Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Lessons Learned from two more remote webcasts

My son and I conducted our third and fourth live webcasts over today from the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport, about 30 miles outside of Washington D.C. Udvar-Hazy is an extension of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum which opened four years ago, and houses a wonderful array of aircraft and spacecraft in several enormous aircraft hangers. Our favorites in the collection were the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, the Space Shuttle Enterprise (STS-101 Orbiter,) the Corcorde, and the Mars Pathfinder Lander Prototype. This is an exceptional museum, and is certainly well worth visiting.

In our first webcast from the observation deck near the center’s entrance, we discussed the SR-71, the STS-101 Space Shuttle Enterprise, the P-40 and the F-4U aircraft.

In our second webcast from underneath the Concorde aircraft, we discussed the Concorde, a little about the Enola Gay B-29, and recapped many of the learning moments from the past week in Washington D.C. We switched roles for the second half of this webcast, and Alexander let me interview him. We also got some audio input from one of the security guards at the center.

For today’s webcasts over Ustream, we ratcheted down our video quality considerably (to 25% picture quality) and ratcheted up our audio quality (to 30 kHz.) This worked better over our 3G AT&T cell network connection than the higher video quality settings we’d used on Sunday from the Air and Space museum on the mall in Washington DC. The audio was not clipped and had a good, constant quality, but the video quality certainly leaves a lot to be desired. I think it is WONDERFUL Ustream allows this type of audio and video quality adjustment. Ideally, I think I’d like to experiment and use a higher level of video quality (at least 50% picture quality) but maintain the same level of audio quality. Whether or not bandwidth can support that is a local, context-driven question. Here are a few lessons learned from our four “remote field trip” webcasts to date:

  1. CHARGE YOUR BATTERIES: Battery life for remote webcasts is essential. On both days of our webcasts from Washington DC this week, I failed to fully charge the laptop battery we were using. Ideally you want a full laptop battery, a spare battery, and a portable battery pack that can provide additional power to your laptop and possibly camcorder. An extra, charged camcorder battery would also come in handy.
  2. USE AN EXTERNAL CAMCORDER: For our webcasts this week, we used a small, handheld Sony digital camcorder. This video quality was far superior to the video quality obtainable from a built-in iSight camera. iSight cameras ARE great, but with an external DV camcorder the person serving as the webcast videographer can zoom in and out as needed on subjects, and frame video shots much more flexibly.
  3. USE A LONG FIREWIRE CABLE: A long firewire cable is essential when using an external DV camcorder. Although the laptop you are using for the remote webcast can be wireless / unplugged from electricity as well as a wired Internet connection, the camcorder must be plugged in.
  4. CONNECT WITH LOCAL VIDEO FIRST: Using a Macbook running OS 10.5.2 and Ustream.TV this week, we had repeated problems with our web browser crashing when the video source in Ustream was initially set to DV Video and DV audio. This happened in three different browsers: Safari, FireFox, and Flock. We do not know why this happened, but we did figure out a workaround. By connecting to Ustream FIRST with local video and audio settings, and THEN (after the connection was established) plugging in the external DV camcorder and switching the video and audio input sources, we were able to successfully webcast using the external DV camcorder.
  5. CHECK LOCAL BANDWIDTH: I like to use the Internet Frog Speed test website to check my upstream and downstream bandwidth from a particular location. I don’t know what the exact requirements for Ustream are, but generally anything less than 200 kbps is probably not going to work for a webcast or videoconference, from what I know and have experienced.
  6. TEST VARIOUS USTREAM QUALITY SETTINGS: The first two times we conducted a webcast over a cell phone data connection, the audio was clipped because the video quality we’d selected was too high for available bandwidth. By reducing video quality and increasing audio quality, we avoided this “audio clipping” problem. Experiment with different settings to find an optimal combination for your available bandwidth and purpose/needs.
  7. SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE: If possible, schedule the date(s) and time(s) of your webcast in advance, so others will know when they should be able to check in online to catch your broadcast. Remember folks around the world are in different time zones, so use a website like WorldTimeServer to provide a link to the exact time in GMT and/or a helpful link people can use to see the date/time for their local area.
  8. ANNOUNCE ON TWITTER: It can be helpful to announce your webcasts on Twitter to let others (who are following you on Twitter already) know about the availability of your webcast. Since people using Twitter at a particular time are generally interested in “live updates,” chances are good at least some of those folks will want to check out your live webcast and provide feedback – especially if you solicit it!
  9. CHECK LOCAL PORT SETTINGS IN ADVANCE: If you are using a hardwired ethernet connection or WiFi connection to the Internet, rather than a cell phone data connection, if possible check to see if Ustream is useable via that connection in advance of your scheduled conference. More hotels and other locations providing free WiFi are utilizing network configurations which prohibit streaming video, including the ports utilized by Ustream. If you can test for this functionality in advance, you may be able to save yourself headaches and disappointments later.
  10. BE READY WITH EXTRA QUESTIONS: The chat feature of Ustream is wonderful for soliciting questions from viewers, but depending on your Ustream channel settings users may be required to establish an account and log in to submit something. This can delay their abilities to submit text questions or comments, if they have not pre-registered with Ustream. For folks you will be inviting to the webcast, recommend that they pre-register with Ustream and login before your webcast begins.
  11. BRING EXTENSION CORDS: If you can conduct your entire webcast without electrical or ethernet wires, more power to you! (Literally!) Depending on time and the status of your respective batteries when you start your webcast, however, you may need to “plug in” one or more of your devices. Remember this can include three different things: Your digital camcorder and laptop to AC power, and your laptop to a wired ethernet connection (if applicable.) Bring an extension cord and power strip to insure you have enough electrical outlets if needed.

It was certainly fun to successfully conduct four separate live, remote webcasts over Ustream this week from Washington D.C. (See my March 9th post, “Partial victory web-casting from the Smithsonian” for the first two videos and initial lessons learned.) We learned a great deal, and I hope to apply this knowledge in the future to some “new media” grants I’d like to write to support students and teachers traveling to interesting destinations and utilizing a variety of new communication and publication technologies to both document their learning activities and share those experiences with other learners “back home” as well as around the world who are not able to physically join in the field trip learning with the group. My experiences in December 2007 helping facilitate successful videoconferences with Pearl Harbor survivors and veterans to Oklahoma learners planted the seed for this idea. Hopefully it will bear some fruit in the months to come! 🙂

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9 responses to “Lessons Learned from two more remote webcasts”

  1. Stephen Downes Avatar

    Can you tell me exactly what kind of video camera you used?

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Yes. It was the low-end Sony Handycam, I think it cost about $300 a couple of years ago. Now the Sony DCR-HC52 MiniDV is probably the closest thing they sell to what I have and used. I don’t like the fact that mine does not have an external mic port, however. I also learned at the Sony Store in Crystal City that Sony has a new hotshoe technology for their camcorders that looks very good. At some point I’m interested in getting a more capable camcorder that would support more advanced microphone options like the ECM-HGZ1 Shotgun Microphone ($70 US) or the WCS-999 Wireless Microphone System ($150 US.) The shotgun mic requires the new hotshoe technology which I think may just be on the newer (and much more expensive) HD camcorders, record to DVD camcorders, and camcorders which have their own hard drives they record to instead of tape. The Sony wireless mic has a standard mic jack, so it should work with any standard 1/8″ mic input jack.

    I think for the video quality you get with Ustream, basically any DV camcorder should work. As a backup and to have a higher-quality version, it would be good to record the webcast locally onto tape. We didn’t do that, but it would have been a good idea, especially since the video quality of these last two webcasts was VERY poor. I think there is probably even more value in asynchronously recording and sharing “on site” remote video of locations than sharing them live, but the “live webcast” aspect has an excitement appeal that makes it potentially more engaging (or perhaps “enthralling”) for students.

    I hope this additional info is helpful.

  3. Stephen Downes Avatar

    I hear you about the microphone. That said, the video quality is better than you might think. Although the picture quality isn’t great, the sound is fine, and that makes it quite watchable.

    Anyhow, about the camera – you simply plugged it into your computer (I assume a MacBook, since you have an iSight) using a firewire cable? What kind of connection was on the other end – where did you plug it into the camera?

    Also, how precisely did you select this camera for use with UStream? Was this in the Flash settings?

    I ask because I’ve tried to use video cameras and have had utterly no success getting them to feed video into computers – so I’m wondering whether you have to buy a special kind of video camera, use a special connection, or … well, I don’t know.

  4. Ustreamtech Avatar

    Excellent points and commentary, in fact with your permission I will use your “lessons learned” in my own Ustream help show when asked. A couple of comments adding my own two cents worth. 110 volt power can sometimes be an obstacle, and running extension cords can present a trip hazard and some potential liabilty.
    I like to use one of the 12 volt battery packs (Black and Decker, and numerous others) available from any of the large retailers, i.e. Home Depot, Lowes, etc. and an 110 volt inverter. These typically are in the 50 to 200 amp/hour range and with a 400 watt inverter can power your equipment literally for days. (depending on load). Any wheeled appliance (luggage, Ice Chests, or two wheeled dolly can make lugging the equipment around a snap. This also eliminates any concerns about extension cords. One comment: if any kind of water is expected use a Poratble GFCI for safety.
    Pesonally I like EVDO (where else can you get unlimited bandwidth for 60 bucks a month) but any cell based device can have problems in metal and concrete structures. Use a High Power cellular repeater or an internet appliance like a Sonic Wall Access point (Wi-fi)can blast a signal through almost anything, Most wireless capapble routers can even be set up to act as a repeater with a little modification (google dd wrt).

    So In that vein the tricks, tips and techniques available in using Ustream are numerous and will solve most every problem so feel free to contact ustream in the manner that best suits you or your veiwers. Besides email you may also post in the forums or stop in and visit one of our live community channels or

  5. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Stephen: I’m delighted you found this quality watchable– I was very glad to find the audio quality much improved over our initial two attempts– it would be good to have better video quality, but as in videoconferencing I find poor audio much less tolerable than poor video.

    In terms of cables and ports, the firewire cable is one I purchased at Best Buy, that is a 6 pin to 4 pin version. I think this 6′ one is what I have.. The 4 pin end (smaller connection) plugs into the “iLink” port of the Sony Camcorder that is on the right side at the front where the other AV out ports are, and the 6 pin end plugs into the firewire port of my Macbook.

    To select the video source in Ustream, you can do this within the “broadcast now” window. I created an annotated screenshot to show the settings:

    uStream.Tv Video, Audio and Quality Settings

    I have no idea why the built-in iSight camera works when “USB Class Video Device” is selected, but it does… I learned that in November thanks to Jenn Wagner providing tech support via twitter just prior to my TechForum Southwest presentation. 🙂 In the screenshot I drew arrows showing where you can ratchet the audio and video quality up and down too.

    I know theoretically some Sony camcorders are supposed to support web streaming via a USB connection, but I think that works on Windows platforms only and I have not attempted that. At least 3 or 4 years ago I messed around briefly with QuickTime Broadcaster, but at the time you had to configure a QuickTime Streaming Server as a ‘reflector’ for the stream and I didn’t spend enough time / have other help to figure that out. The person I know who has the most successful experience using QuickTime Broadcaster and the QuickTime Streaming Server is Lance Ford, who is the director of technology for Howe Public Schools in SE Oklahoma. Lance was the genius behind our live videoconferences from Pearl Harbor in December for the USS Oklahoma Memorial dedication. Those particular videoconferences were done using Tandberg hardware videoconferencing codecs, but Lance took the video stream itself and had it reflected through a QTTS sitting on a large bandwidth connection in another location.

    Having had some experiences working with webcasts, Ustream is absolutely AMAZING that it works in such a straightforward way, and that requires so little in the way of hardware and software.

    I have not yet attempted a Ustream broadcast from a Windows computer, so I can’t speak to whether this is as straightforward there or not. I have generally had great luck using iLink/firewire cameras with Macs using different programs, so that is why I was pretty sure my camcorder would work with this configuration. I don’t know why the browser crash issues were there, but again we did figure out how to work around that.

    Let me know if you have more questions. I’m very glad to share these details, I hope we’ll see more people sharing live webcasts like these in the future, not only from conferences but also from “remote field trip” locations too. It is exciting that cell network connectivity is improving to the point where broadcasts like this are a viable possibility in many locations.

  6. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Excellent– thanks for the tips on the external power sources. That is what we were missing in Pearl Harbor in December for the USS Oklahoma memorial dedication.

  7. […] Fryer used this system last week to broadcast live presentations from the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Using a cellular data modem, a laptop and camcorder, he was able to set up anywhere he could […]

  8. Bill Cooey Avatar
    Bill Cooey

    Awesome tips. I am just getting into webcasting. Can you suggest a good external dv camera to use?

    thanks in advance!

  9. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    I have used mainly Sony DV cameras, but a few Canon and Panasonic ones too. The main thing you want to look for is features, I think. For a reasonably low price point (around $300 or less) I’d recommend you look for a mini-DV tape camera, a mic plug that accepts an external microphone, a headphone plug so you can monitor audio levels, and a DV/firewire port. I’ve done all my webcasting using a Macintosh, so the firewire port is key. That should be standard on all DV cameras, but I think some are using USB now. The low-end Sony DV camera is what I have now, but it doesn’t support an external microphone, and that is a disadvantage. I hope this helps.