Friday, 26 December, 2008
Tuesday, 9 December, 2008
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by Martin French
Just before Christmas, on December 14th to be exact, US dance company Misnomer Dance Theatre, broadcast a live performance from the Joyce Theatre in Soho, New York. The live broadcast went out not on television but on the internet. How did they do this, was it any good and should you give it a try?
First of all this type of thing has been done before. We recall Random Dance Company trying this a few years ago and it was such a huge success they have never done it since!
Live transmission of video to the internet in 2008 is very common however. Real time video chat has existed in iChat, Skype and other messaging system for years. Internet based video has become a huge business, albeit one that makes very little money. Websites like Hulu, Joost and the ubiquitous purveyors of dire moving pictures over at YouTube have been serving up millions of videos per week for a couple of years now.
Doing it live however is a different technological challenge altogether especially if you want hundreds or thousands (or even tens of thousands?) of people to watch it at the same time.
Having said that, technologically speaking it is a little mundane. You need a digital video camera with a firewire connection (USB will work but firewire is more robust for video) a computer and the fastest internet connection you can get your hands on at your venue of choice.
Simply connect your camera to your computer and your computer to the internet and off you go. So far so simple.
You then have to find a web video service that lets you broadcast in real-time and for their purposes Misnomer chose Ustream TV.
As the name suggests this website lets you stream live video across the internet to anybody that wants to watch it. An account is free and the streaming is free. Getting an account takes a few moments of form filling but once it's set up just click the big "broadcast now" button, give the Flash player permission to access your camera and you're NBC, sort of!
The video stream controller, illustrated above, let's you control both the video and the audio stream. If the internet connection you are using is struggling then you can adjust the quality settings to try and smooth things out. The picture quality will degrade but the motion will be smoother, in theory at least.
You can also record the video stream for later use in a regular video playback format. The quality is exactly the same as the live broadcast, according to the video on Misnomers website.
When the website is broadcasting your live image the video is being transmitted and compressed in real-time before being sent out to your viewers. The video quality is, according to Ustream TV, a lot better if you use the Flash Media Encoder software to compress the video before sending it up to the website.
We couldn't test this because the encoder is only available for Windows and we run OSX here in TheLab™.
If fact we couldn't test anything at all with this service because as soon as we connected our test account to our camera it crashed the web browser (both Firefox and Safari). Nothing we tried would fix the issue. The Flash player (now owned by Adobe) is notoriously lame on the Mac platform. The experience when used with a Windows based PC may be more reliable.
Is It Any Good?
Based solely on our experience of watching the Misnomer show, watching anything else on Ustream TV is just too much pain for mere mortals to endure, we would have to say that yes, it is watchable, just barely!
Let's be very clear, broadcast television this is most certainly not. It's not even low rent Cable TV. At best the picture quality on the Misnomer broadcast could be described as adequate. Colours were muddy, the image was soft and there was no detail to be seen. When shown full screen, on a 23" flat panel monitor, it was even worse.
However, the video material did run at 25-30 frames per second and the connection did not drop out once. A constant video frame rate is vitally important if the integrity of the movement is to hold up on screen. This, of course, is especially important for dance. Bearing that in mind, watching the show in this manner, especially if you refrained from blowing it up to full screen size, gave you a reasonably good viewing experience.
It won't replace "being there" anytime soon so theatre owners shouldn't fret, not for a while at least.
All of this was beyond Misonomer's control of course because the live stream video compression and delivery is handled by the online hardware.
What's The Problem.
One of the big issues with this type of video delivery is the speed, or lack thereof, of the internet connection you are using. The download speed advertised by internet service providers is not the issue. The upload speed (called the up-stream) is where this type of video delivery falls flat on its digitally pixelated face.
You might well have a 10Mbps (mega bits per second) download speed, if you're lucky, but the chances are the upload speed will be almost 10 times slower. The less data that can be sent in a given period of time the less information the transmitting website has to work with which results in poorer image quality or a the lack of a stable, smooth connection.
Whatever service you are using to stream your video also has to pay out big money for bandwidth to their service providers. It's in their interest to compress the video as much as possible to keep their costs down. You're never going to get broadcast quality video but since all of this is free, you probably shouldn't expect it.
Should We Use this?
Look at it this way. A small scale dance company in the USA was able to set up a live broadcast of their show from New York City and basically let anybody, anywhere in the world tune in and watch and they didn't have to spend any money to make this happen (apart from paying the camera operator). The venue at the Joyce holds about 75-80 people and, when we were watching, there were an additional 140-200 people tuning in at any one time.
According to Misnomer's website, which quotes two different numbers, they claim 1500 or 1800 "connections". The viewer number when we were watching did not go above 145. Viewer numbers cannot be independently verified.
As a low cost way of boosting your audience is has to be worth a shot. If your show is being filmed anyway then hooking one of the cameras up to a computer and transmitting the feed isn't going to be much of a hassle.
You should bear in mind though that if your web-cast attracts a significant amount of attention, we're talking thousand of people, and the connection goes down you might have more trouble on your hands than you know how to deal with. Just because it's free doesn't mean your audience won't get upset if it doesn't work!
Approach with caution, and don't use a Mac for transmitting, at least for now!