University of Sydney X-Lab, Sydney, NSW Australia
University of Sydney breaks new ground with targeted, low-latency audio distribution for 240 students in a centralized learning environment
The new Charles Perkins Centre on the University of Sydney campus represents an impressive convergence of instructional space and cutting-edge technologies. Its crown jewel is the “X-Lab,” a 40x20 meter space that seats up to 240 students across eight distinct classes. Designated as a “wet lab”, the facility provides students of scientific and medical courses a state-of-the-art research laboratory for teaching pharmacology, physiology, immunology, pharmacy, microbiology, veterinary science, and pathology.
Typically, even an educational venue of this size serves a common audience, with a singular AV system to support the entire space. With up to eight classes in the lab, using a single speech reinforcement system to flood the venue was not an option. This left headsets as the only viable, traditional choice to deliver the right audio to the right students – a choice that created many safety concerns given the moisture associated with the wet lab environment.
Paul Menon and his team at the University of Sydney first looked to the London Metropolitan University for inspiration, which digitally recorded and wirelessly streamed live lectures to radio headsets for 280 students. While cutting-edge at the time of its 2006 inception, this design did not address the goals of the X-Lab.
“The biggest challenge to the X-Lab’s design was the academic and laboratory requirements,” said Paul Menon, technical manager, audio visual services, information and communication technology at the University of Sydney. “There was great concern that students wearing headsets in a wet laboratory would increase the risk of contamination, as well as accidents through deprived sensory awareness. The decision was made to dispense with headsets and explore a networked audio system.”
Menon partnered with Sydney-based systems integration firm Fredon Technologies to solve the problem. The goal was two-fold: Efficiently distributing targeted lecture audio to students over a standard network infrastructure; and intelligible speech reproduction from overhead speakers without bleeding into neighboring classes.
The collaborative design team looks to a Dante network from Audinate to accommodate its goals of a high channel count, low latency and a future-proofed, networked distribution architecture.
“We were seeking an extensible system without the obligatory forklift at each upgrade,” added Menon. “We really needed something that would blur the AV-IT boundary. The X-Lab system hasn’t just blurred the AV-IT boundary – it’s hard to discern the difference in this case.”
Nick Orsatti, general manager of Fredon Technology, noted that the Layer 3 topology of Dante and its large OEM base made it the only truly viable choice for the X-Lab. “We very quickly decided that a Dante network from Audinate was the best option, especially with the wide variety of choices of Dante-enabled products,” said Orsatti.
Due to Dante’s high channel capacity, the team immediately expanded the original 16-channel specification to a 64-channel backbone. A Symetrix Radius AEC was specified for its digital signal processing and higher channel count, plus the fact that it includes local echo cancellation for incoming Dante channels – eliminating the cost and complexity of mixing in standalone echo cancellation systems.
The Symetrix architecture includes a Radius at eight instructional locations, each feeding to a Radius EDGE that routes Dante audio to a central amplifier rack. From there, the audio is distributed to 45 loudspeaker zones that delivery highly directional audio to student workstations. Dante-enabled Shure Microflex Wireless microphones bring greater flexibility to instructional communications, establishing two-way audio paths between an instructor and an assistant; or between instructors and students.
“The application is, in general, to digitize audio as quickly as possible from the source – and keep it digitized all the way to the output, which in this case is the amplifier rack driving the loudspeakers,” said Menon. “Dante is providing the scalability and modularity we require to achieve these goals, while playing a major role in the noise immunity across the various student benches.”
The Dante network implementation simplified the overall integration process, reducing costs and eliminating the complexity of running wire and cable throughout the lab. The only traditional cabling and integration costs were for the loudspeakers, as well as backup microphones under each teaching position in case the instructors want to put down their headsets.
“Dante is a Layer 3 system leveraging the existing network infrastructure, which saves on audio-specific cabling,” said Menon. “The installation of the Dante X-Lab network was fast, cost-effective, and more importantly, delivered a very flexible solution. I believe this to be a dynamically switchable architecture with highly directional sound immersion, and the user experience blows people away.”
Benefits and Savings
- High channel count accommodates targeted lecture audio for multiple classes and students
- Low latency supports timely delivery of highly intelligible instructional speech
- Minimizes cable and reduces labor for overall cost reduction
- Layer 3 topology allows for seamless integration with standard IT network architecture
- Infinite scalability of Dante network future-proofs overall system