, a break from looking at her small laptop screen, and is more exciting for her.
It also helps give you a shared experience. For example, when my daughter learned it was the teacher’s birthday, she practiced ‘Happy Birthday’ on the trumpet for days, and surprised the teacher during the next class. My wife and I enjoyed watching the teacher’s reaction from the comfort of our couch.
Case 2 – Dance class
Missing extra-curricular activities and not being around friends is tough on kids. Every little thing I can do to help make her dance class better, I will do. Moving dance class from the tiny screen and instead pumping the music through the surround sound receiver, including subs, certainly makes for a vastly different experience.
Since summer camps were canceled this year, we looked for online alternatives. Instead of the old plan of a live 1-week Broadway dance camp in New York City, my daughter found some of her favorite Broadway stars were hosting weekly dance lessons using Zoom™ software. It actually turned out better, since these were small groups of 20-40 kids interacting directly with leads from recent Broadway shows. Plus, it was a big deal for my tween to see one of her “dreamy” crushes from Newsies live.
Case 3 – Math class
Not as physically interactive as dance or music class, but it still has its advantages:
1. Easier to see the virtual whiteboard
2. Change of scenery by moving to a different room (instead of all day, every day, doing their work at the kitchen table or in their bedroom)
3. Easy to separate from siblings and grab a different room with its own TV
4. Even though it was math class, we knew many of these online classes were more about letting the kids interact with each other and catch up on socializing
Note: This was the day of the install, and was the first test call, so if you happen to zoom way in on the wall plate you will see some pink insulation, since the final faceplate has not yet been applied.
Case 4 – Social hours and meeting with friends and family
After school social activities are important to my daughters and help them not feel so isolated during these times. It is a better experience for them to sit on the sofa and chat instead of crowding around a laptop screen.
Case 5 – Work from home
In my case, I still prefer my laptop and desktop monitor for most of my meetings. I prefer to be fully engaged at my keyboard with a good quality headset or tabletop mic. I generally don’t need the level of engagement a large screen TV offers.
However, if I am listening to someone else give a non-interactive webinar, then the 10-foot TV experience is perfect. It can be tiring wearing a headset from morning until night for back-to-back meetings, so even if I can get in an occasional information session on the TV it helps reduce fatigue. In addition, it reduces the strain on my eyes. I have even accomplished effective multitasking by sending the webinar to the office TV and overhead speakers, while still working on my laptop.
Done with class?
After a class it’s simple: one button shuts everything down. We put the HDMI® cable away in a drawer in the storage ottoman that the laptop was sitting on. Then the expanded classroom turns back into a normal family room.
Similar to the Home Office Busy Sign project, my goal was to create an unobtrusive solution for a task that, when complete, was completely invisible.
Why does this help?
When I am talking about surround sound I am not talking about real 7.2 (or better) audiophile surround sound. It is simply using speakers for more immersive sound than the tiny laptop speakers can supply. And it achieves the goal. For music class, it helps catch a fuller range and more nuances. For dance class, especially with the sub going, it helps my daughter really get into her routine.
The user experience
The user experience needs to be easy and fast, otherwise the kids would just stay on their laptops. One of my heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci said:
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
As a Product Manager, I take that to heart. My goal was to boil it down to one button.
At first, I tried to make it even easier than one button, but the problem with “easier” was that I had over-engineered the solution. This mistake is best described by one of my other heroes, Albert Einstein:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The “but not simpler” was the key. I had to back off from what seemed even simpler at first, which was to start everything based on the HDMI video detect as soon as the laptop was plugged in. It sounded great, in theory, but it turned out to not be as simple as one button. The challenge was they could leave the laptop after the class and the video would still be detected. When someone went to turn off the room later, the laptop would still be outputting video. Therefore, there was no new sync detect to trigger the start of the next class. I took the “but not simpler” lesson and instead made it a one-button press.
From Crestron Home™ software, I can configure one button to do a series of things with different devices. The idea is that a simple one-button press on a touch screen, keypad on the wall, or handheld remote starts the class.
The touch screen on the wall by the entrance leading into the living room:
When “Laptop” is pressed a Crestron Home Quick Action does all the work:
I know what you are thinking: Why not just use one of the many wireless technologies, such as AirPlay®, Miracast®, Chromecast®, or others? Well, that long list is the problem. HDMI always works without any clicks to start casting. In other words, sure my kids are smart, they could figure out how to send their Chromebook® computers to the Fire TV media player. However, we have a mix of technologies in our house including iPhone® mobile phones and iPad® tablets, Android™ operating system devices, PC laptops, and Chromebook computers. Plus, as the IT person for my home, I do not have to support any type of wireless compatibility issue.
In addition, different teachers are using different collaboration technologies. If all you are doing is duplicating the screen via HDMI, it always “just works” and there isn’t any Wi-Fi® bandwidth, interference, or software to worry about.
My kids need their laptops, cameras, and schoolwork in the room to start their meetings. So, a simple HDMI port to plug into is just easy. It just works, and it is super-fast.
There are multiple ways to achieve this. In its simplest form, each laptop jack is just another source into your AV system. In Crestron Home, that shows up as a source in the list for the rooms in which you choose to make it visible.
To keep the tech in the room as minimal as possible, there are a variety of solutions you can use, such as keystone HDMI jacks in Horizon® or Decora® style faceplates.
If you have a very basic case where you have a soundbar with a built-in amplifier at the TV or an AV receiver really close, you may be within the HDMI distance and all you need is a nice-looking HDMI keystone and the ability to fish the HDMI cable through.
HDMI has distance limitations so most of the time you will need something like a balun or DigitalMedia™ transmitter to get the HDMI back to the AV equipment where it can be fed into a surround processor and/or your video distribution system.
There are plenty of options available that work with the Crestron Home™ OS:
You need something that looks good in the room, and something that will accurately transmit the audio and video back to where you have the surround sound, or audio distribution amplifiers.
Products should also be accommodating so that, as situations change, the individual building blocks can be assembled differently without having to wait for new products to be invented. At the same time, the way all those devices are orchestrated to work as a complete system should be unobtrusive.
No one knows exactly what this upcoming school year will look like. I am getting ready for any situation by making sure all my TVs are set up this way, allowing my kids to have more options for making learning fun and engaging.