Streaming Live Events
Posted May 6, 2009

In their March 2008 article Webcasting Weddings, Bay Area videographers Chuck and Jewel Savadelis wrote an article about a wedding they'd done in which they not only shot the wedding and produced a DVD, but they also streamed it live. The mother of the bride had been hospitalized and was not able to attend her daughter's wedding. Savadelis Films arranged for her to view the live webcast in a conference room in the hospital. She wore a corsage, and some of the hospital staff joined her in watching the wedding.

This live webcast was made possible by ever-faster broadband internet connections, and the interest in live streaming may have sprung up from the popularity of webcams. Certainly, a webcam is not the professional way to go. Savadelis Films wanted a high-quality webcast, and they subcontracted with a webcasting service called Event by Wire, which provided the service on-site.

In addition to offering on-site streaming, Event by Wire and other webcasting services offer videographers the option of streaming videos themselves by connecting online to the company's webcasting service. You bring your laptop or desktop computer with your camera gear, and the service gives you an IP address to upload the stream. You get the same quality stream at a much lower cost than if you had hired them to come to the filming location.

We'll discuss that option later in this article, but we also want to acquaint you with some of the new webcasting "appliances" on the market. These appliances are turnkey systems with an input for the camera and audio and an Ethernet output that connects to the facility's computer network. If you bring the appliance on location with you instead of a computer, you'll be ready to stream.

Live Video Streaming Encoding
Real-time encoding appliances such as the ViewCast Niagara 2100, NewTek's TriCaster, the Digital Rapids StreamZ, and Inlet Technologies' Spinnaker all have starting prices between $4,000 and $5,000. Digital Rapids also offers a $995 board-and-software bundle for your computer, and, later in the year, it plans to release a new model of appliance called TouchStream, but pricing on that was not available at press time.

The appliances have a built-in CPU, a streaming encoder board, and software. You plug your camera into the appliance input, and the output goes to the facility's Ethernet network. Once you're logged on to the internet, you send the video to a streaming website server or service.

Sending your video to a single user, such as to a relative in the hospital, is pretty easy and straightforward; the user's system can connect directly through the internet to the encoder to view the stream. If you want several viewers to watch your webcast simultaneously, you'll need a distribution server such as Adobe Flash Media Server, Windows Media Services, or Apple's Darwin Streaming Server. You'll also need an internet upload speed that is fast enough to serve all your viewers. If you have a small number of viewers, your own distribution server may be adequate.

Using a CDN
Alternately, you can use a content delivery network (CDN). A CDN lets you distribute to a larger number of viewers and can be useful when your upload speed is limited. It also eliminates the need to invest in your own distribution server. Many of the appliance manufacturers can refer you to a CDN; popular CDNs include Highwinds, Akamai, and Limelight. NBC used Limelight Networks for CDN services for the live streaming of the Beijing Olympics last year. And it used one of the higher-end Digital Rapids encoding/streaming systems.

A CDN may be able to multicast your video, as it has the bandwidth and control of the network architecture that a videographer rarely has. However, you can stream to multiple viewers by setting up multiple "unicasts." According to Digital Rapids' Mike Nann, "A common misconception is that ‘unicast' refers to streaming to a single viewer, while ‘multicast' is streaming to multiple viewers. That's not true; these terms actually are very specific technologies for how video or data is transferred over a network."

The facility hosting the event will need to have a fast broadband upload speed. Don't confuse this with the download speeds, which usually are faster. You'll probably need an upload speed of at least 300Kbps, although some service pro-viders indicate they can work with upload speeds as low as 128Kbps. I'll discuss that more later. 

Streaming Appliances
Our sister publication, Streaming Media, ran a review of Inlet's Spinnaker S3000 encoding appliance last April.

Author Tim Siglin (also an EventDV contributing editor) wrote that the Spinnaker lets videographers perform simultaneous VC-1 encodes along with a Flash encode, all in real time. The system includes closed captioning, and, according to Siglin, the "tests created quality results from analog video and audio files that were extremely clean."

He reported that the Spinnaker provides a detailed variety of audio and video settings that can be highly detailed. According to Siglin, "The Inlet team is one of the best when it comes to giving full control over codec parameters." The system lets you create settings that can be saved and named for future use.

Last December, Inlet announced two new Spinnaker models priced at $4,995. The Spinnaker 3000W supports Windows Media, VC-1, and Silverlight editing. The 3000F model supports Flash VP6. The 3200W and 3200F support Windows and Flash, respectively. Those are dual-channel appliances priced at $7,995. Whichever appliance you choose, they all include closed captioning. And according to Spinnaker, they provide an "intuitive web-based user interface."

Inlet co-founder John Bishop says, "The Spin-naker offers users choices in managing their live streaming webcasts. One method is to use the front panel of the Spinnaker to control parameters using the LCD readout. The other method, which is most common, is to use the three Ethernet ports on the rear of the unit. The first port is your primary video feed; it's where the Ethernet connects to your CDN. The second port is the backup for redundancy. The third port provides remote management." The Spinnaker's web-based user interface lets you set up and monitor your stream from your office computer.

According to Kristopher Koch of Advanced Systems Group, the Spinnaker dealer in Northern California that conducts streaming seminars, "One of the strengths of the Spinnaker is that it lets videographers create multiple streams. For example, the videographer can stream at different resolutions simultaneously. It doesn't take a high-level engineering background to manage the Spinnaker. Inlet makes it easy for anyone to set up jobs and choose parameters."

ViewCast, maker of the widely used Osprey video capture card, recently introduced the $3,999 Niagara 2100 streaming appliance. The 5-lb. unit measures about 11''x7'', and it has inputs for component, S-Video, and composite video plus balanced and unbalanced audio. It has two Ethernet and two USB connectors, and the system comes with Niagara SCX and SimulStream software.

According to ViewCast, Niagara 2100's features include scaling, cropping, deinterlacing, inverse telecine, and closed-caption rendering. The company states that you "set your streaming parameters from the intuitive interface and you can begin streaming in multiple resolutions and bit-rates with a single push of the front panel ‘stream' button." Viewcast adds that you can stream in multiple, simultaneous resolutions and bitrates.

NewTek's TriCaster is another live streaming appliance that has been reviewed twice in this magazine and was an EventDV Best of 2005 and 2006 winner. In addition to streaming, the appliance includes a video switcher and a host of other portable studio goodies depending on the model you order. With NewTek iVGA, any PC or Mac on the same network as TriCaster can be added as an input for your TriCaster live production. The system includes a character generator, an audio mixer, and a built-in digital disc recorder to roll video clips into your live presentation. You can also record full-screen MPEG-2 or archive your Windows Media web stream.

All models, including the $3,999 TriCaster DUO, come with Windows Media support. The $4,999 TriCaster adds a nonlinear editor and projector output. With the TriCaster Pro, which is priced at $7,999, you get Windows Media with VC-1 and Flash streaming support, component input, and balanced XLR audio connectors.

Digital Rapids makes the $5,995 StreamZ Live encoder with video preprocessing features that include motion adaptive deinterlacing, scaling, filtering, and 2D and 3D noise reduction. The stand-alone appliance includes analog and digital input options and a choice of encoding formats, including AVC (H.264, MPEG-4), VC-1 (Microsoft Windows Media), On2 VP6-based video for Adobe Flash, MPEG-2, or 3GPP/Mobile.

StreamZ Live also offers hardware-based graphic overlay and video proc amp controls, with a 7-band parametric EQ and dynamic range compression/expansion. Users may create and name presets for future use, and the system offers a range of encoding parameters from frame sizes and bitrates to advanced codec options.

Digital Rapids is planning to introduce a new TouchStream appliance in the second quarter of 2009. According to Nann, "It basically takes all of the features of our turnkey StreamZ systems and packs them
into an easily transportable package with integrated touchscreen interface-no monitors, mice, or keyboards required. Simply because of its form factor, it may be more appropriate for the event market than StreamZ."

The $995 Live Streaming Solution

If you provide your own computer, you can add Digital Rapids' basic board-and-software bundle model DRC-500. This board accepts analog composite and S-Video together with either balanced or unbalanced audio. The basic bundle supports Windows Media and MPEG-2. Higher model boards add component video, SDI, and digital audio connectivity. Additional streaming formats are available as options.

As an alternative to purchasing the StreamZ appliance, Nann says, "A customer could instead purchase the DRC-500 board and build up the system themselves. The boards are exactly the same as the ones used in our rackmount systems. The main obvious difference is that the user is building and supporting their own PC for it, along with some software differences, particularly for larger-scale applications.

"For example, the $5,995 price for the live rackmount encoders is a system based on the DRC-500 board with Windows Media and VC-1 streaming. Support on the host system itself is the burden of the user, rather than us, and the higher-end software features won't be available without a paid software upgrade. That said, we aren't ‘snobby' about it-we recognize that the board and software bundles are a more realistic option for many customers and markets."

Digital Rapids' basic system requirements are available at www.digital rapids.com/support/systemrequire ments.aspx. A quad-core system will give you better resolution, higher frame rates, and the ability to webcast to multiple, simultaneous viewers.

Live Webcasting Service Providers
Southern California's Event by Wire is the company that provided the webcasting for the hospitalized mother-of-the-bride that EventDV reported on last year. It produces on-site webcasts in seven states and are available to subcontract with you if you have clients who want their event streamed live.

We spoke with Event by Wire's Dan Grumley, who explained that in addition to its on-site production service, the company also provides software and an IP address for videographers who prefer the do-it-yourself approach. You bring your FireWire-equipped computer on-site together with your camera gear, plug the computer into the facility's Ethernet connection, log on to your portal at Event by Wire's website, and stream away.

Asked if the facility needs to have a high-speed DSL connection, Grumley said that, by the time this article is published, Event by Wire plans to have released software that will allow for "decent" video at upload speeds as low as 100Kbps and high-quality video at 200Kbps. The frame rate is 16 fps, and the picture size for standard definition is 300x240. The company recently announced that it offers high-definition 720x480 at 30 fps; 550Kbps is required for HD.

Users will need to have either a PC with Windows Vista or a Mac with at least OS 9. Grumley said the company has developed unique compression algorithms to let you send your video at this low bandwidth to its server, and it pumps the video out to the internet at a higher bitrate.

What if the facility has no access to a DSL line? Grumley says you could purchase a wireless data plan from Sprint or Verizon together with one of the mobile broadband cards they provide for laptop computers. Some of these cards work on the 3G network with upload speeds as high as 500Kbps.

Grumley added that, well in advance of the event, videographers will receive a hyperlink to the website that will stream their video. They may send notices to their clients and may even attach their logos and other branding to promote their services.

Event by Wire also provides a pay-per-view service for corporate seminars and other events. Companies that want their employees to benefit from a workshop without having to fly them there could hire a videographer to stream the event live. The fee would be determined by the number of viewers. Grumley says he has produced more than 6,000 webcasts.

Another live streaming provider, Webcast My Wedding, operates a streaming server for videographers so they can produce a live webcast of a wedding on their own. The company says that for as little as $149, you can stream to as many as 10 viewers.

"You partner with us, and we train you," says Ariel Andres of Webcast My Wedding. "We create a specific webpage for you; you send that link to guests who plan to view the wedding on the internet. The video may play from our site for another 30 days after the event."

Webcast My Wedding provides special downloadable software. As with Event by Wire, you bring your computer to the church or event facility and connect to the facility's Ethernet. While Andres says videographers can get by with a DSL upload speed as low as 150Kbps, he recommends that the facility have the capability of uploading at 500Kbps. "At lower bitrates the picture becomes pixelated." Andres adds that his company will redigitize the file to improve the quality for those viewing it as an archived file after the event.

If the church or wedding site does not provide you with access to their Ethernet, Webcast My Wedding can show you how to use a mobile broadband card and wireless data plan to produce a live webcast. Andres cautions to test the service at the site prior to the wedding and to be aware of the possibility that the signal can be lost during transmission, just as a wireless voice call can drop.

As wireless broadband networks further develop, they will probably get to the point of reliability for webcasting a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a wedding. In the meantime, using facilities' wired Ethernet connections is probably a safer route to take. The weak link is when the facility has a slow upload speed or when they have not yet wired the sanctuary.

Now is the time to start those conversations with churches and synagogues in your community. What kind of broadband connections do they have? Are they interested in offering shut-ins a way to join the rest of their congregations for Sabbath services at home through their computers? You could offer to provide live streaming every weekend and, of course, use that system for weddings. The shut-ins will probably enjoy watching the weddings too.

SIDEBAR: An Analogy to a Video Distribution Amp
Digital Rapids' Mike Nann wrote the following to help videographers better understand live streaming distribution. He shows how streaming to multiple users is similar to using a video distribution amplifier (DA) to send your video to two or more monitors.

As the analogy, let's say you have a video camera with only SDI output, and you want to send the live video from it to 10 different TVs that only have composite inputs. You'll take the SDI output of the camera, use a device to convert it to composite, and then route that composite signal to a distribution amplifier. The DA takes that one composite signal and makes 10 out of it; the 10 outputs of the DA then go to the individual TVs.

For live streaming, the encoder basically plays the role of the SDI-to-composite converter unit, and the streaming server plays the role of the distribution amplifier-taking a single source stream in and creating 10 output streams for 10 viewers. (The 10 is just an example number.)

Instead of video cables, though, the connections are all virtual on a network, and the data rate of each connection (stream) plays a role. With a DA, if you have one source cable coming in and x number of viewers, you need x cables coming out. With streaming, if you have a 750Kbps stream coming into the streaming server, and you have x number of viewers, you have a total of 750Kbps coming out-and you need enough speed on your internet connection to handle it. Ten viewers of that stream = 7500Kbps = 7.5Mbps.

In the diagram, the pieces in the light blue box would be on-location (e.g., at the church, hotel). The DSL line (A) would be the route for the video out of the location over the internet. The DSL connection has to be fast enough for a single stream at your desired output data rate (and allow for overhead and fluctuation). If you want a 750Kbps stream, you'd be safest with a minimum of a 1.0Mbps (1,000Kbps) connection. (Note that the upload and download speeds on a DSL line aren't always the same; it's the upload speed you care about here since you're sending the video out.)

The stuff in the purple box represents the streaming server or service. The purple box could be a streaming server owned by the videographer and located at his/her office, or it could be a CDN service. In this diagram, there are six viewers, so six streams are being output from the streaming server over the internet (and one source stream is coming in). With 750Kbits/sec as the source into the streaming server, that means 4,500Kbits/sec (4.5Mbps) are being output from the server (6*750) at point C.

With the NBC Olympics, some of the video we were sending was as low as 300Kbps at 320x176 resolution. While not our ideal, plenty of people thought it looked pretty good (and far better than a webcam would offer). A 128Kbps line would still really be pushing it, though. —Mike Nann, Digital Rapids

Stuart Sweetow (sweetow@avconsultants.com) runs Oakland, Calif.-based video production company Audio Visual Consultants. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Videography, and was a contributing editor to Camcorder & Computer Video magazine.