The Webcasting Medium
How the technology is advancing
By Ken Swanton, e-StudioLive, Inc.
Webcasting is emerging as a new medium for communications. How is the technology evolving? What applications are being enabled by the technology?
A decade ago, the early Internet was a medium of just black and white text. In today's Internet, graphics have become pervasive, including both static and animated graphics like Flash. Recent improvements in Internet connection speeds and in compression technologies are now making audio and video broadcasts possible. Audio and video webcasts require a much larger Internet connection than just graphics. For example, a typical .gif graphic is 1 to 10kb and is sent just once, whereas a reasonable quality audio stream requires a constant 8kb every second. This 8kb audio load is addition to whatever the web page's text and graphics consume. The total can fit reasonably well into a just a 28.8kb/sec dial-up modem, which has enabled the widespread growth of web radio channels.
Streaming video on the Internet requires far more bandwidth than audio, but recent improvements in the Real and Microsoft encoding technologies are now making it possible to add video (with audio) streams for many webcasting applications. The latest encoders enable viewers with a 56kb modem to watch a postage stamp size video, and achieve reasonably good picture quality. Audience members with broadband connections of 100kb and up can watch larger video streams, with displays of about 3x2 inches and good resolution, at about 15 frames per second. While most homes do not yet have broadband connections (DSL or cable modems), broadband is now widely available at work for many employees, which is why webcasting is growing so rapidly within corporations and universities for web-based company meetings, training and other uses.
Encoder providers have demonstrated that when today's encoders are cranked up to very high bandwidth levels, their picture quality can not be distinguished from DVD. While most viewers do not have access to this size of a broadband connection, the relentless, continuing progress in Internet bandwidth and encoder technologies will make more and more video webcasting applications possible each year. In time, the transformation of the Internet to video will be as complete as the prior transformation from black and white text to colored graphics.
But just because video can now reach more and more viewers on the Internet, doesn't make it interesting. Companies that have added a small video window to an otherwise static webpage have often found the results are boring. Audiences have been spoiled by watching zillions of hours of full screen TV that was professionally produced.
Most companies deploying webcasting solutions are finding that a multi-media approach, with video and graphics, is much more fun to watch then a small video on a lifeless background. And the web medium enables audiences to do a lot more than just watch. The web provides two-way interaction, where the audience can get involved. A viewer can ask a question with chat, or send comments to other viewers. A presenter can survey the entire audience, and tabulate instant results. Presenters can bring up links to other websites, and bring the entire audience there. All of these audience interactions consume very little bandwidth.
Today's webcasts are viewed either live, on-demand as archives, or from a CD. Most live webcasts are used for company meetings, events, product announcements and investor relations. While live webcasts get a lot of notoriety, most webcasts today are created for on-demand viewing. For example, many companies create a library of training webcasts for each new product, and make them available on-demand on the web for their sales people and to their distributors. Webcasts on CD is an emerging way to distribute multi-media presentations. Many webcasters use all three mediums: first shoot a live webcast, then posting it on the web for on-demand viewing, and also send CD versions to selected viewers.
The e-StudioLive webcasting system enables a producer to create a multi-media web page comprised of up to 60 windows. A typical layout is a banner title graphic up top, with a video window and main graphics window beneath it, a title window under the video window, and a utility window or two, for surveys, chat and links. The audience can watch a presenter in the video and watch his or her slides in an adjacent window. A wide variety of graphics can be accepted, including any .gif, .jpeg or flash graphic, or direct import of a PowerPoint, Word or Excel file.
The technology enables the elements of the webcast to be to be synchronized, so that when you see and hear the presenter says, "as shown in this graph", the graph shows up at that moment in an adjacent window for all viewers, whether they are in the same building or across the globe. Technically, each viewer is really receiving two things over the Internet, a stream of video and audio in a Real or Microsoft format, and a series of webpages containing the graphics and other elements. Synchronization of the two is achieved by triggers in the video stream which tell the web pages when to fire.
e-StudioLive systems provide two forms of control for authoring a webcast, a playlist and a control panel. Both enable all elements to be managed. In most web presentations, a playlist is created in pre-production, and then the control panel is used in live production to enable manual control to capture the spontaneity of the live speaker or event in real-time. eStudioLive draws on a deep background in live production expertise as the company's ECHOlab Video Division is now celebrating its 30th anniversary. ECHOlab is the nation's second largest producer of live video production switchers, with installations in over 5000 studios in 60 countries.
Editor's note: Come see the E-StudioLIVE system in operation at our November 15 meeting at Rampion Productions!