Easy as I-Pi

A new AV controller created by Technology Services brings the ease and flexibility of touchscreens to University of Illinois classrooms at a fraction of the cost.

An instructor makes her way to the front of a classroom, past the rows of students scrolling through the course syllabus on their tablets and posting one last Instagram comment with their smartphones. She gets to the lectern, turns towards her class using the latest technology, and comes face to face with a relic – those push buttons that control all of the audio visual equipment in the classroom.

With clunky buttons that look like they’ve been from plucked from a 1970s phone switchboard, some of the old audiovisual control systems in classrooms can be counterintuitive – offering instructors too few, or in some cases, too many options to operate the room’s audiovisual equipment.

Push button control panel in a Foreign Language Building classroom

But there is a coming breakthrough that will relegate these relics to the past. Technology Services employees Rick McNeely and Yuriy Kuzma have recently developed a new audiovisual (AV) control system called the I-Pi that adds greater flexibility and adaptability to the control systems.

What’s more, I-Pi systems will bring the convenience of touchscreens to University of Illinois classrooms at a fraction of what it would cost to purchase, install, and support commercial controllers and touchscreens. Depending on the size of the room, the I-Pi could reduce technology costs by $600-$10,000 per classroom. In large lecture halls, just the control system alone can run about $12,000.

Touching an updated, flexible brain

An AV system is comprised of many individual pieces like speakers, a computer, and a projector. A control system functions as the brain of the operation, tying all of these independent pieces together into one manageable system. 

But in many Illinois classrooms, using classroom technology can be anything but easy.

Some interfaces aren’t intuitive to use and often they’re located in unexpected places. Pieces of equipment don’t always work well together, especially if they’re produced by competing vendors.

Commercial controllers use proprietary programming languages, which are limited in capabilities and limit programmers by requiring programmers to work very deeply in only a handful of languages. 

“We have always been at the mercy of our control system vendors. Their interests are not ours,” said Rick McNeely, lead AV programmer at Technology Services. But now, with the I-Pi, “we have integrated a system of standardized components that outclasses any of the proprietary systems in both processing power and real-world interoperability.”

I-Pi is designed to be easier to use. Gone are the buttons that are hard to push; they've been replaced by a quick, responsive touchscreen.

I-Pi touchscreen

“The [I-Pi] brings us fully into the age of touchscreens. Everyone is used to a touchscreen; they’re everywhere, like phones, iPads, even in many vehicles,” said Matt Sherer, Assistant Chief Engineer at Classroom Technologies. 

Currently, only 48 general assignment classrooms have touchscreens. Touchscreens in campus classrooms make it easier for customers to use classroom technology. Because faculty, students, and staff have already been using touchscreens at home, they understand more quickly how to get the projection system up and running, which reduces trouble calls and saves instructional time. 

By bringing touchscreens to campus classrooms, Technology Services is delivering on one of our promises to the campus. “We’re working to elevate and level the digital playing field,” Sherer said. 

Saving Money

AV programmers at Technology Services Classroom Technologies have wanted to move away from proprietary control systems for years. 

Control systems made by companies like AMX and Crestron are expensive. Each controller for smaller classrooms costs approximately $1,200 and then another $1,200 for an interface.

The I-Pi costs $200. It’s made up of an open-source platform, some off-the-shelf parts, and a Raspberry Pi  – a credit card sized motherboard that is easily adaptable. The Raspberry Pi provides more processing power than proprietary control systems at a fraction of the price. 

Because the underlying hardware for the I-Pi is officially supported by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, this affordable touchscreen will be around for a while.

I-Pi components

A Flexible Future

Though it doesn’t have a lot of hardware, the I-Pi provides programmers with a ton of choices in other areas. It uses freely available operating systems like Linux and Windows 10 IoT, which lets programmers choose which operating system they’re comfortable working in. Gone are the days of requiring programmers to be highly specialized in only a few, vendor-friendly languages. Programmers can build the system in popular languages like Python and C#. 

This freedom leads ultimately to a better customer experience at a fraction of the cost.

Illinois State University will be using the I-Pi control system as soon as they are able.

The I-Pi will be piloted on the Urbana campus in Bevier 242 in Spring 2016.