London Metropolitan University’s Superlab, one of Europe’s largest and most advanced teaching laboratories, has invested  £600,000 with Reflex to deliver a new AV streaming solution.  The new system allows up to 12 lectures to be delivered simultaneously and received by any of 268 students all in one enormous working laboratory!

The huge ‘Superlab’ accommodates up to 268 students

Based in Holloway, Islington, London Metropolitan University’s Science Centre, known to students and staff as the ‘Superlab’, is one of the largest teaching labs in Europe. It was opened in 2007 at a cost of £30m. Following a recent installation carried out by Reflex, it now boasts the largest ‘Wyrestorm’ system in the world, enabling 268 students to work in the lab at one time while engaging with any one of up to 12 different lectures running simultaneously.

Students receive the audio for their chosen lecture via their own headphones connected to portable receivers worn in their lab coat pockets and pre-set to the correct lecture channels. The associated video material is shown on a display mounted above the assorted scientific equipment on their work desks; these same displays double as their local PC monitors.

Each lecturer station has the same set up as above but with the addition of a table top visualizer and a PTZ camera, mounted above the display. The lecturer has a simple membrane keypad on the desktop to select what is broadcast to the students at any point in the lecture; the options are 2 pre-set camera positions, the visualiser and the lecturer’s PC screen; each can be shown full-screen or the camera image can be shown as a picture-in-picture. Each lecture can be recorded onto a removable USB memory stick and the lecturer can control start and stop functions on the same keypad.

With up to 40 different channels being used at any one time, the system provides clear sound and vision to enable students to follow procedures and conduct experiments safely.

Commenting on the completed facility, Professor John Raftery, vice chancellor of the university, said: “We are extremely proud of our Superlab and the role it plays in training the scientists of tomorrow. This new technology will greatly enrich the student experience and highlights the investment we are making in our students’ learning and teaching.”

Challenges faced and met

The original challenge for this project was to find the most cost efficient way of delivering 12 different sets of high-quality audio/video content simultaneously to so many students spread over such large distances.

Video – The video challenge was met by a design centred around a Wyrestorm streaming system pulling in the lecturers’ video feeds and transmitting them in 4k resolution to each student workspace across the Superlab’s existing Cat5E cable infrastructure. The use of the existing Cat5 infrastructure was fundamental to the cost-saving achieved but necessitated a complex cable-route testing plan and the specification of specialist network switches capable of processing the high-speed switching required due to the volume of data in the system.

Audio – The need for each student to be able to tune into multiple different audio channels was elegantly met by use of a Televic IR distribution system and portable receivers that are worn in the lab coat pockets. However, the sheer distances involved due to the size of the Superlab introduced more challenges in terms of making sure that every student position could clearly receive the signals and that the timing of the audio heard was synchronised with the video pictures on their displays. The result was achieved through careful positioning of the IR radiators and precise set up of latency adjustments with the system.

Control – It was important for the lecturers’ controls to be extremely quick and simple to use so as not to interrupt the lectures. Reflex designed and commissioned small desk-mounted membrane button panels that are perfect for the application and resistant to harmful chemicals which are used within the lab.

It was also critical for a technician to be able to configure the system quickly before each lecture session to define which student positions would receive which lecturer’s AV feeds. This was achieved through an Extron controller which allows wireless control via iPads and also two static touch panels.

Florence Onwumere, students’ union officer for Human Sciences at London Met, said; “Coming from the School of Human Sciences, it’s a huge deal to see the University continuously invest in technology and resources required for research and in STEM degree programmes.”

Installation – The installation was obviously complex due to the sheer volume of tasks and working restrictions as the lab was regularly in use.  Nevertheless, it all went smoothly thanks to very detailed planning and scheduling. Sam Barter, Reflex’ project manager explained some of the challenges: “A major element of the project was the removal of old equipment including 280 heavy glass-fronted monitors, a process that took several weeks. The re-use of existing cable infrastructure also made it necessary to carry out extensive testing of all network ports before working bench by bench to install new equipment. All high level work had to be carried out when the lab was free of staff and students, on just one day each week. Even so, we managed to keep ahead of the original schedule right through to completion.”

Dr Trushar Adatia, head of school, Human Sciences, enthuses “We are thrilled with the high quality, innovative system design that Reflex has delivered for us that through using our existing cabling, has also proved to be highly cost effective.  The user experience is fantastic and the system is incredibly easy to use.”

Meanwhile, Stuart Leader, director of Wyrestorm distributor Polar Audio believes “Reflex is undoubtedly one of the leading and most experienced integrators working with AV streaming systems.”

The Outcome

The new system has now been in use since the end of September; according to Andrew Kennedy, Project Manager for the University, the students got to grips with the system immediately, the technicians and lecturers were a little nervous to start with but gained confidence within a few days and soon became fully comfortable with it.

William Jepps, md of Reflex summarised, “Superlab has been an exciting challenge for us; we worked closely with Wyrestorm and Polar Audio to come up with an extremely elegant and cost-effective design solution. The project ran smoothly and we’re very happy with the end result, the flexibility and efficiency of this teaching space is now truly fantastic. We have a great relationship with LMU and are extremely proud to have been part of this illustrious project.”