Portable Webcasting Systems
Nov 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles
New tools give video broadcasters a worldwide reach.
When Tim Berners-Lee first envisioned the World Wide Web, he probably didn't realize he was conceiving a new worldwide broadcast medium. Since those days, IP video has certainly become a star on the global stage. Of course, the term “broadcast” in the traditional sense does not strictly apply to webcasting, because one of webcasting's inherent weaknesses is the much smaller number of simultaneous viewers. But the two-fisted power of webcasting lies in its low-cost, worldwide reach and its ability to put receivers over many time zones in the director's seat with on-demand viewing.
In terms of marketing, traditional broadcasting could be compared to taking aim at a huge flock of ducks with a shotgun: although the range is short and most of the shot misses its mark, there will be some hits. By contrast, webcasters could be seen as perching on a hilltop with a rifle and picking off carefully selected individual targets at great range with a telescopic sight. This plays especially well for narrowly targeted corporate internal and b-to-b communication with broadband-equipped workers and clients.
Following previous broadcast trends, a need has evolved among webcasters to take their coverage on the road with a hardware package that is compact and quick to set up and strike. There is a wide range of approaches to this, but I will focus primarily on some that offer a complete hardware package, including production tools and integral IP encoding. I also note a few devices that do not include production tools, but allow highly mobile and versatile encoding schemes or combine video, text, slides, and sound in much the same way as traditional production tools, streaming these as one live signal.
Amalgamated Video International (AVI) offers the Producer Mark II as a rackmounted, roll-in unit capable of handling up to 12 simultaneous camera feeds in IEEE 1394, S-Video, composite, and component modes with an SDI overlay port. The Producer Mark II includes a pop-up console with six 5.6in. color LCDs, a 12-channel Behringer EuroRack mixer, four 250GB hard drives, a Panasonic AG-DV2500 recorder, a Hyundai 17in. flat TFT monitor, a Sony DVD burner, and a Furman Sound RP-8D power conditioner. The unit's live streaming capability is performed by the multi-threading Intel Pentium 4 with Windows XP Professional and its Windows Media Encoder 9. With these tools, the user can stream in realtime and store content for quick postproduction enhancements and then post on a site for viewing on-demand. For postproduction editing, the open architecture software allows many nonlinear editing apps to be used, but the unit ships with Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5. The Producer Mark II lists for $39,995.
Having recently changed its name from Webcast In A Box, Box Populi markets Podcast In A Box as an audio solution for location podcasting. The small rack unit will input audio from an external mic level source and uses a 2.4GHz CPU and 512GB RAM to deliver an MP3 stream at 8kbps, 16kbps, 32kbps, 64kbps, 96kbps, 128kbps, or 196kbps. For security, the unit provides web browser administration via SSL encryption at 128 bits with password protection at both user and administrator access levels. Archived content stored on a 200GB hard drive can be organized and viewed with an interactive calendar for conversion into a podcast and scheduling of unattended and automatic podcast transmissions with generation of full appliance logs. Content can also be pushed to remote hosting servers via FTP, Windows file shares (SMB), and SCP. Podcast In A Box is priced at $4,000.
What used to arrive in a big production truck now comes in a tough Pelican case; the new PixBox II developed by Creation Technologies takes portability in a location webcast production device to the maximum level. Housed in a briefcase-sized box, the unit provides eight-input AV switching; a 17in. flatpanel display showing preview, program, and all eight inputs; and even an eight-station, 2-channel intercom for communication between director and camera ops. An SXGA port allows the connection of an external reference monitor. Inputs can include component, composite, and FireWire video sources, and the unit outputs these formats with more than 500 special effects. During production, the preview or program monitor can be zoomed to full 17in. screen mode at any time. Audio monitoring is provided with onboard stereo speakers or through headphone jacks with level control and LED program level displays. The PixBox II also features several plug-in modules that allow a selection of integral IP encoding and streaming protocols to be used.
If production tools or an AV feed are already available, the webcaster can connect a laptop computer to the Digital Rapids Stream Z-P and stream the show in a wide choice of formats. A self-contained peripheral, the Stream Z-P connects directly to the computer's cardbus port and features integrated video preprocessing, including motion-adaptive 3D noise reduction and motion-adaptive de-interlacing to provide a superior-quality compressed signal. The unit provides graphic overlay, video adjustments in the hardware, and encoding formats including Windows Media 7, 8, and 9, Real Helix 9 and 10, QuickTime 6, AVI, MPEG1, MPEG2, DVD, Video CD, Super Video CD, and many others. Stream Z-Pis available in two models: The Stream Z-500P features analog I/O with an MSRP of $3,295 (without laptop). The Stream Z-1500P has analog and digital (DV, SDI, and AES/EBU audio) I/O with an MSRP of $5,295 (without laptop).
Envivio's Mindshare Composer provides an imaginative solution to location webcasting by enabling the presenter to stream an MPEG-4signal combining camera video and sound along with PC screen capture. Of course, for on-demand viewing, the stream can be stored as an MP4 file. The Mindshare Composer lives up to its name by being especially useful for employee instruction in companies breaking in new software apps with distant field offices. The Composer-L (Lite) is a small, desktop unit that uses a DB-15 female port for screen capture up to 1024×768 resolution in 3×4 or 16×9 formats at up to 5fps. Video capture via composite or S-Video connections can make a 320×240 picture at up to 30 frames; the unit accepts balanced (XLR) or unbalanced (RCA) stereo sound with up to 44.1kHz sampling.
For those who seek a location webcasting system with all the production tools included, IQue offers the itStudio, complete with three lighting instruments sporting four-way barn doors; a three-chip video camera with a 9in. teleprompter and remote zoom control handle, tripod, ENC-P110 or ENC-P200 encoder; and Omnicast Presentation Manager software. This software app allows the presenter to upload graphics, and then it builds HTML pages automatically. The presenter can then address the camera and use a remote controller to advance the pages. The signals to advance are encoded in synchronized progression into the video signal. The graphics can be previewed on the teleprompter to permit the presenter to maintain perfect eye contact with the camera. If necessary, the video can be recorded first and the Omnicast editor can be used to insert synchronized graphics later. Depending on options, the itStudio lists in the $20,000 range.
British company IVC designed its Mobile Webcasting System to maximize easy setup using up to four color cameras with pan, tilt, and zoom control; a central internal power source; and retractable cable extension reels for cameras and microphones. A built-in DVD unit provides video recording and playback, while external S-Video and composite inputs are also available. An auxiliary video output can be simultaneously used to feed an external display. The four supplied desktop microphones can be expanded with options to enable the use of 50 or more mics in addition to line-level inputs and wireless mic receivers. The entire system is contained in two rolling road racks, which lock together as one for setup. The case finish is available in a choice of colors, and may be fitted with a branding plaque bearing a company name and/or logo. Protectors are included to shield cables crossing walkways and doorways. The system is also marketed by Public-i as the D500.
Mobile Studios equips its MS7-DV rolling webcast control room with a four-input Datavideo SE-800 DV switcher handling DV, composite, S-Video, and component sources, along with SDI overlay I/O for an optional character generator. A 12-channel mixer for sound and a digital video recorder are included; the unit can capture content in AVI 1 and 2, QuickTime, or Canopus formats, and it can store up to 16 hours of DV video. Storage upgrades are also available. The MS7-DV features an onboard Pentium 4 PC with 1GB RAM and 250GB hard drive running Windows XP.The $2,000 webcasting option adds an Osprey-540 streaming video card and Osprey/ViewCast SimulStream software, which enables simultaneous live streams in both Windows Media and Real Player formats in different sizes such as 320×240 WMV, 160×120 WMV, and 320×240 RM. The Osprey-540 or -440 cards require a CPU upgrade, but with the proper options, this unit is capable of very heavyweight streaming performance. The MS7-DVretails for $19,995.
For a more compact portable webcast package, the NewTek TriCaster offers a backpack-sized product complete with video switching and audio mixing. The Tricaster can accept up to six video sources in Y/C or composite; playback from its internal hard drive; and output live analog, edited DV, VGA for projectors, and Windows Media streaming video. The unit includes a waveform monitor, vectorscope, and professional BNC and XLR connectors. The Network IN feature allows the operator to use a fullscreen computer presentation and integrate it into the video output along with fullscreen text and titles, as well as PowerPoint and web pages. Options include the TriCaster VM and a video switcher with program and preview banks, along with T-bar effects, fader and knob-selectable overlay, effects selection, and effect speeds. The TriCaster Pro includes component inputs and outputs, 10 hours of AVI storage and camera auto-calibration. The TriCaster retails for $4,995; the TriCaster Pro lists for $6,995.
Public-i makes and markets the R500 as a very light and mobile webcasting station, and the company includes ongoing support as a comprehensive package solution. This consists of web hosting with streaming bandwidth for a set number of annual hours, site surveys, production monitoring, and general quality control. The company even provides training and assistance in promotion. AV capture software is included, as are a Sony EVI-D100 or Canon XM2 camera and microphone, a laptop-sized encoder, and all the needed connection cables. This comprises the company's complete production-to-viewer service. The R500 system features the capability for viewers to navigate the presentation and see contextual information such as names and bios inserted into the show. Capabilities extend to a two-way aspect with audience interaction. Auxiliary outputs allow the unit to feed external video displays, and there is also DVD, CD, and hard disk recording capability. The R500 has found extensive use in British government council chambers and assembly halls.
Sonic Foundry has had great success with its Mediasite webcasting and presentation recording application. This product hits the road with the Mediasite ML440 Rich Media portable recorder with live web streaming capability. About the size of a thick laptop, the ML440 captures analog video in NTSC and PAL composite formats through BNC and RCA connectors, and it inputs S-Video as well. It takes digital video with embedded audio in IEEE 1394 and USB. Analog stereo sound enters via balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA, line input by mini TRS, and mic-level input with unbalanced mini. It outputs line-level audio through unbalanced mini TRS jacks. The unit captures and synchs any RGB/VGA source with the accompanying video and sound and provides presentation editing to add or delete slides, crop or replace video, and adjust slide timings. The ML440 uses the Sonic Foundry realtime encoding and synchronization engine for high-quality encoding from 56kbps to 2Mbps. The unit features an integrated 17in. backlit 1280×1024 LCD display, AGP graphics and speakers, portable keyboard, mini mouse, and 120GB hard drive.
Another remote webcast tool with maximum features and minimum size is the Sony AWS-G500 Anycast Station Live Content Producer, providing a video switcher, sound mixer, LCD monitor, and streaming encoder and server all in a briefcase-sized package weighing about 17lbs. The unit can accommodate a range of input video formats including SDI, analog composite, S-Video, DV, and computer RGB. Balanced audio input can be monitored with built-in stereo speakers or headphones, and the output indicator shows mix, aux 1, aux 2, or program sound level. Anycast also features a wireless keyboard for text entry; a device control section for operation of PTZ cameras, talkback mic, and intercom capability; along with jog and shuttle controls for video hard drive playback. These double as focus and zoom control of the Sony PTZ network cameras. A one-button stop and start easily controls live streaming and internal recording. Along with the video source displays, both preview and program monitors are provided. The AWS-G500 lists for just less than $20,000.
VBrick Systems offers a light and mobile webcast hardware solution, including production tools, in the VBCorpCast kit. PowerPoint presenters can use this product to add video and sound, audience polls, and web pages to their presentations, and stream or record them as a unified, synchronized program. VBCorpCast is comprised of the VBPresenter as the software component providing the integration and synchronization of all the elements, while the VBrick WM Appliance digitizes and compresses the video and sound captured from the included video camera and microphone. The WM appliance combines the functions of a Windows Media encoder and server with user selectable resolution. The encoded Windows Media stream with video, sound, and synchronized presentation elements can be stored for viewing on demand or streamed to computers, mobile phones, and PDAs, either from a web server or from VBrick's video-on-demand system. Capabilities include polling and live audience interaction. The MSRP for VBCorpCast is $5,495.
The latest addition to the ViewCast line of capture, encoding, and streaming products, including the famed Osprey video cards, is the Niagara GoStream portable encoder and streaming appliance. The GoStream is designed for maximum portability and quick, easy operation featuring EZStream event buttons for loading pre-defined encoding parameters for specific events. Diagnostics, operational controls, and network connection setup are accessed through the unit's Ease control menu. The GoStream can team up with super portable storage devices including the Apple video iPod and Creative Zen Vision media players. The web-based interface provided by ViewCast's Niagara SCX software allows access to encoder configuration settings, alert and activity logs, control of output in Windows Media with digital rights management (DRM), and Real and Flash formats. The unit accepts composite and S-Video, unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) stereo sound. It has two USB ports (front and rear), one 1Gb and one 100Mb Ethernet port, keyboard, mouse and monitor inputs, and a 12V DC battery connection. Included with the purchase is ViewCast's Osprey SimulStream software providing multiple, concurrent streams of Windows Media and RealNetworks RealVideo at multiple bit rates. The current GoStream MSRP is $5,995.
For More Information
Amalgamated Video International (AVI)
Sonic Foundry (Mediasite)
Bennett Liles is a freelance television production engineer and AV technician in the Atlanta area. He specializes in government video production, distance learning, and videoconferencing.
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