I was approached with a challenge to craft a solution that will do the following:
– Allow a presenter to wirelessly display a presentation
– Allow the presenter to walk around with the device (preferably a light Windows based tablet to be held for 2-3 hours in one hand)
– Mirror the content to two television screens at once, with the content being readable on two large (40-50 inch) TVs
– Allow the presenter to utilize PowerPoint’s Presenter View to keep tabs on timing and have access to notes
– Keep the cost down while also getting it ready in three days
Given these qualifications, I came up with a solution that utilizes off-the-shelf equipment that can be delivered in short order and provided most of the requested features. It involved using Apple’s AirPlay technology to wirelessly mirror content to an AppleTV, with that content duplicated with an HDMI splitter.
I ordered the following items from Amazon with One-Day shipping to get the gear ASAP:
To display the output from the HDMI equipped AppleTV to the TVs required:
With the hardware out the way, I now needed the software to glue it all together. With just the hardware, any 2011-era Mac could AirPlay mirror to the AppleTV, as could any iPhone 4s/iPad 2 or newer. However, this meant older Macs, and more importantly, Windows PCs, couldn’t. Thankfully a piece of software called AirParrot can be used to fill the gap. I grabbed a 5-user license for 39.99 and started working.
I ran into problems on my i7 Lenovo ThinkPad X201 running Windows 7, in that it couldn’t see the AppleTV. My laptop is used for various developmental experiments, so I decided that it’d be prudent to try to just upgrade to Windows 8. Once upgraded, I was able to AirPlay over to the AppleTV. Unfortunately, AirParrot only supports mirroring on the Windows platform, whereas on the Mac it can extend a desktop. This meant no presenter mode for PowerPoint, but this was acceptable. I hope to see extended display for PCs in future AirParrot updates. Thankfully, AirParrot supports password-protected AirPlay sessions to prevent anyone on the wireless hijacking the AirPlay session.
I brought the setup in to begin testing on other devices. I discovered the Microsoft Surface Pro, while a great device running at 1920×1080, would incorrectly size the resolution through AirParrot. Some googleing later, and I was convinced the Surface Pro was doing some weird things with its graphics drivers and that other people were seeing issues with this odd resolution bug on other apps. The Surface Pro was shelved.
Instead, a Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 was tried out – lighter than a Surface Pro, but much slower a machine, it worked on the AirParrot transmissions. With maximum Video Quality set, and a Max Frame Rate set to the minimum 10, very readable text was displayed and the time to transmit a new screen to the AppleTV was an acceptable 2-3 seconds.
Then I ran into new problems – a touchscreen meant transitioning slides wasn’t just a mouse-click away. As PowerPoint in Office 2010 lacked any multi-touch support, any errant touch on the screen would register as a click and move forward. A Microsoft Labs project called pptplex exists that aimed to bring multi-touch support to PowerPoint 2010, but it was positively a mess to use- and that meant the presenters would end up making mistakes.
Thankfully, Office 2013 proved to be multi-touch aware. Gestures such as swiping back and forth would transition back and forward. Pinch to zoom worked (a little too well during the presentations- presenters would sometimes errantly zoom in due to a thumb on the screen). This allowed my presenters to move through the slide deck without much consternation (outside of an issue wherein a presenter would hit the Windows button on the tablet or the tablet would fall asleep, and then bringing the Windows 8 Metro interface up would stall out the slow tablet for a few seconds). We also converted the slide deck to be 16:9 Widescreen to better use the screen real estate.
The presentation went fairly smoothly, and I’m pleased with the combination of AirPlay, AppleTV, and AirParrot. It will remain a solution we can utilize at the office for the future.
I’d like to touch on a few competing technologies that were considered but not utilized.
Right off the bat, I didn’t want to use a software AirPlay receiver. The AppleTV’s size and simplicity was much more appreciable than if we had used a PC attempting to receive AirParrot’s feed.
Also discounted was the use of an Intel Wi-Di technology. Intel’s Wi-Di technology is an interesting case of how market fragmentation can destroy a product. Wi-Di requires PCs to have specific chipsets (specifically, Intel) to use it. This meant that the Surface Pro (with a Marvell wireless chipset) was right out. Wi-Di also has various versions, and even our powerful Lenovo X201 laptops are not Wi-Di 3.0 capable. Wi-Di’s future will hopefully be stronger with 3.5 and adoption of Miracast. We have an older Netgear Wi-Di receiver that’s been used with a large smart TV, and I’ve been less than impressed.
Also not utilized are the wireless USB dongles with VGA receivers. These devices are comparatively bulky (compared to a built-in solution), cause video degradation, and are generally unreliable. We have a TrendNet brand of this solution, and I did not trust it for this important task. Plus, I have an intense disdain for the USB-to-VGA adapters that are wired, a topic for another time.
In the end, this solution ran a hair under $200. It ended up being basically $100 for the AppleTV, $50 for the cables and splitter, and $40 for the software. Everything can be reused for future presenters on PCs (until more AirParrot licenses are needed), Macs, iOS devices, and any device that supports AirPlay.