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Equipping a Multimedia/Archiving Station

September 30th, 2010 by mwolske

Selecting a set of components to build a multimedia/archiving station for a collaborative community space without spending some time getting to know the people who manage and make use of the space is a bit like selecting clothes for someone you don’t know.  Selection of items depends extensively on personal preferences and past experiences. Further, as with fashion, technology is rapidly changing and so any such recommendation list will rapidly become out-of-date.  Still, it can sometimes be useful to have a starting point, especially when you have little experience in making such selections.

The following recommendations are therefore primarily geared towards community spaces where most users have limited experience in creating and editing multimedia productions.  They also lean towards the more budget-conscious settings.  Finally, they assume a range of activities, from archiving old photographs to recording oral histories to producing video-based citizen journalist reports.

Computer (Approximately $700 plus anti-virus, office software)

I would begin with a Windows 7 desktop PC.  While Mac OS X computers come with a full suite of software for multimedia production out of the box, fewer users are familiar with the operating system and the price still tends to be a bit higher.  The desktop platform is more affordable, tends to provide greater flexibility for the number and type of inputs, and can be purchased with larger monitors, which can be very helpful when editing video and photographs.  Look for the following features in the computer to assure it can meet all typical multimedia software requirements.  It’s possible to find a computer matching these specifications for $700 to $1000.

  • 2 GHz (gigahertz) or greater CPU (central processing unit).  Look for a dual core processor for greater performance.
  • 2 GB (gigabytes) or greater of system memory.
  • 20″ or larger LCD monitor.  Some computers also support more than one monitor which can be an advantage when composing text, browsing the Internet for research, and also editing images.
  • DVD±RW.  This will burn the widest range of CD and DVD media.
  • Multi-card media reader.  At a minimum a media card reader should be able to read a range of SD and MMC flash cards.
  • Front access USB inputs in addition to the rear USB inputs typically used for keyboard and mouse connections.  The front access USB allows for easy connections by users of flash drives, external hard drives, cameras, and other devices.

Any laptop that meets the above standards can be connected to a 20″ LCD monitor to provide a very good alternative that can also be taken into the field for remote work.  However, a premium is paid for that flexibility, adding $500 to $1000 to the cost.

Netbooks provide added portability and can serve quite well as a portable typing and audio recording device in the field.  However, most netbooks have limited memory and CPUs, and come standard with 1024×600 resolution displays, while video editing software is difficult to use on anything less than 1024×768 resolution.  Also, netbooks do not include DVD burners and the small screens can be difficult to work with for extended periods.  These are best reserved, then for secondary mobile devices.

Multimedia Software (Approximately $270)

Any multimedia software will have some learning curve to it.  Often the biggest hurdle is the first hurdle — getting your particular microphone, camera, or camcorder to work with the selected software.  But learning to import, cut, time-shift, add and manage transition effects, and blend video, photo, and voice will take time no matter what the software.  Still, the following recommendations are based on numerous feedback and reviews indicating these selected software are relatively easy to learn by a novice.

A key to good storytelling is good audio.  One of the best sound recording programs available today is Audacity.  It is reasonably easy to begin using by a novice, but also provides a good range of features for more advanced editing.  Don’t let the price (free) fool you into thinking this is a poor-quality product.  Unless you need advanced sound effects, input options, or recording controls, this software should meet your sound recording needs.

Windows comes with software to do basic image (Microsoft Picture Manager) and video editing (Windows Movie Maker).  But these are pretty basic applications that will quickly limit creativity.  A decent step up is the Adobe Photoshop Elements/Premiere Elements software package.  Available for around $120.00, these two software packages provide the photo and video editing options needed by all but the most advanced producers in a relatively easy to use format.

We have also used the Pinnacle Studio Moviebox Ultimate package for video import and editing ($150.00).  This is also a relatively easy movie editing software, although slightly more complicated than Adobe Premiere Elements.  But it includes a USB video capture card that accepts firewire, s-video, composite video, and analog audio inputs.  With the capture card, it becomes possible to import your old VHS video, video from old analog camcorders (and even new firewire-only camcorders), and audio from old tape recorders.

Multimedia Hardware ($400 – $784)

Microphones: Good multimedia begins with high quality audio recordings.  For personal recordings to a PC, we’ve had good luck with the Logitech Clearchat Comfort USB headset for around $29.00.

For a wireless option that works with any device that has a 3.5mm audio input jack, we’ve had great luck with the Audio-Technica ATR288W TwinMic system.  This system includes both lavalier and dynamic hand-held microphones for about $134.00.

We’ve just begun using and have been very pleased with the quality of the Blue Snowball, a USB microphone that allows for either directional (cartoid) or omnidirectional recordings of anything from a whisper to a loud garage band for around $64.00.

Cameras: A good basic point and shoot camera should include image stabilization, optical zoom, at least 10 MP, and provide selection between auto mode and some level of program control.  The Canon A1100IS has all these features and also includes a few nice extras, including burst mode photography, a smile-detection self-timer, and the choice of using either AA batteries or Canon battery pack.  The quality of images from this 12MP $180.00 camera are quite decent in most lighting conditions.

For a step up, the Canon SD4000IS (available for around $300.00) provides amazing low-light photographs for a point and shoot camera because of its f2.0 aperture, important when shooting indoors where flash photography is discouraged.  It also provides improved continuous shooting, capturing almost 4 images per second.  It includes a 28mm wide angle lens that can zoom in to 4x.  It also includes decent quality high definition video capabilities, and a slow motion capture option, and as such promises to provide the first device that can do both high quality still images and good quality home video.

Camcorders: The Flip Ultra HD 8GB camcorder (around $200.00) is a very simple to use camcorder that records up to 2 hours of high definition video.  The camcorder has a popup USB connector and pre-loaded software to make it easy to use with any computer.  The camcorder only does digital zoom, so it’s mostly used when the objects to be video taped are nearby. I’ve only just begun testing the Canon SD4000IS, but at this point it promises to provide video quality similar to the Flip Ultra HD, with the added advantage of interchangeable SD storage cards and optical zoom.

The biggest problem we’ve had with the Flip camcorders in the past is poor audio quality.  This particular model includes the new flipPort.  A promising option just coming out on the market as of the writing of this post is the Blue Mikey for Flip (expected price $79), which adds enhanced stereo microphones and a microphone input jack to the Flip camcorder.  This would provide a major selling point over the Canon SD4000IS.

For even greater flexibility of microphone input, and to gain optical zoom capabilities, the Canon FS200 has proven to be a great standard definition camcorder.  It includes a 3.5mm input jack for external audio recording devices.  Video is stored to an SDHC card, allowing especially easy transfer to computers that have an SD slot.  Unfortunately the FS200 is no longer produced and the FS300 replacement does not include the 3.5mm audio input jack.  Still, some refurbished models remain available on the market for around $180.00.

The Canon ZR960 ($250.00) is a miniDV standard definition camcorder.  For the highest quality video available from a home camcorder, and to provide additional archiving options via miniDV tapes, this camcorder fits the bill.  It includes a 3.5mm audio input jack, image stabilization, and 41x zoom.  It’s essentially the miniDV version of the FS200.

Multimedia Hardware Summary: Ultimately, if on a budget consider purchasing the Logitech Clearchat headset and Blue Snowball microphones, and the Canon SD4000IS camera to provide the ability to capture both still images and HD video (about $400.00 for the package).  If you’ll be capturing a wide range of video interviews, consider adding the Canon ZR960 and Audio-Technica ATR288W wireless microphone system (an additional $384.00).  If high definition high quality video and high quality audio is needed, you’ll need to look further than any of the items we’ve used to date.

Peripherals ($549 – $1775)

Scanning: For high resolution scanning of flat images up to 8.5 x 11″, we’ve had great luck with the Canon 8800F.  This scanner costs under $200.00 and includes trays to scan 35mm negatives and slides, and 22cm filmstrips.  I recently wrote a blog post on the advantages of scanning negatives.

Printing: For multimedia production, color printing is a must.  We’ve been purchasing the HP Color Laserjet CP2025dn printer ($349.00).  This printer does duplex printing and can be connected straight to the network to be shared amongst multiple computers.  It is designed to handle the load common in a lab of computers.  It uses multiple cartridges for different colors, helping to reduce the overall cost of printing in color.

Projector: We’ve begun equipping sites with the ViewSonic PJD6211 LCD projector ($565.00).  This bright (2300 lumens) projector does full 1024×768 resolution display.  It provides a crisp display from a variety of inputs and can be used for gaming as well as computer displays.

External storage: In cases where multiple computers may be accessing files imported on one computer, a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device provides a convenient central file storage system.  We’ve found the Synology DS209+ a good option at $660.00 with two 1TB drives.  The two drives can be mirrored, so that data written on one is also written to the other drive.  This assures that if one drive fails, the other one has a live backup of the data.

The Three C's

September 16th, 2010 by mwolske

In a recent article “Move Over Three R’s, Here Come the Three C’s” on the Digital Learning Environments site, Mark Brumley suggests that in addition to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, three new skills, Creativity, Curation, and Collaboration, will be equally important.  I’m pretty sure that the Three C’s, as he calls them, have always been a valuable skill.  But they are taking on new prominence in our post-industrial, non-routine global information society.

The creative and collaborative aspects of the three C’s are familiar to everyone, even if there are differences in how to best teach these skills.  But curation was one that gave me pause.  Curation is the act of collecting, organizing, and maintaining a collection. Today’s curators need to look through the overwhelming inundation of information presented every day on topics of interest and isolate the prizes to be included in their creative endeavors from the background noise that is presented by those trying to sell ideas through hype rather than substance.  An effective curator is much like a treasure hunter who can walk into a thrift store and spot the item marked at $1.00 but which is worth $1,000.00; and the item marked at $100 but that isn’t worth $0.02.

Interestingly, the Three C’s seem an awful lot like the very cognitive skills Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others felt were so critical to civil society and an effective democracy, and which led them to invest their own finances and time to create the first public schools.  The ability to curate information so as to better judge the best paths towards liberty for all was a foundational principle for the founding fathers.

"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people.  Enable them
to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and
they will preserve them.  And it requires no very high degree of
education to convince them of this.  They are the only sure
reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson
to James Madison, 1787.

Portable Video Studio

September 16th, 2010 by mwolske

The ability to record, mix, and distribute video and audio from multiple cameras continues to improve and simplify.  The BTOP grant proposals include requests for portable studios for each school district in the Metro East as part of the Public Computing Center application, and for several local production studios in the Metro East as part of the Sustainable Broadband Adoption application.  These multimedia “studio-in-a-box” devices are now used in a number of churches in the area, and would provide community members a rich new way to share the news about their communities.

NewTek, who produces the Tricaster, has just announced educational price cuts for their Tricaster Studio product.  You can find out more about that on their website at http://www.newtek.com/tricaster/tricaster_studio.php

They have also announced a new “Studio-on-Wheels” tour.  A mini-cooper equipped as a high definition production studio will be stopping in St. Louis October 7th.  This looks like an interesting opportunity to see the equipment, and if you register online before attending, possibly even winning a decked out system (but no mini-Cooper)!

Building a Rolling Computer Desk

August 7th, 2010 by mwolske

Finding an affordable, durable, flexible rolling computer desk for public computing centers can be a real challenge.  My solution was to build this trapezoidal desk.  The top is 38″ across the front to easily hold a keyboard, mouse, book, and 20″ monitor, while the space underneath is wide enough to securely hold a tower computer.  Multiple desks can be built and put together in a range of flexible arrangements for individual and group work.  Roll it over to a table when more workspace is needed, or link several together side-by-side to form a collaboration circle.

Each desk is made out of a single 4×8′ sheet of 3/4″ Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) and three castors, and is assembled using pocket screws.  I spent around $40.  For those unfamiliar with MDF, it is a highly stable, strong material that takes paint very well (although it must be primed with a solvent-based primer first and end-grains should be sealed using something like joint compound for a very smooth finish).  It also serves well as an underlayment for laminates.

Materials

  • (1) 3/4″ x 49″ x 97″ Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
  • (3) 2″ swivel plate casters
  • (10) 1″ course thread pocket screws
  • (4) 1 1/4″ course thread pocket screws
  • (12) 2 1/2″ course thread pocket screws
  • (44) 1 1/4″ general contractor screws
  • wood glue

Tools

  • Table saw
  • Jig saw or bandsaw
  • Pocket jig
  • Screw driver
  • Router

Preparing the Top and Bottom Pieces

The top and bottom pieces are 1 1/2″ thick to stand up to the weight of individuals leaning on them.  The thicker material is created by gluing and screwing together to pieces of 3/4″ MDF as follows:

  1. Set the table saw blade to cut a 30 degree angle and rip a 15 3/4″ by 97″ strip from the MDF board and set aside to be used later to build the leg section.
  2. Return the table saw blade to 0 degrees and cut the remainder into 2 48 1/2″ wide boards

    Layout of top and bottom on MDF

  3. Lay out the top and bottom sections on one of the 33 5/8″ x 48 1/2″ boards to prepare for cutting.  This will assure that screws will be located in “safe zones” after gluing the two boards together.  The finished markup should look like the picture at the right (click for a larger view). NOTE: To simplify making a large number of desks, this step could be done once on 1/4″ hardboard, cut out, and used as a template to quickly locate screw placements on all future desks.

    Jigs of 1/4" hardboard used to layout top and bottom.

    1. Measure 33 1/2″ along the long edge of the board and make a mark.  This will be one side of the top.
    2. Measure a 60° angle and draw a line to begin creating an equilateral triangle.  This will be the front of the top.
    3. Measure a second 60° angle to complete the equilateral triangle (although the tail of the triangle will not be completed since this will be a trapezoid).  This will be the second side of the top.
    4. To complete the trapezoidal shape, mark a line 24 1/2″ back and parallel to the front of the top to create the back of the top.
    5. Make a line parallel to and 1/8″ away from the top front line to create the front of the bottom section.
    6. Measure 1″ from the edge of this line (the bottom will be 1/2″ smaller on each side to allow the tops to always abut cleanly when the desk is finished).
    7. Create a 60° line from the mark just made to create one side of the bottom.
    8. To complete the trapezoidal shape of the bottom, mark a line 23 1/2″ back and parallel to the front of the bottom section to create the back of the bottom.
  4. Glue the two 33 5/8″ x 48 1/2″ boards together by evenly spreading a liberal amount of wood glue onto the non-marked board and putting the marked board on top.  “Clamp” the two pieces together by placing 1 1/4″ general construction screws into the marked side of the top board within the top and bottom sections drawn in the step above.

Building the leg section

Left side, back, and right side of leg assembly ready for final assembly

  1. Cut 3 – 23 1/2″ pieces from the 15 3/4″ x 97″ strip cut above.  This will create a desk 29″ tall when using 2″ plate casters.  Adjust length of pieces for a taller or shorter desk.
  2. Cut 4 pieces 4″ wide each from the remaining 15 3/4″ wide original piece.  These will be used as additional bracing for the two side boards.
  3. Set the blade to 30° and rip one of the 23 1/2″  piece to 9 1/2″ wide to form the trapezoid that will be used as the back of the leg section.
  4. With pocket jig set for 3/4″ drill 6 pocket holes evenly spaced along the sides on the wider side of the back piece and 2 holes evenly spaced along the top and bottom of the same side of the back piece.
  5. Jig used to align 4" piece on side piece

    With the point towards the top, use the pocket jig to drill one hole at the tapered end of each of the 4″ pieces.

  6. Attach the 4″ pieces to the top and bottom of each side piece. The tapers should align with each other, with the 4″ piece set 1/2″ back from the side piece (I built a jig to help assure accurate spacing each time). Secure the 4″ pieces to the sides using (3) 1 1/4″ construction screws for each.
  7. Rip the sides to 15 1/2″ to remove any excess for the 4″ pieces.
  8. Set the pocket jig for 1 1/2″ stock and drill three evenly spaced holes into each of the 4″ pieces.

Cutting Out the Top and Bottom Pieces

  1. Following the lines drawn in the first step, cut apart the top and bottom pieces.
  2. Cut along the side lines on both the top and bottom pieces
  3. Set the rip fence to 24 1/2″ and cut the back of the top piece so that it is parallel with the front of the board.
  4. Set the rip fence to 23 1/2″ and cut the back of the bottom piece so that it is parallel with the front of the board.
  5. Use the table saw to cut slots 9″ from one side of the bottom piece and 5″ from the other side.  The slots will end up 17″ long, but use a jig saw, bandsaw, or hand saw to complete the last part of the cut.
  6. Use a jig saw to cut a line 14 7/8″ back from and parallel to the front of the bottom piece to connect the two slots.
  7. Unless the top and bottom will have laminate applied, use a 1/4″ roundover bit along all edges of the top and bottom of the top piece, and along the top of the bottom piece.

Final Assembly

  1. Assemble the leg assembly using 1″ pocket screws (as opposed to the normal 1 1/4″ pocket screws used with 3/4″ stock).

    Back (left) attached to the side (flat on table surface)

    1. Begin by fitting the back into one side piece.  The taper of the 4″ support board should be flush with the face of the back piece, while the taper of the back piece should be flush with the side. Make sure the bottom of the back and the bottom of the side are precisely even.
    2. Attach the top 4″ piece to the back.  Repeat for the bottom 4″ piece.
    3. Fit the second side piece onto the back and attach each of the 4″ pieces.
    4. Finish the leg assembly by screwing the back into the side using the 6 pre-drilled holes.
  2. Jigs used to align the leg assembly to the top and bottom pieces

    Position the leg section 2″ from the back of the bottom piece and 15/16″ from sides(To assure accuracy across multiple desks, jigs can be created to help with alignment).  Attach with 1 1/4″ pocket screws into the back section, and 3″ pocket screws into the sides.

  3. Position the leg section 2 1/2″ from the back of the top piece and 1 1/8″ from sides.  Attach with 1 1/4″ pocket screws into the back section, and 3″ pocket screws into the sides.
  4. Attach 2″ plate casters to the bottom piece using 1 1/4″ general contractor screws.  Casters should be located 3 1/2″ from the front and back edges.  Center the back caster.  Locate the front casters 2″ from each side.
  5. Prime with an oil-based primer since MDF is susceptible to dimpling wherever water falls on its surface.  The topcoat can be either oil- or latex-based.