Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lessons From In-the-Trenches Webcasting

I recently finished three days of orchestrating webcasts for a local social media conference. Prior to this, I had participated in the back-end production and front-end participation of webcasts, but hadn't gotten deep into the trenches of overseeing all aspects of the webcasts. It was a learning experience, to say the least. Without getting into the details of the decision whether or not to webcast or the event management details, I'll outline my experience to offer tips and caveats for anyone considering webcasting.

I had four days to find a video recording and webcasting solution. Fortunately, the IT guys at my department already had a solution in place and were incredibly helpful. I would not have been able to do this without technical support and an integrated solution. So my first tip for anyone attempting this is to make sure they have experienced technical help in place before even embarking on such a project.

As the conference relied on volunteer labour, it meant that I didn't know whom exactly was helping out until the day of the event. Ideally, a meeting and some training beforehand would help - but I realize this isn't always feasible. Considering the uncertainty of volunteer expertise and availability, it was essential to keep everything simple and operable by one person.

It also helps to see the environment one will be working in to figure out what are going to be any camera, audio, power, and network issues. We didn't get to see all the rooms, so we packed extra power bars, extension cords, and cable extenders (another great idea).

The webcasting system
Considering the circumstances and availability of equipment and expertise, I decided that the integrated solution my department provided was ideal. They had already purchased a subscription to webcasting software. This includes web-based recording management software and desktop recording software. We had fairly small webcams that had a omni-directional microphone, auto focus, and automatic light and colour correction. This makes operation of the camera and microphone incredibly easy. The webcams have a stand/clamp that makes positioning it easy. The webcams fed into a netbook. The software can also record the speaker's PowerPoint presentation if it is preloaded onto the computer - this would then be seen with the webcam via a split screen during the webcast. The cameras capture the session and then upload to server. We used both the wireless and wired network connection. Once on the Web, sessions can be managed, edited, and shared.

The set-up
Our job was to cover 3 break-out conference panels for the 3 days of the conference (15 sessions in total). Including myself, we had 3 volunteers. I had about one hour to meet with the volunteers to set-up equipment and train them how to use the software.

Technical problems
As to be expected, there are always problems that arise - some that cannot be anticipated. Of the three days of the conference, I had a new batch of problems come up suddenly and dramatically every day. These include:
  • wireless network connection unstable and slow and wired connection didn't seem to always work either
  • camera stand tips easily
  • camera or microphones can't zoom in - so people sitting far away from the camera aren't seen or heard particularly well
  • camera can't capture details of a presentation screen well-enough to be able to read it
  • backlight from windows or projector beam light overwhelms camera
  • webcasting software would mysteriously uninstall itself and need reinstalling
  • one of the netbooks died
Having back-up netbooks minimized problems with hardware and having lots of powerbars and cable extenders also helped.

Human issues
  • problems would come up and volunteers would have to leave recording to resolve them
  • speakers refused (for various reasons) to be recorded
  • pre-loading presentations onto netbooks takes too long if doing multiple speakers
  • locks on equipment didn't work, so room would have to be locked and unlocked regularly
  • no tech support available on weekends
  • attendees and speakers needed help with various things (e.g. getting onto Internet, where's washroom, projectors, etc.) and in doing this it takes time away from recording set-up
  • speakers that read their papers (often in a monotone) make for incredibly boring webcasts
  • real-time communication between volunteers and conference organizers across buildings and rooms was a problem
Having more volunteers to act as a float and resolve the other non-webcasting issues would have help - as would have a technical expert on stand-by (even if only available via telephone).

Considering all the problems, I would be tempted to say it was an ideal solution. If we had access to high-def cameras, tripods, and full suite of microphoness it would have certainly provided a better quality recording. But these are more difficult to operate and the use of various microphones would have meant we would have fed things into an audio board. Certainly, not something one, untrained person could feasibly do alone. To cover this many sessions, it would have also required lots of computer memory - not cheap. This type of equipment tends to be bigger and require more space and cords for set-up.

The webcams and netbooks are highly portable and don't take up much space - considering the small size of some of the rooms this is an asset. This system is also easy to set-up and fast to upload. As quality wasn't as essential as making use of existing resources (both technical and labour), it was a good solution. I believe most of the problems would be addressed with better real-time communication and at least 1-2 more volunteers.

1 comment:

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