Looking Through a New Lens

Zoom with Dual Monitors

I’ve recently been looking at traditional video conferencing through a new lens, both literally and figuratively. One of our projects this summer was to update a mid-sized Conference Room in our office. This room has been outfitted with a Polycom HDX-7000 and two 50″ LG plasma screens for a number of years. This Polycom unit was from a different era, and was difficult for most anyone other than IT staff to navigate the remote and settings.

My plan for video conferencing in this room revolved around a few key components. To get started, I purchased a Logitech Group system with a high definition Carl Zeiss PTZ camera. This is the Cadillac of USB connected video conference systems, and comes in right around the $1,000 price point. Having a high-quality audio and video session with PTZ presets was key in supplanting our H.323 system. The Logitech Group system delivers on all those points.

Zoom with Screen Share

This camera system is connected up to a modestly equipped Mac Mini (~$800) that is tucked away in an equipment cabinet. A bluetooth keyboard and mouse make it easy to interact when needed. The built-in HDMI output is connected to one display and the second Mini DisplayPort is connected to another HDMI display via a dongle. Being able to run true dual monitors to separate video and content is another longstanding H.323 feature that I could not live without.

Lastly, enter Zoom. I cannot say enough good things about this product. It is simple, intuitive, and it just works. It has become the defacto standard for video conferencing in our area and across the state. I grappled with the idea of setting up a Zoom Room but ultimately decided to configure a generic Zoom Pro account for this setup. It does everything we need it to do and is a familiar interface to navigate.

The Mac Mini is configured with automatic login, and the Zoom app automatically launches and signs in. Enabling dual monitors in the Zoom preferences is as simple as a checkbox, as is entering full screen automatically when starting or joining a meeting. Now when someone starts sharing their screen, one monitor will automatically go to full-screen content and you can still see video participants on the other monitor. You can also toggle between Gallery and Active Speaker as well, which is handy.

All in all, this sub-$2,000 setup rivals many of the high-end and high-dollar video conferencing systems I’ve used over the years. I’m anxious to see how this works going forward, but early indicators point to a huge success!

Radar Love

I am a big fan of digital signage, and my hardware and software of choice to deliver this is a Chromebit and Rise Vision, respectively. These are a powerful combination to bring displays to life in your organization.

One of the components most people want to incorporate into their signage is some basic weather information. There are scads of widgets for current conditions and forecasts. However, finding a customizable radar loop is a little more challenging.

For years my go-to choice for this was Weather Underground’s Full Screen Weather. It was great! Was…great…until they changed it. After a seemingly minor update it would no longer remember your location, zoom level, or other preferences if you embedded the map’s URL. I struggled for a long time to find a viable alternative, until today when I discovered a different way to embed weather radar!

This method still utilizes Weather Underground to deliver our content, but it leverages Nexrad radar images. These are not as elegant as the ones I had previously used, but they are still very functional and allow a number of customizations.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Go to www.wunderground.com
  2. Type in your City & State in the search bar
  3. Then find the link for Nexrad radar
  4. Choose your options, zoom level, and animated frame rate (I found that 18 frames is close to a 1-hour loop)
  5. Click on Save Image (this opens a new tab)
  6. Copy that URL and use it to embed a real-time radar loop!

For example, the image you see below is embedded using this code:

<img src="https://radblast.wunderground.com/cgi-bin/radar/WUNIDS_map?station=UEX&amp;brand=wui&amp;num=18&amp;delay=15&amp;type=N0R&amp;frame=0&amp;scale=0.3130434782608696&amp;noclutter=1&amp;showstorms=0&amp;mapx=400&amp;mapy=240&amp;centerx=652.3611111111111&amp;centery=319.8611111111111&amp;transx=252.3611111111111&amp;transy=79.86111111111109&amp;showlabels=1&amp;severe=0&amp;rainsnow=1&amp;lightning=Hide&amp;smooth=1&amp;rand=24970480&amp;lat=40.43999863&amp;lon=-99.37000275&amp;label=Holdrege%2C NE" />

Keep on Keepin’ On

How do you keep track of things? For me, I’m a habitual list maker. I make lists as a way to be more productive and hold myself accountable. I’m also a huge fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The first pillar of the GTD methodology is to capture everything. Get it off your mind and out of your mental workspace. This process is sometimes referred to as a brain dump, and is a highly effective way to clear your mind and regain control when things seem overwhelming.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

Another tried and true technique of David Allen’s is the two-minute rule. It states that if you have an action that can be done in two minutes or less, you should just do it now. Organizing or listing those tasks would take more time than the task itself.

Many folks find that a simple pen and notepad is all they need to start capturing what’s grabbing their attention. Being in the field of technology I have tried numerous different apps and tools to aid in this process. I was a paid user of GQueues for a few years, but have recently adopted a new tool of choice – Google Keep.

I have only used Google Keep for a couple months, but it seems to have the perfect balance of elegance and simplicity. Best of all, it’s free! Being able to share notes with my spouse or colleagues is a huge bonus. The mobile apps work great and for iOS devices there is a handy lock screen widget. The mobile app also allows you to record audio notes, which it then automatically transcribes to text. This is extremely useful for me since I spend a lot of time in the vehicle, which is also when my mind is generating a lot of things to keep!

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Google Keep, give it a try. It might end up being your new favorite app!

Bob and Weave

This past week I attended the 30th annual NETA conference in Omaha. One of the most anticipated sessions for me was one titled “Let’s Duke It Out–Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office”. The presenter, Ramona (Mona) Schoenrock, from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, set the stage to compare and contrast some of the features of both platforms. I didn’t check the odds line before walking in, but it was sure to be a contentious bout!

While initially prefacing the session as being non-biased, it quickly became apparent that this match was skewed in favor of Microsoft Office. One of my colleagues, Alex Wyatt, and I have passionate feelings about the dwindling need for a full-blown desktop productivity suite like Office, so we were quick to defend our champ on a number of points.

During the session’s Q&A portion I posed the following question both verbally and on Twitter:

I elaborated by saying that if we focused on teaching students the concepts they would be able to move fluidly between Word, Google Docs, Pages, or any other word processor application. Alex made a great analogy that we learn to drive a car, rather than learning to drive a Ford. If we rely on executing a series of specific moves to achieve a result we will be thwarted anytime a small variable upsets that sequence.

We have seen this manifest itself first hand when new versions of the Office suite have been released. People who had grown accustomed to “go here, click here” processes were lost when the menu system had changed. We need to teach critical thinking skills and expose learners to a variety of tools that can accomplish a given task. Employers say they want someone who knows Word. What they really mean is, “I need someone who can compose and edit documents.”

Daniel Pink is quoted as saying, “We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past.” This is never truer than during our rapidly evolving information era. It’s not important that you are certified in some specific application. In five years most of that won’t matter. What matters is how quickly you can learn and adapt to the next version. That is a marketable skill.

It’s the End of the Server as We Know It

In early March Google announced some exciting new updates to their Drive product line at the Google Cloud Next ’17 conference. Specifically, Team Drives!

I have been a huge advocate of Google Drive for years. It has been my go-to file storage recommendation for a number of reasons. Now with the addition of Team Drives, Google is edging its way into the enterprise file sharing market, which has been traditionally dominated by Microsoft.

Team drives work very similar to shared folders in Drive, but with some distinct advantages. Particularly, files inside of a Team Drive are not owned by any one individual. This has been a longstanding issue with managing files in Drive, especially when staff members depart an organization. Ensuring that those documents are retained and in the correct places was a challenge.

Another big advantage of team drives over shared folders is that domain admins can view all team drives through the GSuite admin console, and control permissions from there as well. This allows a new layer of manageability that was not available with shared folders.

Finally, the pièce de ré·sis·tance is the addition of a new tool called Drive File Stream. This allows you to mount Google Drive like a network drive. For those of us who have grown accustomed to working in mounted network drives over the years, this is HUGE! No longer do you need Google Drive to sync down gigabytes worth of files, chewing up precious space on your speedy SSD. Now you can mount a G:\ drive on your PC or have a similar network-mounted file system on your Mac. Working offline? No problem. Drive File Stream allows you to make files available offline too!

Will Google’s new addition of Team Drives and Drive File Stream be the final nail in the coffin of dusty old file servers lurking in broom closets?