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The University of Florida's 21st Century News Lab

At the University of Florida's new 21st Century News Laboratory, the future of electronic newsgathering looks bright. Employing the same HD broadcast and production equipment used in commercial news organizations, the school recently completed the first phase of a multiyear project designed to train students to create content for all multimedia platforms, including print, radio, TV and the Web. The new facility and the technology have propelled it to the forefront of ENG in the digital age.

The project, completed by system integrator Professional Communications Systems (PCS) in a mere three months on the main campus in Gainesville, FL, is the centerpiece of the vision of Dr. John W. Wright, dean of the UF College of Journalism and Communications, and David Carlson, executive director of the college's Center for Media Innovation + Research. Their vision was to create a broadcast news, journalism and communications breeding ground that would “cross-pollinate” students and illustrate a path for the media companies of the future. It is the first of three strategic components of the Center for Media Innovation + Research, which include the news laboratory; a digital lab for strategic communications that will open later this year; and, ultimately, a digital communications think tank and research consortium.

David Palmeira, a senior design engineer with PCS, and Jeff Gierhart, a Harris systems engineer, designed the significant upgrade to existing facilities. They worked extensively with the university to create a fully networked learning environment. Highlights of the new system include four Harris NEXIO AMP SD/HD baseband video servers configured with a NEXIO SD/HD shared storage area network (SAN), a proxy server and a 9TB Isilon IQ X-series digital file storage system, along with a variety of Ethernet switches to support a state-of-the-art convergent newsroom at the second largest communications college in the nation.

Making it all work together

A Harris NEXIO FCP Integration Gateway provides a link between the facility's Apple Final Cut Pro nonlinear editing software and the servers. This allows third-party editing directly on the SAN. Low-resolution proxy editing is accomplished with 16 seats of Harris Velocity PRX editing software. Numerous Harris signal processing modules also provide format and resolution conversion from SD to HD (and vice versa), and frame synchronization, in addition to other tasks.

The technology enables a collaborative environment where everyone working on the network can use material stored on the centralized servers. The college previously had a file-based workflow that used Final Cut Pro workstations (or laptops) attached to portable hard drives for localized storage. That production method proved to be inefficient and expensive.

The 21st Century News Laboratory is a multipurpose facility housed in what used to be an analog photo studio. It includes a 1200sq-ft production studio, complete with professional lighting, a green screen backdrop and a large multidisplay video wall. It also functions as a learning lab, a classroom, a multiplatform newsroom and a media center complete with 7.1 surround sound. A single Panasonic HPX300 on a Vinten Osprey studio pedestal serves as the main studio camera. Students use Panasonic HPX200 P2 camcorders for acquisition in the field.

The studio, which is tied to an existing production control room and a new Extreme Networks Black Diamond switch, doubles as an interactive classroom, complete with five pods accommodating five students each. Students can plug in their laptops and edit stories on the storage array and servers. The Isilon system, with its clustered storage architecture, provides the fast media access and adequate bandwidth required for multiple users to simultaneously and easily locate and retrieve audio and video files.

Taking a multiview for news

A monitor wall made up of nine 46in Samsung LCD screens is fed by three Harris Centrio multiviewer display systems, which are used for a set backdrop during production of the college's daily newscasts as well as for teaching purposes. The Centrio software also provides test and measurement features for monitoring systems status. A conference room with large glass windows adjacent to the studio is also tied into the network and is used for video conferencing, meetings and teaching purposes.

Content created in the 21st Century News Lab is used on the Web and on the college's PBS TV station, WUFT, which also has its HD facilities located in a different part of the building. A Harris Platinum 128 × 256 matrix 3Gb/s compatible video router, passing both SD and HD signals, ties the entire news lab into the WUFT infrastructure. A series of laboratories located in other parts of the building are also tied via Cat 6 cabling into the central storage system.

Designed for expansion

The news lab is just the first phase of a three-phase project. As part of a second phase, the college plans to install an asset management system and a node so that students can connect and edit their projects from their dorm rooms or apartments. Instructors have this capability today, but bandwidth needs to be increased to accommodate students remotely working.

A total of 10 edit rooms (labs) are located on other floors of the building, with the News Lab seamlessly connected to each one. Here, numerous Velocity edit systems are used for finishing projects and readying them for air on WUFT or the Web.

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Working with WUFT and Harris engineers, PCS completed the News Lab upgrade project in a short time frame. Among the project challenges, all of the networked systems had to be robust enough to stand up to student use across six different newsgathering disciplines, it needed to accommodate multiple simultaneous users (both in the News Lab and throughout the building), and it had to be designed and implemented in such a way that it can be systematically disassembled to make way for the second and third phases in the next two years. By all accounts, the project met these expectations, and the students and instructors couldn't be happier with the results.

Aspiring on-air talent and field reporters at the University of Florida, who must be well versed in all aspects of media acquisition and content creation, now have the tools and technology they need to learn how it's done and see their work on-air.

Because of its advanced facilities and excellent journalism programs, “ABC News” has chosen the University of Florida as one of only five “ABC News On Campus” bureaus in the United States. Student-generated content is frequently aired and carried on ABC Web sites. This provides on-the-job training for students before they enter the professional workforce.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.

Design team

University of Florida

David Carlson, executive director of the Center for Media Innovation + Research

Rob Carr, director of engineering and information technology

Professional Communications Systems

David Palmeira, senior design engineer/project manager

Troy Pazos, director of technical operations

Ed Kothera, project engineer

Harris Professional Services Group

Mark Rogers, account manager

Brian Redmond, project manager

Jeff Gierhart, systems engineer

Eutdel Garcia, systems engineer

Geoff Snell, systems engineer

Technology at work

ADC Patch Panels

Avocent infrastructure management software

AJA Video Mini Converters

Apple Final Cut Pro software

Auralex acoustic panels

Autoscript TelePrompter

Brightline T-series lighting fixtures

Communication Specialties ScanDo HD converter

Extreme Networks Black Diamond 8800 series switch

Centrio multiview system
NEXIO AMP servers
Platinum HD/SD router
Velocity edit systems

Isilon IQ X-series storage system

Panasonic HPX300 camera and HPX200 P2 camcorders

Samsung 46in LCD screens

Telemetrics camera control system

Vinten Osprey studio pedestal

Wohler audio monitors