Online videos of lectures are an increasingly popular review tool among college students.

New software that allows viewers watching online video lectures to zoom and pan around recorded images could provide an interactive and more cost-effective alternative to current lecture capture technology as college campuses move to make recordings of classes available online.

Developed by Stanford University electrical engineering professor Bernd Girod and his team of students, ClassX software allows viewers to zoom in to watch the professor write on the board or pan out to see the full classroom.

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The ClassX program divides a single video image into many rectangular “tiles,” each of which has its own video stream. When a viewer zooms closer to see say, the professor’s face, the program transmits information only for the tiles that show the area of interest.

Because the program is cloud-based, users can access the video through a web browser without installing any software on their personal devices.

Sherif Halawa, a graduate student on Girod’s team, says the program has grown quickly in popularity, mostly through word of mouth among faculty who report good experiences with the project.

“When students started hearing the buzz, they said, ‘If it’s possible to record the course, then please do it,’” Halawa said. “And the professors come and say, ‘We want to put the course on ClassX.’”

The program has already been used for a variety of classroom settings, from introductory lectures with hundreds of students to small classes of advanced students. Halawa said the program seems especially useful for demonstrations of lab techniques.

The program offers two functions particularly useful for educational applications: automatic tracking, which allows the video to follow the professor around the room; and slide synchronization, which aligns presentation slides with the video.

Sometimes when a professor uses a slideshow presentation, he or she may inadvertently block parts of the slides from the camera’s view. The ClassX program can display a clean version of the slideshow presentation alongside the video. Users can select a particular slide from the slide deck and then jump to that point in the video.

While the project has received positive feedback from users, Halawa said there are no current plans to commercialize it. Instead, the program code has been released as open source and others are encouraged to contribute.

Halawa said that based on user feedback, his team eventually hopes to add automatic source captioning to convert speech to text and image processing to convert writing on the board to text. Both functions would reduce the amount of notes students need to take during lecture.

Currently, ClassX works for desktop computers. Led by graduate student Derek Pang, the team has been developing a mobile version of the program for tablets and smartphones. The team plans beta deployment of ClassX Mobile in fall of 2011.

The team members have performed initial experiments with Android and hope to develop an iOS (formerly iPhone Operating System) player to make the technology available to iPhone and iPad users.

To use zoom and pan functions, most current lecture capture technology requires someone in a control room to operate remotely controlled cameras as the lectures are being recorded. Girod estimated that lecture halls, which need to be specially designed, can cost more than $100,000.

“Our students thought about technological advances, took initiative and said, ‘We can do the same thing for $500,'” Girod said.

ClassX software requires nothing more than a tripod, high-definition camcorder, and a wireless microphone. Humans only need to intervene to set up the camera and upload files online.

The program includes an interface function that enables ClassX to connect with other learning management systems at Stanford, such as CourseWare and Sakai. Users can thus incorporate ClassX video capacity into other learning management systems that may already have course assignments and lecture slides, but lack video.

“The thing that excites me the most [about the project] is that it’s something that applies to education. We have a lot of cases of students who cannot stay on campus for the whole quarter,” Halawa said. “One student who was on the North Pole was watching the videos and said he felt like he was in class attending Stanford.”

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