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Creating a Videoconference Cart for Your Church

Does your congregation hold meetings that should include people who are off-site? The Information Technology staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) created a meeting cart -- a mobile unit with a computer, large screen, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse, and webcam -- that makes these meetings easier to hold. It's not terribly difficult, but it takes about $2,000 and an afternoon to put together.

Parts List

TV: This is likely to be where the bulk of your budget goes. Do some shopping to find a good fit. The UUA decided to go with 55 Inch LED TV’s as they are fairly large without costing about $1000. Make sure the TV you pick out has the right ports on the back. Ours all have several HDMI ports (good for adding more things later) and a VGA/computer audio hook up (great for using a laptop to power the screen). Look at reviews on a site like Amazon.com for prices. Note: Avoid Plasma displays as they can burn in an image if left on for too long with a static picture.

Computer: The computer is the brains of your meeting cart. The UUA’s meeting carts use a Dell Optiplex 3010 Desktop which cost about $600 with a Quad Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, Windows 7 Professional, a 250 GB hard drive, and CD/DVD burner. Another desktop or laptop should be just fine. Get at least 4GB of RAM and make sure the computer has a display port out or HDMI out for getting the picture to the TV.

TV stand (or wall mount): The UUA needed a wheeled TV cart, but if you have a smaller permanent meeting space, a wall mount might be a great solution.

Wireless keyboard and mouse: Decent wireless keyboard/mouse combo’s are inexpensive. We use two models from Logitech, either a wireless keyboard and track pad or a more traditional keyboard and mouse. Pick something you think people will be comfortable using.

HDMI cable: This cable connects the computer and TV. Since it carries sound and video you don’t need to worry about more cables. The major thing to worry about here is that the cable is long enough (a 4 to 6 foot HDMI cable should do nicely), though it is always a good idea to double check that the ports on the TV and computer match the cable. Note: With the computer above, Dell does not include an HDMI port, instead opting for a display port, meaning that we needed to buy a Display Port to HDMI cable.

Power strip: You’ll need to get power to the TV and computer somehow and the best solution we’ve hit on so far is a power strip with a 15 foot cable.

Wireless card (or Ethernet cable): This is optional depending on whether you have a wireless network or plan to run an Ethernet cable to the computer.  

VGA cable (optional): While a 15 foot VGA/Audio Cable isn’t strictly required it’s a handy option and enables just about anyone to plug in a laptop and send a picture to the TV.

Velcro strips: These are great for securing all the equipment together. We used it to attach the webcam, power strip and wireless card to the TV cart. A small pack of the stuff can be found at most hardware stores or on Amazon.

Webcam: Depending on your meeting plans, a webcam may be vital or optional. With more and more meetings taking place via services like AnyMeeting and Skype, we opted for a high-definition (HD) wide-angle webcam to get a good view of everyone near the meeting cart.

External USB microphone (optional): After using meeting carts around the UUA we’ve settled on using conference telephones or an external USB microphone  designed to pick up sound within a 25-foot radius, since webcam microphones tend to be less than a perfect audio solution. 

A Few Notes on Assembly

If your meeting space has a table and you intend to use this for video conferencing, you’ll probably want to set your wall mount or cart so that the bottom of the TV is one to two feet above the top of the table. You may also want to consider mounting the webcam to the bottom of the TV rather than the top, because the perspective looks much more natural for remote attendees.

Use the Velcro strips or something like them to the attach the webcam to the base of the TV. Use several strips to attach the computer to the provided tray on the cart. Finally, the Velcro is useful for attaching the TV remote to the side or back of the TV so that it doesn’t get lost.

Attaching everything to the cart/TV/computer takes about two hours and is generally fairly straightforward. Be compulsively neat!

Computer Configuration

This section was the toughest to figure out, and everyone will want to do it a bit differently, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Make the computer automatically starts up in the morning and shut down at night. Lifehacker has a good guide for setting this up.
  • You may wish to set the computer to never sleep since the screen turning off in the middle of a meeting can be annoying.
  • Turn down the resolution on the computer to make everything appear larger. This can be very important if your space is large as some attendees may not be able to see otherwise. Note: The settings we ended up with are 1280×720 on the resolution and 150% on the font size.
  • Install and update software with Ninite.com. We recommend: VLC, Java, Flash, Microsoft Security Essentials, Firefox (and or Chrome), Libre Office, Skype, and Adobe Reader.
  • Make your computer automatically logon when it starts up so it’s always ready to go.
  • Set the computer to update automatically.

Check out online meeting software such as AnyMeeting or other online meeting software.

(Thanks to James Curran for this article.)

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, October 7, 2013.

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