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Streaming Video

An item last week in the always-excellent 10,000 Words blog outlined why Reuters and the Wall Street Journal were parting company with YouTube. You may remember that — only a year ago — both companies trumpeted their selection to produce content for a YouTube channel, one of 100 premium channels the Google-owned web video giant spent $150 million to launch last year.

YouTubeSo what went wrong? One place to start, 10,000 Words points out, is the money that YouTube pays for traffic to its channels. They cite an article by Peter Kafka in All Things D, that claims YouTube takes 45% of all ad revenue as its cut, leaving the content producers with revenue of only about $2.50 for every thousand viewers. Yep, that would be $2,500 if your video gets one million views.

Or, to parse the data another way, assume a staffer makes $65,000 a year, which translates neatly to $1,200 per week or $250 per day. Just to earn back their daily salary, that video producer is going to need to produce content every day that reaches 100,000 eyeballs (at YouTube’s rate of $2.50 per thousand eyeballs). Assuming you have multiple staffers on your team, EVERY ONE OF THEM is going to need to produce a video that hits that 100,000 views mark every day.

How likely is that? 10,000 Words points out that a recent highly-trafficked New York Times video netted 330,000 viewers — not per day, but in total.

We’re off here by a factor of at least 10 and that’s what keeps me worried about the future of commercially successful video on the web. And that’s now — before the floodgates open and we see a surge of user-generated streaming video from the likes of UStream and Google Glasses, all free and all competing for those same limited eyeballs.

I don’t want to end on a dour note, so in fairness, I should point out this story about a spiffy new video production facility YouTube just launched in Los Angeles called “Space.” It’s state-of-the-art with green screens and cool camera and editing gear — and it is available for free to folks YouTube allows in to produce premium video content. The goal, according to YouTube, is to give new producers access to better gear so their productions will look more polished. If the cost of producing content were the major roadblock to producing commercially successful content on the Web, I’d say this is a great idea. But it’s not. A couple of HD cameras and a laptop with editing software are within the reach of most wannabe producers, particularly if a few friends pool their resources.

Nope, the enemy of commercial web content is free web content. And who is the biggest purveyor of that in the land? Ironically, in light of this latest venture, it’s the folks at YouTube.

Can Glass break Rock?

Can Glass break Rock?

One of the most striking features of the stories about the Russian meteorite was the volume and quality of videos capturing its blazing arc across the sky. You would have thought that half of the autos in the small town where the meteorite crashed had cameras mounted on their dashboards. And you would have been correct.

Because drivers in Russia don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of their court system to correctly assess who is at fault in an auto accident, many have mounted small cameras in their cars to record a few minutes of video into a buffer, which can be saved in the event of a crash — a persuasive bit of evidence in court.  And as a result, video of car crashes is a popular subject on the Russian versions of YouTube. See here, for example, for some highlights.

You rarely see auto crash videos in the U.S., because they happen suddenly, before anyone can turn on a camera. The ones you do see are often from cameras mounted on police cars, similar to those in Russia.

But Google seems close to changing all of that, and in a way that may transform what we now know as commercial TV.

Watch the video embedded in this PopSci article on Google’s hush-hush meeting with developers recently in New York. The session was to show selected developers the latest iteration of Google Glass, the eyeglasses the Web search giant has been crafting that allow users to overlay info from the Web onto the real world.

Up to now, the glasses have seemed intriguing, but not revolutionary. Curious about what it costs to live in a ritzy neighborhood in northern New Jersey? If you’re wearing the glasses, just ask Google to overlay data from Zillow or Trulia or some other Web-based real estate firm onto your vision and you can see what houses have sold for recently, as you look at them. Thinking about stopping at a new ethnic restaurant while running errands? Ask Google to call up Yelp reviews and display them right in your vision. Intriguing, yes, but not that more advanced than what I can already get from a smartphone.

But as this latest video makes clear, Google is far more ambitious. Now the glasses have voice control, and the ability to record video and stream it live to friends. Just tell it to “Start recording” and a small image of what is being captured shows up in one corner of the glasses. Tell it to “Start Hangout” and it begins streaming the video live, allowing up to 9 friends to join in a Google Hangout video chat session, texting their reactions to what you’re seeing. And Hangouts have a URL, which anyone in the world can access.

In other words, anyone wearing Google Glass becomes a TV producer, streaming live whatever they are seeing, and anyone in the world with Web access can watch. That’s a big step up from dashboard-mounted video cameras in a small town in Russia.

Just a few months ago, Twitter was being touted as a revolutionary tool for journalists because it allowed them to monitor what was happening with the “Arab Spring” protests in Egypt and elsewhere. Imagine if even a fraction of those protestors had been wearing Google Glass. When protestors outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago chanted “the whole world is watching” before the cameras of the national TV networks, they were right. Until the cameras went away.

But what if anyone, anywhere could show everyone else what was happening? Not just protests — walking tours, traffic jams, nightclub performances, crime scenes, plus the more mundane examples of classes, lectures, museum visits or local sports. YouTube today seems bottomless, but it would be dwarfed by the Google Glass output.

Would commercial TV as well? If the print media’s experience with the Web is any guide, today’s broadcasters should be wary.

When Web news and information sites first launched, they were touted as better replacements for stodgy print media — allowing the use of text, photos, video, interactive graphics and interaction with readers at a lower production cost, all ad supported of course, just like their predecessors in print. But what has slowly been dawning on Web journalists is that they are not the only folks out there who are talented writers, photographers or videographers. There are thousands of people who are passionate about something and willing to produce content about it, for free. As a result, the volume of quality content has increased exponentially and as a result, commercial news and information Web sites producing original content have never been able to attract enough readers to charge the same advertising rates as print media.

Is the same fate in store for the TV industry? There have been many articles recently touting the success of web-only commercial video. Google itself is funding 96 start-up channels via YouTube, and NetFlix was in the spotlight for its release of a second season of House of Cards, it’s Internet-only dramatic series.

But TV producers have always appreciated the power of “live,” for viewers to sit forward in their chairs to experience “being there.” That’s what Google Glass offers. Tens of thousands of live streams, on any topic imaginable. Yeah, some folks never get beyond the first dozen channels on their cable box, but lots more will find niche programming that will take them away from commercial TV.

And that is not good news for traditional producers counting on large audiences to cover large production costs.

But can Google pull off the Glass revolution?

Six years ago, there was no iPhone. Now, many of us would say our smartphone is our most valuable possession. No, Google doesn’t have Apple’s track record with launching consumer gadgets, but they have billions of dollars to invest and if this latest video demonstration is any indication, they’re figuring out a great feature set. My bet is that Glass will have some early hurdles, but eventually will win wide acceptance.

So in six years, when the next meteorite hits, don’t flip over to CNN. Click here to watch it live.

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.

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