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3 smart boards, two plasmas, and 7 cameras

04/01/2012
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I recently upgraded the hardware for our media computer. Here in the SEGaL we have three smart boards and two plasmas as well as 7 cameras. Currently we run two computers: (1) a Windows machine that we used for Skype calls and (2) a Linux box that runs Access Grid for multi point video conferencing. One nice thing is that the Linux box using Access Gird could send two video streams.

Well the problem was that it is rather tedious to switch between computers and having 7 cameras (well our video/audio routing system can only route 5 video inputs at the same time) that cannot be used at the same time is somewhat sad. And that both computers are older than 4 years doesn’t help either. After there was an attempt last year to build a new computer and its sad, sad failure with ordering the right parts for our old video/audio routing equipment it was my time to take a stab at it.

You might have guessed it, getting this thing up and running is due to the start of the GSD course next year.

Finding a computer that can deal with 5 VGA out puts and take in 5 s-video signals is not that easy. But I found a sort of solution. But let me tell you getting things to work is anything but easy. There are basically two things that need to work: Skype and Access Grid. The whole ordeal took 5 days just to install the machine properly:

Before Day 1 – Buying the computer

Ok, to be honest finding all the hardware takes “only” one day, it was mostly going to NCIX and adding things to the shopping cart. BUUUUUT, we are at a University, why would it be easy, I needed first to go through our Technical Support Center and explaining a system and the computer requirements over email is rather tedious and time consuming. In the end I could simply give them my hardware wish-list and they OK’ed it.

Here’s the ist of what is in that computer:

  • MSI P67A-G43 2PCI-E16 3PCI-E 2PCI Motherboard
  • 2x ASUS GeForce GT 520 Silent
  • EVGA UV PLUS+ USB to DVI-I/VGA Adapter USB2.0
  • Hauppauge WinTV HVR-2250 Media Center Kit
  • Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600
  • Intel Core i5 2400 Quad Core Processor
  • Mushkin Enhanced Silverline Stiletto 8GB

Day 1 – Setting Up the Computer

On my first day of struggle was to get everything just setup, and that already took some time. Years of grad school took really their toll one my flexibility. But I couldn’t help it, I needed to crawl behind our racks to get all the cables to hook them up to the new computer, better not remove the working computers ;).

After about an our of recabling and figuring out how to position the new machine such that all cables can reach it. I was ready for my first run. Most screens worked right of the start. Sadly most, turns out one of our ports doesn’t seem to work properly. *sigh* That means when I’m done I need to contact our contractor that setup the AV-routing system.

Day 2 – Getting Video Input From the System

The second day was meant to finish the software setup but as it turns out that was nothing more than wishful thinking. It took me a good two ours to figure out how to get the video capture cards to actually receive input. With the doubts in a properly working system it took me some time to actually test things. In the end it turns out that I needed to reinstall the drivers.

Then I moved on to get the video capture cards to work with Skype, but after another two hours trying to receive a signal, I called it a day. I wanted to at least install Access Grid to have one easy win but sadly their site was down.

Day 3 – Getting Skype and Access Grid running

Installing both Skype and Access Grid (after their web page came back online again) was fairly easy. The challenge as usual is getting those programs to run with our hardware. I first started with Skype, I figured it might be easier since it only needs to work with one camera input instead of the input from both capture cards.

To my pleasant surprise, audio out an in was working with Skype right from the start. Sadly I promptly ran into issues with the video capture cards. It turns out that Skype only taps into the standard input channel for a capture card, which is the TV tuner. In the end I ended up buying DVdriver to control and actually split the video signal. DVdriver simulates a video camera and can be used as the input for other programs. The advantage is that DVdriver let’s you configure the video input and therefore select the input channel. But the bottomline is, Skype and as a corollary Google Video Chat and Hangout work as well.

Access Grid is more complicated and had a bad start off. The Access Grid software has problems under Windows 7, luckily that iwas easily resolved (look here). As with Skype audio wasn’t an issue but video was a real challenge. After much work with configuring the video (in Access Grid you can easily select the capture cards input). But it took me a while to realize that one video caputre card captures HD, which needs to be configured differently. Also, it turns out that the other capture card can handle two video inputs, the problem is just that the software always defaults using the first video input whenever the program is restarted.

Well, that was all I got done for the day, good thing that the video “conferencing” tools work, it’s time to replace the computers in the rack with the new computer.

Day 4 – Putting it all into the Rack

Before I could actually put the new computer in the rack all the stuff that shouldn’t be in there should go out. That means I needed to remove, two computers (the old one for driving the 5 “screens” and the old computer for running Access Grid), one UVS, an old VCR (yes that’s how old the lab is), and some other unused equipment. Oh, I shouldn’t forget all the cables that I removed from there. What a mess.

Next was placing the computer in the rack and attaching all the cables, three s-video, 5 vga and then the regular usb cables for input devices, such as mouse, keyboard, and three Smart boards. While at it German from calcifer helped me to actually lie the cables such we can close the rack (yeah one side is open to get all the cables into the rack). After much effort and unknotting cables we finally managed to neatly organize the cables and close the rack for the first time in 5 years.

After a last test, the media system in the lab is finally updated and ready to use.

Day 5 – Lab Clean Up

Last but not least, I need to clean up, I don’t want to give my supervisor a heart attack when she comes back from Europe. Nothing really interesting happened during the clean up, it just took a whole day to sort all cables and rearrange all the small stuff that was on and in the rack.

In the end, we much old equipment (among them the two old computers)

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