The Future of Education: White Light’s SmartStage positions virtual learning as a key offering at Michigan Ross University

The Project

In Autumn 2019, The University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business became the first academic institution to utilise SmartStage®, bringing remote learning to life like never before. The University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (Michigan Ross), ranks among the top global business schools. As the school is a leader in educational innovation, the production team, led by Production Manager Gregory Barker, was looking for advanced technology that would offer an immersive virtual classroom solution for a new online Masters in Business Administration (MBA) programme. The aim of the online MBA was to offer world-class MBA education to more people through flexible learning options, and enabling students around the world to benefit from the school’s expertise. In contrast to other online remote learning methods that can leave students feeling isolated and detached, Michigan Ross wanted to offer a more engaging learning experience using the latest video technology. A significant part of this was the perceived need for some kind of green screen solution to create a virtual classroom. Barker was about to sign a deal with another supplier of virtual studio solutions at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam in 2018 when he discovered White Light’s exhibition of SmartStage® in the Future Zone. SmartStage® is White Light’s award-winning immersive and scalable mixed-reality environment. The crucial part of the system is that it replaces the traditional green screen element of a virtual studio with LED video walls, allowing the presenters and audience to actually see and interact with the content around them; this makes the system much more user-friendly, particularly to non broadcast professionals, and creates true engagement with the environment.

The Brief

As the SmartStage® set up is scalable to any size studio space, it can create the illusion of any environment and allows both lighting and reflections to immediately appear more natural. Media servers help drive the SmartStage® solution and White Light worked closely with disguise to develop a pioneering extended reality workflow to help harness the power and scalability of the servers. Camera tracking systems then feed the data and field of view from the cameras into the media servers, allowing content to be generated in real-time to the perspective of the camera. Content for the LED walls, 360-degree set extension, and any augmented reality for foreground objects, are all created and tracked as one synchronised system. This content was produced by Malf Media, who WL collaborated with on several projects. Upon discovering the SmartStage® solution at IBC, Barker stopped in his tracks and knew he had found the answer to his search for a virtual set solution. White Light, created content overnight for Michigan in the form of a bespoke lecture hall environment. Barker was blown away that they could turn around content that quickly, and how natural it could look. Barker saw that SmartStage® would allow faculty members to see their surroundings and feel like they were teaching in a real lecture theatre or classroom, which would allow them to act more naturally than they would if faced with a green screen. In turn, the remote students would be able to see themselves and their peers on screen, making them feel more included in the discussion; this would also give the added accountability of being visible and audible to the classroom, thus encouraging full attention. As part of the procurement, Mike Barger, Executive Director of the Office of Strategy and Academic Innovation at Michigan Ross, visited London in order to test out the equipment. As a lecturer for some business courses at Michigan Ross, he wanted to test whether the system would fit for those courses as well. Integrating his presentation, he was able to walk right into the studio set and engage naturally with the space around him. Following his experience, he referred to the SmartStage® platform as “extraordinary”. Barker knew that installing SmartStage® solution as the foundation of the online MBA would elevate Michigan Ross’ programme even further and really put them on the map for innovation in remote learning. White Light then collaborated with Michigan Ross to engineer a scalable system that would integrate with its existing broadcast studio infrastructure and supplied all elements of the SmartStage® including camera equipment, lighting, LED environment, stage and media servers.

The Delivery

The LED studio lighting system is pixel mapped to allow the team to extend the environment for greater flexibility, while the two camera system – including a 6’ jib and rolling dolly, both with tracking system – gives the ability to cut between perspectives and allows the lecturer to move freely around the set. The system also features wireless touchscreen control interface for faculty driven control of the environment and SmartStage® features during presentations, and audio integration with in-ear monitors for the lecturer to hear and interact with their students naturally. The 4mx4m installation into a small room was not without some challenges. Such as fitting the lighting equipment into a low 2.5m ceiling height, but the White Light team overcame all issues to achieve a seamless installation. Although in a small space, the SmartStage® appears infinitely spacious to the distancer learners. As space is premium at Universities, SmartStage® allows Michigan Ross to have a fully flexible asset in a limited space. White Light also fitted the servers with complete redundancy to guarantee 100% uptime in the event of any errors or failures. Additionally, White Light built the entire system to be supported remotely; everything in the space including lighting, vision mixers, cameras and servers, are shown in the control centre in London. Should there be an issue, White Light support, including proactive maintenance and monitoring to keep the entire system up to date and functioning is available, if needed, from nearly 4000 miles away. In June 2019, the installation was completed over the course of a week, with White Light also providing on-site training to the team at Michigan Ross. White Light also fitted the SmartStage® with a variety of content including various studio templates for the team to play with. The system is integrated with Zoom video conferencing software for the students. They login to the online lecture through Zoom, and can immediately see the lecturer and themselves within a 360-degree lecture hall space, enabling instant engagement and discussion. The lecturer’s presentations are also visible inside the virtual environment. One of the big advantages of the system for Michigan Ross is that students actually like that they are part of the lecture – they appear ‘on stage’ as part of the content so the faculty and their peers can see them, and they can see themselves, which helps make them pay attention and not hide behind a video conference call like other remote learning platforms. This makes a huge difference to learning and helps to bridge the gap between the ‘real’ and virtual teaching environments by making it feel as close as possible to traditional lecture theatre environments.

This technology was originally conceived to facilitate creative minds in the live broadcast industry, and specifically sports analysis, but it quickly became apparent that it could also be used as a viable alternative to green screen presentation especially for those outside the broadcast industry. When anyone, athletes, academics, thought leaders, politicians, even children entered the environment and were instantly familiar with it. The space created with SmartStage® allows everyone to create emotive, engaging content with zero rehearsals and zero training.

Andy Hook

Technical Solutions Director at White Light

The Results

White Light is currently undergoing R&D to go a step further with the Zoom integration to pull students from the course together in break-out groups to complete group activity. This would give students an even more collaborative and shared learning experience emulating on-campus learning. While the initial SmartStage® was installed for the online MBA, the business school is looking at other uses for the platform and have shown interest in utilising SmartStage® systems for modular senior executive courses, diverse webinars, TEDtalks, teaching to foreign institutions, knowledge sharing between departments at other Universities, and more.

Project Summary

Client: The University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business
Market: Education
Location: Michigan, USA
Product: SmartStage® Immerse

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