Broadcasting live involves two elements: an encoding tool and a streaming service, and both can be free. For example, Adobe's Flash Live Media Encoder (FMLE) is free, as are multiple live streaming service providers such as Livestream and Ustream, though they're advertising-supported. Load FMLE on your notebook, point the stream to Livestream, and you can be live in minutes. Viewers can watch on your Livestream homepage or you can embed the live stream into your own website, just like you do with YouTube videos.
Willing to spend a few bucks? Well, that's where things get interesting. Though functional, FMLE is simple live streaming-no flash, no sizzle. OK, it's got Flash, but not the kind you're thinking about.
In contrast, for under $500, Telestream's Wirecast lets you create titles and other graphic overlays, switch between multiple cameras, incorporate live and on-demand content into your broadcast, and generally turn your computer into a television studio. It's also cross-platform, which is nice. VidBlaster is a similarly priced, similarly featured tool to Wirecast that I've never played with so can't really comment on. Other software encoders include Microsoft's Expression Encoder (~$200; switches between cameras but no titles) and the heavy-duty Kulabyte XStream Live program.
Before buying software, you should identify the live streaming service provider you'll be using, which I discuss below. While your service provider should be compatible with most software programs out there, some of the larger providers, including Livestream and Ustream, offer their own free streaming software.
So long as you're shooting in DV or HDV, getting the video into your computer is simple; just use FireWire. When shooting in other formats without Firewire output, you need a different connection. For computers with available slots, one popular and widely supported alternative is the Blackmagic Design DeckLink family of products, which can input anything from HD-SDI, to HDMI, to component with either balanced or unbalanced audio. I've used the DeckLink for several projects with very good results.
If you're encoding with a notebook, things get more complicated. You can buy an external capture device, such as the Matrox MXO, that connects to your Mac or Windows notebook via the ExpressCard slot. Or, you can get an expansion system that connects to your ExpressCard slot and provides a PCI Express slot in an external box. Then, you can use any PC card you'd like, including the DeckLink. The Mission Technology Group sells the Magma line of expansion products that I've used extensively in testing, though there are other solutions available.
When do you turn to a dedicated hardware solution such as the ViewCast Niagara line of products or Digital Rapids TouchStream? Good question. These systems are more expensive than software-based solutions, but much easier to operate and more stable. On the ease-of-use side, with all streaming appliances, you can configure your connections and encoding options beforehand, then plug the camera in at your event and press the magic "Go" button. No software program is ever quite that simple.
On the stability front, dedicated hardware appliances typically run Windows XP or an embedded version of Windows, but since you don't surf the web or edit your videos with them, the installation stays relatively clean. I've never had a problem with Wirecast, but in the back of my mind I'm always wondering if my next NLE update or Service Pack is going to make it stop working. Basically, dedicated streaming appliances are good where you have deep pockets and are a relatively non-technical user, but if you're a technically savvy producer working on a shoestring budget, software is the way to go.
How to choose a live streaming service provider? If you're just starting out, it's best to choose a free service like Livestream or Ustream that supplies all the basics, including the landing page and Flash player. Most fee-based service providers provide just the streaming function, and you're in charge of building the landing page and player. If you don't want the ads associated with the free services, you can upgrade to an advertising-free solution.
From there, it comes to down to several simple questions. First is how many streams can you distribute and what's the maximum size? If you have the outbound bandwidth onsite, it's nice to go 848x480 or even 720p. Second is support for mobile devices, particularly for Apple iOS devices. Third is the availability of social media features such as chat, both directly and via Facebook and Twitter. These help you spread the word on the event, and add a sense of community to an otherwise simple video stream.
Next up is the availability of streaming software offered by the service, and its feature set, which simplifies the connection between your computer and the service. Make sure the software is compatible with the hardware that you're planning to use for capture. For example, Ustream's streaming software isn't currently compatible with DeckLink products, while Livestream's is. And then, of course, there's cost. Make sure you understand both the monthly cost (if any) and event-related pricing before signing on the digital bottom line.
Again, live-event streaming looks hard and expensive, but it's simple and generally cheap. It's a great skill to learn to differentiate your service, add a high-profit-margin option, or both.
an Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics. He is chief instructor at StreamingLearningCenter.com and the author of Video Compression for Flash, Apple Devices and HTML5.