County government preps for post-pandemic hybrid in-person, video-conference meetings

At its regular meeting in the first week of March, Monroe county commissioners got an update from chief technology officer Eric Evans on upgrades to technical audio-visual features of the Nat U. Hill meeting room.

In pre-pandemic times, it was the meeting place for the county commissioners, the county council, and the plan commission, among other groups. That’s where those government bodies will resume meeting, when restrictions are lifted—possibly sometime in the next few months.

The tech upgrades aren’t being made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Problems with acoustics in the room—due to its high ceilings and wall of windows—were already well known. Also well established was the low-definition video feed from CATS.

The reliance during the pandemic on Zoom video-conference meetings has led to some modifications to the Nat U. Hill project, to accommodate hybrid in-person-Zoom meetings. It’s also led to plans for the deployment of a mobile Zoom package for use in other meeting spaces.

Evans told commissioners at their early March meeting, “We started pivoting the Nat Hill project to create a blended environment, where we could combine a live in-person meeting with online teleconferencing elements, so that we can have the best of both worlds.”

The mobile Zoom package will include OWL cameras, which have ultra-wide angle lenses that are able capture the whole meeting space. The cameras can also automatically focus on a person who is speaking, and split the screen to isolate the person who is speaking in a separate frame, displayed along with the wide angle.

The Nat U. Hill meeting space won’t typically use the OWL cameras, Evans told the commissioners.

That’s because CATS (Community Access Television Services) shoots from the Nat U. Hill room balcony and uses more than one camera angle, with pans, tilts and zooms. And those are high-definition cameras. So the hybrid in-person-Zoom setup in Nat U. Hill will tap the CATS feed, not OWL cameras, Evans said.

The quality of the CATS video that’s streamed out will see an improvement as a result of the technical upgrades, Evans said. The existing problem of lower-definition video, despite the high-definition cameras, involves available bandwidth to the courthouse, Evans said.

So the project includes installation of a fiber circuit to the courthouse, so that CATS has “a direct high-speed highway to their studio at the Monroe County Public Library,” Evans said.

The problem with sound in the Nat U. Hill room was related in part to the CATS broadcast, Evans said.

In order to get the volume in the room loud enough so that people who were actually working in the room could hear what was being said, the volume had to be turned up to levels that often caused sound issues for the CATS crew.

“You know, they’re a television crew—they want their sound to be optimal for the TV broadcast,” Evans said. About the sound levels in the room and the sound for the broadcast, Evan said, “Those are two elements that we’ve got to get balanced out.”

Part of the solution to the sound problem includes Bose speakers that will be located at four different locations in the room, and new microphones for individual spots at the meeting tables.

At the early-March meeting, Evans also touched on the issue of meeting transcriptions. Automated transcripts are one feature of the Zoom video-conference platform. But Evans is looking to do better than the quality that automatic transcription provides.

As an example of the kind of mistakes that Zoom automated transcripts routinely make, here’s a line from a recent Friday press conference of local leaders on COVID-19 response: “Okay, snacks chicken with IU Helton. Brian shocked me.” [OK, let’s next check in with IU Health’s Brian Shockney.]

“I’d really like to take a look at getting it professionally closed captioned,” Evans said. He tied his interest in providing something that’s better than the automatic transcription to his own experience.

“In the couple years leading up to my father passing away, he watched a lot of closed captioning. And there’s a really big difference between what’s automatically generated by something, and a professional person doing closed captioning,” Evans said.

Evans said he’s working on getting pricing for a professional closed captioner, saying he’s fairly confident that some grant money might be available for that.

The money for the Nat U. Hill technical renovations was approved in May 2020 by the county council as a $181,000 appropriation from the cable franchise user fees.  The county council had delayed making the decision in April, until the financial impact of the pandemic became a little clearer.

The Nat U.Hill Room was named for a judge who served for 24 years on the circuit court and who died in 1987.