Genesis of the Project
The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures enacted to slow its spread changed our world. For many, sitting in Starbucks sipping a latte chatting with friends is no longer an option; for others, especially those who live in care facilities, all social contact has been curtailed. For weeks on end, care facilities have kept their doors locked, their premises off limits to all but employees. The change happened very suddenly. Unprepared for these circumstances, families were and remain cut off from their loved ones, except by means of telephone and sometimes Skype or Zoom. Pastors have likewise been cut off from their charges in care facilities.
Some residents of care facilities are relatively tech savvy, but most are not. Apart from face-to-face visits, many relied on their television sets for a connection to the outside world. Now most cannot meet with anyone from the outside world face to face, and if any do manage it, they usually face two weeks of isolation within the care facility.
In a sense, "mother is the necessity of invention" in the case of the CChurch project. Imagine being able to bring the divine service to those who are isolated in care facilities and who can't use a computer. Imagine being able to bring good Law and Gospel preaching to those who are hard of hearing ─ due to the expense, they can't use the equipment with a computer but they can watch TV because they have equipment attached to it that allows them to hear. Imagine you could do this without having to spend much time making it happen.
Such were the thoughts that led to the idea of a simple, inexpensive device to connect the television screen space of an isolated resident in a care facility to a web page under the control of the local congregation. In order to use whatever assistance devices the resident might already have in place, the device connects to nearly any television set either directly or through inexpensive signal converters. A Wi-Fi network is required for the device, and almost without exception, care facilities have a Wi-Fi network for their charges. Once a device is set up for a recipient, the congregation can share its streaming broadcast, recorded sermons, podcasts, and other services with the resident by simply changing the content of the connected web page. If a congregation produces a live video stream, it can be displayed on the connected web page and is thus available for viewing on their room TVs by the care facility residents. If the congregation records YouTube videos, those can likewise be made viewable via the connected web page. In fact, any content that can be displayed in a single screen (no scrolling) using standard codecs on a web page can be used.
In late July 2020, I developed a prototype program using an Asus Chromebit and my congregation's website. In early August, I brought the idea of a pilot program to the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation. The Foundation moved quickly, approving a generous grant to develop the administrative and technological infrastructure with a pilot program. Currently this pilot program is working with 12 congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ─ the denominational beneficiaries of the Schwan Foundation.
The difficulties are generally not in the electronics. There are currently many options with similar programming requirements and many more options for developing dedicated hardware. Rather, the difficulties arise in the marshalling and administration of the information required to set up a unit for a particular recipient.
The Pilot Program
For the pilot program, I secured 35 Asus Chromebits. First I gather all the information I need to pre-program the unit: about the television set and circumstances of a recipient, the network infrastructure in the care facility, the contact information for the care facility's IT staff, etc. Then I preprogram a unit for the recipient's circumstances and send it to the care facility with careful instructions on how to install the unit on the recipient's television set. The device connects automatically to the local network and then fetches the content from the preprogrammed URL of the web page the church has dedicated for this purpose.
Essentially, CChurch's electronic component is the same technology used in digital signage, menus on screens at fast food restaurants, and similar applications. Anything that will display within the confines of a TV screen can be placed on the church's dedicated web page. The page can be made to show a Vimeo or YouTube full screen video, a Dacast live stream, static HTML, a podcast player...really, any content that does not require any sort of interactivity on the part of the viewer.
The most difficult part so far has been communicating to the recipient residents the method by which they switch their televisions away from normal TV channels to the video source that the device provides. TV remote controls vary widely. Many care facilities take care to replace all of their residents' remotes with standardized universal remotes, others do not. The IT staff in some facilities helps to teach residents the process; in others, they are simply too busy to be able to lend a hand. Addressing these variables is a focus of study in the pilot program.
Google has designated the Chromebit device obsolete and will soon no longer support the device. This will occur shortly after the pilot program has been completed at the end of October. Currently I am investigating other devices and building a hardware prototype dedicated to the task using the inexpensive Raspberry Pi 4 single board computer. The goal is to find or build a suitable, affordable computing device that can provide the same services as the Chromebit. The advantage of the custom-built device is that it can be remotely reprogrammed and include an infrared device to act as a TV remote, so that the TV source can be switched programmatically. Another of the pilot program's goals is to determine a sustainable price point for the units and services. Once the pilot program has been completed, I intend to begin ramping up production, making the new devices available for purchase, offering training, etc.
Operational Process Details of the Pilot Program
- Each participating congregation chooses a person to coordinate communication with the recipient care facilities' residents, the care facilities IT staffs, and the congregation's web master.
- The coordinator supplies the care facilities with forms to be filled out providing all the information required to preprogram the device for each recipient's circumstances.
- The coordinator arranges with the congregation's web master to have a private page created on the congregation's website and consults with the pastor on what sort of content he might wish to have installed on that page for the resident to view. For example, the pastor may wish to have the live stream on Sunday morning, announcement texts after the service, and Peace Devotions on the weekdays.
- The device is preprogrammed to connect to the dedicated page on the congregation's website, then it is tested on a network simulating that of the care facility.
- Instructions are crafted for the care facility IT staff that show how to install the device on the resident's current TV set, including the process for adding signal converters to match the device output to the TV set's inputs.
- The device is shipped directly to the care facility for installation by the care facility IT staff.
- The device becomes a video source on the TV. The care facility IT staff prepares the resident's remote. Often care facilities have a standardized universal remote that can be programmed to make switching to the other source a little easier. Otherwise, the staff works with residents to teach them how to switch back and forth between the TV channel line up and the video source corresponding to the device.
- The coordinator checks in regularly with the resident and care facility to make sure that the device is functioning properly.
- The care center IT staff notifies the coordinator whenever it needs to make changes to its network; the device is then reprogrammed accordingly. Likewise, should the URL of the connected web page need to be changed, reprogramming is necessary.
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