An Historic University Uses NDI® to Stay Ahead of its Time
July 08, 2019 by Ellen Camloh
In the country now known as the Czech Republic, in the city of Prague, sits an institution that’s been around nearly as long as modern society itself.
This is a university that has survived historical movements, border changes, plagues, crusades, world wars, invasions, national conflicts, and cultural revolutions.
Now, 670 years after its founding, its place is secured as 15th in the list of the oldest universities in the world.
It’s the Univerzita Karlova – Charles University – and it was founded in the year 1348, by decree of Charles IV, King of Bohemia and future Holy Roman Emperor. And generations of cultural, political and economic revolutions are not the only disruptions the school has weathered.
Advancing Through History
Charles University has consistently played a role in technology advancements, as well—not by adopting the latest innovations to keep up with its peers; but instead, innovating to stay ahead.
Here’s an example: in 1935, one of the University’s academics – Jaroslav Safranek, a professor of experimental physics – designed an acclaimed system that made possible the transmission of visual images to a screen by low-line mechanical television. That technology may have been eclipsed by electronic television, but for Charles University it was only the beginning.
Even now, photo after photo of the school’s state-of-the-art studio from the sixties line the walls, a sepia-toned stroll through the history of the University’s long-running television curriculum.
Reputation For Excellence
“We’ve had TV production classes since nearly the beginning of television,” says Jan Peml, head of the Radio Television Lab in the Communications Sciences and Journalism department of Faculty of Social Sciences.
Over the years, the program has become a prolific wellspring of Czech national television’s journalists, providing skilled graduates that go on to investigate and report on the never-ending news scene, current events and sports covered by the country’s broadcasters.
“Charles University has a good name,” says Mr. Peml, “and if you tell someone ‘I was a graduate of Charles University,’ everybody would know immediately that you had a good education.”
Inside the Radio Television Lab, or RTL, the school’s reputation extends beyond academic excellence and into practical experience. Says Mr. Peml, “Speaking from a professional perspective, there’s simply no discussion—we have the best studio and the best program for students in Czech Republic.”
That’s because Charles University uses production technology based on the same workflow used in national broadcast television, he says. “With our studio, we have created what is essentially a ‘copy’ of the Czech national broadcasters.”
That preparation gives the school’s Communications Sciences and Journalism graduates the advantage when it comes to finding careers in the professional world.
Time For A Change
As the technology head of the RTL, Jan Peml is responsible for making equipment selections that support the students as they learn the techniques—and the instructors who teach them.
The instructors teach from the perspective of the social sciences, says Jan. They’re not actually equipment users, so they don’t need a lot of visibility into the technology. “They just want to have it set up and done and to work perfectly with no failures,” he says. “So it’s up to me to determine the system that will work for them.”
What works, he’s found, is to emulate a real-world studio, and train students in exactly the methods they’ll use when they work in professional studios.
But as methods of production advance into technologies such as video over IP, it has become more important for the RTL to future-proof its studios and classrooms.
“The current equipment we have, we last switched to about 10 years ago,” he says. That was during the time of the industry’s last big transition, to HD video and digital television (though the Czech Republic famously chose the memorable date of 11/11/11 to switch off analog transmission).
In just one decade, he’s seen technology undergo an evolution so rapidly into IP video, that the production techniques and systems used to train students just a few years ago were now becoming too outdated to support and grow.
Expanding To The Future
The chance to modernize came when the Faculty of Social Sciences decided to construct a new building that would house the television studio. Moving to a brand-new studio, within a robust IT infrastructure, would keep Charles University at the forefront of Czech’s television studies.
The problem? The building was not scheduled to be complete until about 2022—but the studio needed to upgrade long before.
“We had a discussion with the Faculty headquarters, and we said, ‘we can remain the leaders, replicate the professional broadcasters, and be the best in the market’—but that required making big equipment investments,” Jan says. “Or we could make compromises with the equipment, and have students work with less-professional technology – but they wouldn’t really see the proper processes used in the media or learn the proper workflows.”
The Faculty leadership agreed. Mr. Peml and his staff were authorized to make an investment in equipment, upgrade the current studio, and implement new technologies in the classrooms.
At the same time, however, they had to ensure the solution would be deployed easily in the new building, making it easy to expand the studio and connect new technology at the appropriate time.
So with a goal to future-proof their equipment, their workflow, and the school’s professional standards, Jan Peml and team investigated video over IP.
Envision The Possibilities
Jan had been attending the IBC trade show for about eight years, and visited again in 2017. “Every year I go to see what’s new. We are technology fans here in the studio, so my colleagues and I always like to push the limits of technology past the borders,” he says.
“And when I saw NDI, it was like a switch turning on for me.”
He and his staff saw all kinds of possibilities in the school curriculum for NDI, NewTek’s encoding technology for frame-accurate, live video over IP.
“We could see integrating NDI through our Wi-Fi network; using it as a universal route for AV sharing in-studio—connecting all possible screens and sources; and using tunneled UDP streams to simulate an external OB van input,” he says. “We could also use NDI Monitor for full-screen output from Adobe Premiere.”
With IP video as a primary driver of their technology choices, they evaluated several video switchers, to ensure they could create a future-proof studio environment that echoed a professional broadcast station (and stayed within their budget).
“We are training our students to be the main faces of the Czech news in the future. We need to teach them how use teleprompters, how to use cameras, how to prepare a story, how to prepare the news…and then make a rundown and make the same kind of newscast that they will make on Czech television, with a host in studio and everything, in real time,” says Mr. Peml. The number—and expense—of individual systems involved added up quickly.
So the RTL staff evaluated several systems, and selected the NewTek VMC1—”but not because it is the lowest price,” says Jan. “In fact it is not the lowest price. We looked at many low-cost systems. We looked at high-end systems. We looked at all of them.
“But what we saw in the VMC1 was so many more possibilities for what we could do, against traditional video switching solutions.”
Studio Over IP
For the RTL, those possibilities have everything to do with IP video, using the system’s built-in NDI capabilities to place video in front of the students, wherever they’re sitting in the building, whether classroom, student room, or studio.
“We can capture a signal from VMC1 in different places around the studio, in the classroom. We can ask students to edit using the same sources their colleagues are using in the editing room,” Mr. Peml says.
In fact, he acknowledges that the VMC1 itself is currently used for “maybe 10 or 15% of its possibilities. But next year, maybe the year after, some of the very active teachers will push the limits further and further – and we’ll be prepared for it.”
Today, he says, “we can make virtual studios. We can put the graphics in, LiveText titles, everything we can do with the proper technique for broadcast television.”
He mentions taking in a Skype interview as an example. “For instance, if I wanted to connect Skype in a traditional system, I would have had to use a computer and a converter connected to the computer to send it to SDI.”
That involves additional, expensive equipment, says Mr. Peml, and still some risk that it wouldn’t work reliably, wouldn’t send the video correctly, or would have delays. “Now I can just put NDI on any computer I want, instead of a separate computer and a scan converter, bring in the Skype call and send it wherever I want.”
Moving Forward With IP
His team has also developed novel uses in the classroom that have proved to be game-changing for students and instructors alike.
In the classroom, the teacher’s computer is projected onto a screen at the front of the room. However, the user interface of the professional news production system in the curriculum is text-heavy, with lots of icons and small navigation controls, getting lost on the screen and difficult for students to see from their desks.
“Now we use the instructor’s computer as a source, and 15 workstations connected using NDI at the students’ desks viewing the source at their desktops. The opportunity to have, in front of each student, the same screen that the teacher is working on is great for us,” says Jan.
For him, IP technology is the most important consideration as the school plans for the future, and NewTek technology is the bridge they needed to get there.
“Having the NewTek VMC1 today means it will be much easier to expand the studio and connect new technology in the future,” he says. “Moving to IP is no longer such a big leap for us, because the VMC1 also has SDI, so it was a good starting point for us.”
And now, he says, they are using NDI whenever they want to try new things. “If anybody says, ‘Okay, can we try this?’ We’d just try it.” The team is always looking to see how the school can make the best use of the technology now, and how they can use it in the future.
Because according to Jan Peml, “IP video is the future. There is no place for wires and signals.”
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