Reflections on a DIY streaming experience
As mentioned here and here, I spent Monday in Birmingham at UKOLN's Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs And Social Networks workshop in order to video-stream the event live onto the Web and into Second Life.
I want to use this blog entry to summarise what we did, why we did it, what worked and what didn't. It wasn't a total success but I think there were some useful lessons, which I'll try and come back to at the end.
So, what were we trying to do and why? Well, in discussion with Brian Kelly, who was organising the event, I agreed that it would be useful to investigate how easy it is to video-stream live meetings onto the Web and into Second Life at little or no cost. Investigate in the sense of actually trying it for real, as opposed to simply theorising about what technology is now available. The reason this is of interest, for me at least, is the whole agenda around virtual meetings - both for environmental and widening participation reasons.
So, we started with 3 basic requirements:
- low cost technology
- streaming both onto the Web (for viewing in a Web browser) and into Second Life
- using chat facilities to encourage active participation between real and virtual delegates.
The solution we agreed on included the use of a basic Web-cam, a podcasting kit, two laptops (one for the streaming and one for Second Life - note that a very well spec'ed single laptop might have sufficed for both tasks but one wasn't available and using two felt like the safest option), the newly announced Veodia streaming service, the Virtual Congress Centre venue on Eduserv Island in Second Life, a Moodle chat room (hosted at sloodle.org) and Sloodle chat-logger Second Life object to link in-world chat to the Moodle chat room, and Slideshare to host a copy of the slides being shown in the venue (for those delegates viewing the video-stream on the Web).
I am very grateful to Tom Blossom at Veodia for upgrading our free account for the day and to Dan Livingstone and Peter Bloomfield at the University of Paisley for help with the Moodle and Sloodle tools.
I arrived early at the venue to get set up. We had separate wired Internet connections for the two laptops and the venue support staff allowed me to take an audio feed direct from their PA system into my podcast kit audio mixer. A Second Life connection was quickly established. Phew. So far, so good.
Next, I tried a quick streaming test. Veodia is very easy to use... navigate to the Veodia home page, sign in, start a new broadcast, name and describe it, select your camera and microphone, then go. Bang. Done. Couldn't be easier. (Note that there are also facilities to pre-schedule broadcasts in your own 'channel', though I have to confess that I found the interface to this somewhat confusing so didn't bother using it.)
Once the stream is up and running it is possible to cut-and-paste the Quicktime-compatible stream URL from the Veodia Web page into the media tab on a land parcel in Second Life. I pasted the URL into the Virtual Congress Centre land parcel and viewed the feed. Everything seemed OK. I began to relax.
Time for a quick coffee.
Next I checked that the slides that I'd previously loaded into the screen (see the left-hand screen in the picture) in the Virtual Congress Centre worked OK. Yup. Note that this needs doing in advance for any sizable presentation. In this case, about 130 textures had to be upload into Second Life. At L$10 per texture, that's about £2.00 in real money! I also checked that the Sloodle/Moodle chat room link up was working OK.
By this time, the real venue, the virtual venue, and the Moodle chat room were starting to fill up.
Note that we had three audiences for this event... those in the room (some of whom were beginning to make use of the venue's wireless network), those in the Virtual Congress Centre in Second Life, and those watching on the Web. As far as I could tell, we had about 100 delegates in the venue, 15 or so in Second Life (at least at the start of the day) and 5 or 6 wtahcing on the Web. I think it is worth noting that we hadn't promoted the virtual side of this event too hard, luckily as it turned out, so we weren't expecting too many more virtual delegates than this. We'd previously announced a Wiki page for the streaming and this was kept updated with information about what members of the three different audiences should do to take part in the streaming experiment.
Brian introduced the day with a short presentation. I started a new video stream, plugged the URL into the Virtual Congress Centre land parcel, announced the URL in the Moodle chat room and kept my fingers crossed.
My avatar (Art Fossett) was also in-world, able to chat with the virtual audiences and keep the in-world slide-show in step with Brian's slides in the venue.
Everything was going smoothly. Too smoothly as it happened! After 10 minutes or so the virtual delegates started to complain that the sound was breaking up. This got so bad during Brian's talk that by the end of it I decided to stop the stream and start it again. Bad move. Trying to start it again simply resulted in repeated errors from Veodia saying that there wasn't enough upstream bandwidth to push the stream up to the Veodia servers. I tried repeatedly to restart it, but even on the few occasions it started, the sound was so poor as to be of little use to the virtual delegates.
I should stress that this was not a fault with Veodia... simply a lack of upstream bandwidth in the venue. I think what had happened was that as soon as the delegates in the venue took their seats, got out their laptops and started doing whatever delegates do online while they are supposed to be listening to speakers talk, the available bandwidth for streaming got significantly reduced. I tried Ustream.tv, an alternative free video-streaming service, but had similar problems - not enough bandwidth. Note that unlike Veodia, Ustream.tv does not support Second Life, which is why we hadn't used it in the first place, but I was getting desperate!
OK... realising that I was going to look a complete twit if I didn't do something, I took the decision to switch to audio-streaming on the basis that the bandwidth requirements for audio would be greatly reduced. Unfortunately, I hadn't planned well enough for this. I had to spend valuable time installing a copy of Winamp, buying a Shoutcast server plan on Viastreaming and generally faffing about. It was the final talk of the morning session before I got the audio stream up and running.
However, once it was running things went pretty well. I stepped thru the slides in Second Life as before (significantly harder than with the Veodia stream I should add, since the Viastreaming server introduced a delay of about 2 or 3 minutes) and got some positive comments from the in-world delegates.
Now, I think it is worth noting that an interesting thing happened while I was messing around trying to set up the audio stream. I expected the virtual audience in Second Life to drift away, bored with the lack of anything to see or hear. But they didn't. They started talking (i.e. chatting) to each other. They introduced themselves to each other, saying who they were and where they were from. This wasn't prompted in any sense... just natural chit-chat between a group of people stuck in a venue with nothing to do. Except they weren't stuck in a venue in any real sense... they were in a virtual venue. I remember that at one point, probably while I was waiting for Winamp to install or something, I jokingly remarked, "That's right, talk amongst yourselves :-)".
It was an interesting phenomenon, re-enforcing, for me at least, the sense of presence and community you get from a virtual world like Second Life. This is much more than simply being in a chat-room together. I'd be very interested in comments from the virtual delegates on this point.
There were two talks after lunch, both of which were audio-streamed without any problems. Unfortunately, by this stage many of the virtual delegates had gone - I'd half suspected this might happen anyway - and we were left with only 4 or 5 delegates in Second Life. One of the problems with being a virtual delegate is that you don't get lunch or any of the socialising that goes with it.
Similarly, when the delegates in the venue broke into groups for their discussion session, the virtual delegates were left with nothing to do. We could, perhaps, have had a discussion group of our own but unfortunately, I hadn't prepared properly for that. Again, this is one of the things that needs thinking about when planning a hybrid RL/SL event.
So, what did we learn?
- Never attempt video streaming without understanding the network environment within which you are working and in particular without checking the upstream bandwidth in whatever venue you are using. Speakeasy offer a natty bandwidth tester which can help with this. As far as I know Veodia requires a guaranteed 200Kbps upstream, but having more than that obviously helps - having it through a dedicated line that other people aren't sending traffic over is a good idea as well!
- A combination of audio-streaming, Second Life and in-world slides is very effective as an alternative to video streaming. Now that Second Life supports voice, one could use that as the mechanism for streaming the audio - we didn't do this on the day because we'd decided in advance that we wanted to support delegates on the Web as well as those in Second Life. With hindsight, I wonder if we shouldn't have bitten the bullet and only supported Second Life. If we had, then I suspect we would have had audio working much more quickly.
- I'm convinced that the use of Second Life brings a sense of presence that is missing from many other forms of virtual conferencing.
- The Sloodle chat-logger worked very reliably for linking Second Life chat to a Moodle chat room and this was definitely used for communication between the virtual delegates on the Web and those in Second Life. I don't know how much interaction we got with delegates in the real-life venue - not much I suspect - though at least one person came into Second Life using the venue's wireless network. This possibly could have been improved by better publicising the chat facilities to the real-life delegates on the day.
- Preempt problems by having alternatives in mind. I'd thought about using audio-streaming as an alternative but hadn't prepared for it by installing the required software, etc. This cost valuable time on the day. When you are streaming a live event, you can't ask the speakers to wait while you sort out problems.
Despite the problems, I'm convinced that this kind of video-streaming technology is now well within reach at little or no cost. (Note that costs will probably depend in part on the number of people you want to stream to - for example, I think that Veodia only supports up to 5 simultaneous streams on their free package). Overall it was an interesting experience and I hope this report has been useful. I learned a lot about what not to do and I plan to do better next time.