Using Google Hangouts for a Multi-camera shoot

We did Hack Jersey this weekend at Montclair State (see my previous post for links) and one of my tasks was to stream the proceedings. We posted 5 1/2 hours to YouTube, including all of the speeches, the teams’ presentations to the judges, and the awards presentation, and I learned a lot.

The good news: For what we were doing, the results were acceptable. By myself, using three laptops and two Logitech webcams, and the WiFi available on campus, we managed to stream all of the speeches, intercutting each speaker’s Powerpoint (or HaikuDeck) slides and using a second laptop as a second camera.

Our setup: I attached a Logitech HD external webcam ($199) to my MacBook Pro laptop, mounted on an inexpensive (Velbon) tripod. We had a 10-foot USB extension cord which was critical in allowing me to move the camera close to the podium, while I sat 20 feet away (the webcams also have a 10-foot cord). I asked all of the speakers to e-mail me their presentation deck. Google Hangouts allows you to switch between your webcam (either the one embedded in your laptop or an external webcam) and your computer screen. So you can show the speaker and then cut to his/her slides as needed. The audio came from the microphone on the Logitech Webcam, which necessitated keeping that camera close to the podium.

That basic setup worked well, and for most of the presentations would have been sufficient. Except…..

Since this was a hack-a-thon, it seemed appropriate to push things a bit, so I decided to add a second camera. With Google Hangouts, you typically log-in on your computer and invite friends to join by sending them an e-mail with a link to the Hangout. They click the link and you can see each other, via the built-in webcam (assuming you have one).

But you can add an external webcam. You simply plug it in, and then in the Hangout, there is an option to choose the camera and microphone to use (you may need to reboot the computer to get the external webcam to show up). So you can point that external Webcam anywhere, particularly if it it is mounted on a light-weight tripod and has a 10-foot USB extension cord.
That’s the minimal setup you need to do a decent job of covering a speech at a conference.

To add a second camera, you need to invite somebody else to join your Hangout. You simply send them an e-mail, they click to join, and they show up, on their webcam. But if they have an external webcam, that becomes your second camera.

Google allows 10 participants in a Hangouts, so if each one had an external camera, you could have a 10-camera shoot. So if a hurricane is moving in on the Jersey coast, and you had friends spread out along the shore, all with a computer and external webcam, you could cut from one to the other to show the progress of the storm. Or get 9 friends to show up at a basketball game (or concert) with their iPads and all join a Hangout. I’m intrigued to see where this goes.

We settled for two laptops side-by-side, each with an external webcam. One was on a tripod aimed at the podium, and the other on a tripod aimed at the audience. We used a third laptop as a monitor.

Here’s where things got to be fun. The basic Hangout allows you and your friends to do a video chat. But Google has added an option, Google Hangouts On Air, that allows you to stream your output to YouTube and send a link to anyone, anywhere, allowing them to watch what you are streaming. The third computer allowed us to click on the link and monitor what was going out to the world (you could do that on your main computer, in another browser window, but I was worried about overloading the processor).

So we had the main computer (MacBook Pro laptop) with an external webcam showing the podium, intercutting the speaker’s presentation, using the screenshare function. The second computer had an external webcam showing the audience, and the third computer (all MacBook Pro laptops, although we substituted a Dell windows laptop on Sunday with no problems)  monitored the output of the Hangout.

On Sunday, we added another twist. Each Hack Jersey team was showing off what they had built, uploaded to a Web site and then displayed using one computer at the podium. We “invited” that computer to join the Hangout (sending an e-mail to the owner), so we had one computer with external webcam showing the podium, one on the audience, and one showing the output of the presentation computer.

The basic setup worked well. We were able to show the speaker, cut to his/her slides, and cut away to the audience as necessary. For the final presentations, for example, when the judges, who were sitting in the front row of the audience, asked questions of the presenters, we could cut back and forth between the two cameras and the presentations. Most of the time, the setup worked.

But…

I’m a longtime TV producer, so what sucked? In general, the audio and video quality was only acceptable. The Logitech 920 webcams claim to be 1020p but they are not even close, at least as we used them. The cameras had trouble holding focus and were very soft. It helped when we used the screenshare feature. But there is much room for improvement.

The audio, again, was acceptable, but could have been better. That’s largely because we were using the microphones on the webcams, and not using a separate microphone (which Google Hangouts allows) so we were getting audio from a microphone 6-8 feet from the speaker.

You need to mute the audio from all of the computers other than your main computer. Despite that precaution we still had audio issues as folks inadvertently unmuted their computers. An attempt by one presenter to play a video clip was a disaster, with major feedback, although I’m pretty sure that was from the laptop speaker feeding back into the microphone on the podium.

You also absolutely need to discuss what you are doing with all of the participants. While all of them gave us their decks, some of them had decks that included Web links to video or animations. Those did not always play properly over the Hangout. And we also had one presenter who logged out of the presentation laptop, which dumped them out of the Hangout and ended our ability to stream the presentations from the laptop. Fortunately, they were the next to the last presenter, and we could turn our second camera to the large screens to capture their presentation (though it looked pretty lousy).

I’ve been a TV news producer for a long time and much of this is pretty much par for the course. Folks do unexpected things in front of the camera, gear dies, you forget a key piece of equipment, and the challenge is to muddle through. I found myself doing typical TV news stuff — cutting to one camera to give me time to move the other one around to focus on something else so I could the move the first camera. But hey folks, we streamed 5 and 1/2 hours of stuff, using three laptops and two $200 webcams, and anyone in the world could watch, for free. Are Google Hangouts better than UStream or YouTube Live or something else? Would Boinx TV have given us more options? Please let me know.

But I’m betting two years from now, this (at better quality and feature set) is standard practice and most of what we now know about local TV is up-ended.

3 comments
  1. I”m looking to do the same thing as you. We’d like to connect 2 commercial HD cams to a deck or switcher and use that as our external webcam with HOA? Had you tried something similar?

    We are going to test, and are looking forward to what could go wrong. Or right.

  2. I really look forward to your results. I only had a Logitech webcam to use for an external camera (which looked strange mounted on a big tripod). I want to see if there is a way to use our Canon T3i DSLR cameras. I wish someone would invent an inexpensive switcher to which I could attach several smartphones. That would be a big step forward, since 2-3 folks could share their phones and cut a speech or musical performance live.

    • Kerry said:

      Hey Steve. I’m testing using my Canon T3i as a webcam with a product called Sparkocam. So far, I need to determine if it is my T3i, hangouts, computer or spakocam settings that is preventing from getting HD quality. As far as your HD logitechs, I do know Google has requirements for HD broadcasting:

      To send HD video, you’ll need:

      An HD 720p capable camera
      A CPU with at least four logical cores (for example an i5 with HyperThreading)
      A network connection with at least a 1.2 Mbps upload speed (1.5 Mbps recommended)
      To set your bandwidth setting to Auto HD.
      See more at https://support.google.com/hangouts/answer/2979333?hl=en

      Sparkocam has a Free trial version to try before you buy.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

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