Voorhies scores a coup

The English Department doesn't usually lead the way in multimedia technology. But it has acquired one of the first high-definition, surround-sound media systems in a classroom environment on campus.

That's good news for the students who study films there. It's good news for others who will use the equipment for seminars, training and various presentations. And it offers an example for other parts of UC Davis as high-definition signals spread further into mainstream campus life.

Research and improving prices helped the department land this technological prize for 126 Voorhies, a first-floor seminar room that can seat a few dozen people. The system was getting wired for power in September, and was due to be ready for use before fall classes began.

"I'd love to say it was all my doing, but my role was solely as pestering nag and asker of technical questions," said Scott Simmon, a professor of English who teaches film classes and helped lobby for the system. "The department's IT services manager, Ron Ottman, is wonderfully knowledgeable and oversaw everything."

It can still speak PowerPoint

The system projects images in a 16:9 ratio--the standard for high-definition signals--and uses a Yamaha YSP-1100 5.1 surround-sound system. "5.1" means one bottom-end subwoofer, plus five speakers for the left, center, right, left-rear and right-rear channels. (To get technical, this Yamaha has just one speaker for the five channels, and creates the surround-sound effect by the way it beams the sound into the room.)

To watch a movie with that quality of sound, especially with sharp, clear photography, is a treat. But new visual media is increasingly produced in high-definition formats, so these systems should become more practical than perk for the study of film and images.

The system can handle more prosaic formats, too.

"The cool thing is, not only the film people can use it, but other people can use it for PowerPoints," said Joe Kelley, a principal TV technician in IET-Academic Technology Services (formerly Mediaworks/Classroom Technology Services) who did the design for the project.

The machine switches automatically to PowerPoint as needed, Ottman said. That's handy when people use the room for seminars, job presentations and training.

ATS designs classroom media setups for "ease of use no matter who's using the room," Kelley said.

The system in 126 Voorhies uses the same media cabinet installed in more than 122 general assignment classrooms across campus. "The classrooms have them, so the bulk of people in our department know how to use them," Ottman said.

The Voorhies cabinet has empty slots that will eventually hold either a Blu-ray or HD DVD optical disc player, once it's clear which of the two competing high-definition formats will become the industry standard.

"What's really cool," Ottman said, "is the [ATS] people did the whole thing."

Except for a part-time student assistant and a student assistant webmaster "who's going away," Ottman is the sole tech employee for the four servers, 195 computers and 220 people in the English Department.

The room has all sorts of uses, Simmon said.

"It has held some English seminars but is mainly used for the department's public lectures, symposia, and a few small-scale film screenings," he said. "Last year, for instance, the Medieval Research Cluster sponsored a series of films that engage in some way with the Middle Ages. Each screening featured a brief introduct ory talk by a member of the faculty or a graduate student."

How it ended up in Voorhies

The department revamped the seminar room at the start of the decade, but held off improving the visual equipment. Projectors still had to be rolled in on a cart. Early last year, Ottman and others started to work on improving the media.

"We wanted to do a digital projector and hang it from the ceiling," he said in late August, discussing the machine during a visit to the room. "When the time came to outfit this room, [Scott] suggested we look at this."

As Ottman investigated, it became clear "that as video equipment prices keep falling, installing state-of-the-art high-definition video and a sophisticated sound system wasn't really all that much more expensive than the old standard," Simmon said.

"Most classrooms have 'data projectors' more suitable for laptop PowerPoint presentations and have tinny sound systems with speakers nowhere near the screens," Simmon said. "UCD [needs] to catch up with the rapid advances in video presentation equipment for the classroom."

"Of course, 126 Voorhies is itself not completely ideal," Simmon said. "It's difficult, for instance, to close out light. But the room is now one example of what might be done elsewhere on campus, at relatively small additional costs."

A question all over the country

The system cost about $14,000 total. The Dean's Office of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies covered much of the expense, so other parts of the division can also use the room.

Most UC Davis classrooms have a mono (single-channel) signal, Kelley said, and don't really need stereo. But the technology is changing.

"High-definition is coming to campuses, and we need to look for ways to implement that signal," he said.

"We're asking, in how many classrooms should we install that?" Kelley said. "That's the que stion everyone has right now, in the educational environment all around the United States."