InfoComm Through An EdTech Lens

All the shiny AV that can fit in two giant convention halls

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Last week I attended InfoComm 24, the big audio-visual (AV) conference in Las Vegas. Unlike many of the higher education-specific meetings I typically go to, InfoComm is highly tech-focused. It's also massive and quite overwhelming, hosting over 30,000 attendees and more than 800 exhibitors on the convention floor(s).

View of Las Vegas with InfoComm logo

Classroom technology is not a major focus of this newsletter. Given the importance of AV (including video conferencing) in supporting hybrid learning as well as the blurring of lines between other forms of EdTech and classroom tech (more on this below), I took the opportunity to attend. And I got to experience The Boring Company’s tunnel in a Tesla while marveling at how much you can spend on just a coffee and sandwich in Vegas.

Video conferencing

One of the major focuses of the conference was trying to make video conferencing as engaging, user-friendly, and high-quality as possible. This emphasis is understandable, considering how deeply embedded video conferencing has become in various aspects of our lives, especially in the post-pandemic era.

Among the numerous vendors showcasing video conferencing solutions, there was a strong emphasis on simplifying the process of initiating a conference swiftly. Significant strides have been made in this regard, although much of the ease-of-use hinges on specialized Zoom or Teams equipped physical rooms. This focus aligns with InfoComm's hardware-centric nature as a trade show.

AI everywhere

Another significant focus for vendors across different sectors was leveraging AI to enhance interaction quality, whether in video conferencing, content display, or broadcasting. Many applications of AI in these contexts make intuitive sense, such as improving sound quality, tracking speakers for better camera ,and audio alignment, providing navigational aids, and automating content management for digital signage.

However, within the education-focused vendors at the conference, there was a notable trend of integrating AI more deeply into content delivery itself. These vendors, including major players like Viewsonic and Samsung, are promoting smart screens and monitors empowered by AI, enabling instructors to perform tasks like summarizing on-screen content or generating quizzes based on highlighted material.

Most of the vendors I spoke with are using OpenAI, and licensing models and rates vary. For example, Viewsonic described a typical $125 per instructor per year model, while with others such as Imago there is a charge for the device plus a license fee for the AI service. Some of these features are so new that vendors looked at me blankly when I asked about licensing models and costs.

Screen shot of AI class assistant
Screen shot of ViewSonic's ClassSwift

I had a good conversation with the folks at Smart about the use of smartboards in higher education. They argued convincingly that part of the reason I see so many smartboards gathering dust in a corner in higher education is because the devices were so complicated to use, but this situation is changing.

The tendency to embed AI for creating and managing content might be a costly step in the wrong direction, however. With AI tools embedded in the LMS and in productivity tools such as MS Word or Google Docs, there is no need to buy or license a physical device such as an AI-enabled smartboard. Given the separation between IT and AV that exists organizationally at many universities, I suspect that quite a few of these AI smart displays will be acquired but likely will go unused. It could be a costly experiment simply due to the mismatch of product to customer organizational structure.

All this AI also raises some interesting questions about AI policy. Many colleges and universities are trying to develop policies to manage the rollout of specific AI solutions at their institutions. But one thing that my InfoComm experience showed is that AI is going to be in everything: the monitor on the wall, the microphone in the ceiling, and the kiosk that helped you locate your classroom or other campus locations. I wonder how many of the university policies currently being constructed are assuming the ubiquity of embedded AI, and how many are going to need to be rethought once this situation becomes clear. I suspect that most AI policies currently being debated are instead thinking about more visible uses of AI, such as in assessment or (my favorite) academic integrity.

AI policies will need to contend with issues that arose during demonstrations at InfoComm.

  • Collection of student grades and data about participation - One smart monitor vendor selling primarily to K-12 includes and gathers data from student wireless responses to AI-generated quizzes displayed on the board, and the plan is to collect this data longitudinally.

  • Video capture automation - Some of the best uses of AI that I saw were based on improving speaker identification in order to focus video cameras or to switch live microphones. These are great tools that will make classroom interactions much more natural in hybrid settings. But do these technologies work as well for people of all ethnicities, or will there be problems such as those we have sometimes seen in AI-driven remote proctoring?

  • Content moderation - Have the tools that use AI for content generation been red-teamed to identify and eliminate inappropriate or inaccurate content in the classroom, especially in K-12 settings?

These are critical issues that will need to be addressed, alongside the important issue of cost, as these products are integrated into broader higher ed usage.

Classroom ease of use

One of the things that has always frustrated me about classroom technology is the fact that it is so often difficult to use. Admittedly, I may have an unusual bias in this regard as I spent several years at an institution with inordinately over-engineered and complex classroom technology. In the institution’s 400 general assignment classrooms, we had over 140 different styles of lectern (trust me, I counted), one of which was referred to as the “Rubik’s Cube” because it was so difficult to open and start using.

At the conference, I saw the occasional mention of using AI to make classroom AV setup and operation easier. For example, with Samsung’s Merlyn voice-enabled control of classroom AV. I heard discussions of linking classroom setup preferences to a phone and having a classroom enable pre-determined settings once that phone was in range. Some vendors of management systems made the classroom support function easier and often remotely enabled. Additionally, there were some vendors selling hybrid and HyFlex classroom setups as a competitively priced all-in-one package (as opposed to institutions having to assemble various components themselves). However, the issue of usability of classroom technology writ large seems not to have attracted the same sort of attention that video conferencing has. I guess that we all have several more years of wondering which dongle goes where and what to do when the projector won't connect.

The fun products

At trade shows like InfoComm, I always enjoy seeing the smaller, more niche, or more emerging products, and I was not disappointed. Here are a few examples.

  • An iPad-enabled remote presentation device from PeerVsn brings in life-sized remote presenters for use cases you might see in Executive Education and other guest instructor programs.

Booth display of PeerVSN
  • TableTalker provides a tabletop microphone and speaker to manage audio in large rooms. I happened to check out the product at the same time as a guy who works in AV at a large research university, and he said it did a much better job than current solutions.

Booth display of Table Talker
  • Kudo, an AI-enabled speech translation system, produces not only subtitles but also language translations.

Booth display of Kudo AI speech translation

Parting thoughts

My feet will eventually recover from all the mileage I accumulated in the conference halls. It is a somewhat overwhelming experience, but I recommend EdTech and university IT folks think about attending. Given the convergence of classroom technology, EdTech, and IT, the importance of video conferencing (including embedded AI), EdTech and IT staff should understand the trends and the implications for supporting classroom usage.

The main conference alternates between Orlando and Las Vegas, but the European show ISE is held every year in Barcelona. Phil, please consider this my notification of travel.

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