One of the nice things about working at In Theory Yes is working with teachers and educators on new and novel ways of classroom and online instruction. Like much of the innovation that goes on here in our Stamford campus, the best projects start with “what if..?”, “why don’t we…?”, and the occasionally depressing “it’s nice, but…”
The usual roundtable discussion about how to improve our software offerings and product ideas resulted in the latter – our ITYPhysics product introduced some new windows in our latest version, and when I eagerly asked a teacher how he liked it, I got the pained “it’s nice, but…” – one thing that we hadn’t paid much attention to was the size of student laptops, which tend to be in the lower end, typically 13 inch screen models. Students were spending a lot of time alt-tabbing to find these windows, and this instructor noted that breaks in concentration in a classroom or library would make the student tempted with distractions, such as talking to friends or looking at other homework assignments due on her desk or table.
So “what if….” we made a giant three monitor workstation that immerses the student by giving him or her lots of real estate to spread out our instruction material? Why not four? Five? Six? So with some stealth I liberated some monitors and dipped into our R&D budget and built the closest thing to a workstation for those blessed with compound eyes (joke attributed to Tom Fawcett):
The ITY Immersive Instruction Prototype
The machine didn’t take too long to build, I used six 24 inch HP Promo LA2405WG LCD monitors, mounted on an Ergotech Hex 3 over 3 monitor stand, which I was impressed with its sturdy build and hefty construction. The HP monitors were used as it’s our standard office monitor, so I had six of those lying around for this build. For a production machine, I would probably go with a smaller screen to be able to angle the monitors more for better viewing by the student. The HP Promo works very well when viewed straight on, but when tilted or viewed from the side, the color suffers somewhat – but in this prototype still quite usable. I would probably choose a TFT monitor of smaller dimensions when procuring for a school.
For the video cards, I went with an nVidia Quadro NVS 450 for the first 4 monitors, and at first tried to drive the other two with the on-board Intel video chip on the Intel i3770k processor and using the video outputs on the Asus Sabertooth Z77 motherboard, with Ubuntu 12 as the operating system. The initial results were promising, but apropos to this cartoon
, I wasn’t able to get the 6 monitors working in harmony. Seperately the nVidia and Intel processors worked fine, but put together, the Intel would only go into clone mode and not dual-head. I felt if I could just find the right Xorg option it’d work, but as I was spending a lot of time on configuration files, I punted and bought a Quadro NVS 295 card from eBay for $30 and everything just worked! I would describe the Quadros’ performance as “surprisingly adequate” – the cards can support 6 monitors at 1920×1200 resolution at 24 bit color, even playing Youtube videos with acceptable playback. You can definitely see the limitations of the card when moving large windows quickly across the monitors, so you find yourself turning off the cute special effects your window manager provides. The Quadro cards have shockingly high sticker prices brand new ($400 for the 450, $130 for the 295), but seem to have terrible resale values, you can snap them up on ebay for fractions of those prices.
Too bad about the Intel, but not all is lost, I plugged in our office HDTV into the motherboard video ports and now we can throw a 42 inch HDTV in the mix! No idea how the student’s going to see the TV over the monitors, unless we’re going to position it on the side or on the ceiling, or even on the floor for the ‘glass bottom boat’ effect, but then again just because someone has options doesn’t mean you’re obligated to use them all.
I’ve yet to plop a student with a full spread of our software for a test drive, due to the Summer break, so I’ve been using myself as a lab rat, using this configuration for my daily work. All I can say is “Hooray!” With all my applications open, I can glance at what I need while doing my development or technical support. I have not used alt-tab to switch between windows, and the monitors taking up my view seems to focus me on my task. Even I am not immune to distractions in the office, so my concentration isn’t broken with the act of hunting for applications by switching between them in a small laptop screen. I’ve noticed a definite increase in productivity, and as a bonus, my office mates can’t always see me hiding behind my monitors so they’ll take their request to someone they can see.
So from a teacher’s “it’s nice… but” I’ve found a new standard for productivity and while ITY branded multi-monitor setups probably won’t be rolling off the production lines anytime soon, it’s definitely worth considering in today’s trend toward single screen tablets and laptops.