We supported the School of Fashion and Textiles this week, at their annual Global Design Challenge where groups of Melbourne students collaborate with groups of Amsterdam students, in an exciting 5 hour design challenge intensive. It was really impressive to see how seamlessly the groups were able to collaborate online. Not only were they negotiating design decisions, but they were coordinating the production of actual prototypes in an intensely compressed time frame, hectic working environment, and using a brief that was unveiled on the night. And if that wasn’t enough, the activity was not assessed, meaning the 80 or more students were there with intrinsic motivations from 4:30 – 10:30pm Melbourne time, and 9:30am-2:30pm Amsterdam time!
At each venue we set up multiple cameras feeding into a Google Hangout that was being streamed and recorded to Youtube Live. The goal was to be able to switch between the multiple cameras and microphones to give each venue different perspectives into each studio and to see each team’s final presentations from different angles.
Audio is more important than video
Our biggest challenge was trying to manage audio inputs at each venue so as to get a single clean signal and avoid feedback from the room speakers distorting that signal. In this instance, because of the time zone difference, we weren’t able to meet with Amsterdam coordinators before hand and test the set up. So this left us trouble shooting during the event.
Straight away we had trouble in Amsterdam with their primary audio input not working. It seemed that the webcam into the Windows laptop did not have a functional microphone. The folks in Amsterdam were not aware of the problem at first, and we weren’t able to draw their attention to it while they were focused on setting up their rooms and unveiling the design brief to everyone. While the teams were working on their designs, we were able to communicate with Amsterdam and help fix the microphone.
We now had try and managed audio feedback that is generated when microphones pick up room speakers and create an awful echo effect. Headphones normally cancel this problem out, but they can’t be used in this setting. Using the inbuilt features of Hangouts we muted the microphones of all the inputs and asked the teams to come up to the primary webcam at the front and present.
On reviewing the recording on Youtube after the event, however, we can see that we had not managed the audio feedback going out to the live stream and recording. We’re not sure why this is because we were sure all microphones were muted. It must be that we missed one in Amsterdam which was picking up the room speakers there and distorting the audio of the Melbourne presenters when they spoke. The Amsterdam presenters can be heard clearly by comparison.
Take a quick look at the recording of the live stream
- Here’s the total 5 hour, 40 minute recording of the Youtube Live Hangout.
- At 20:30 we start the event – Melbourne outgoing audio is fair
- At 24:38 we transfer to Amsterdam and begin to experience their microphone trouble – Mandy stepped in to give the presentation in Melbourne
- At 1:06:53 we try to fix the microphone in Amsterdam – Microphone is broken, change computers.
- At 4:25:00 we begin group presentations, first from Melbourne then from Amsterdam. While communications was fair in the room, the recording reveals an echo affecting the Melbourne audio. The Amsterdam audio is unaffected. This remains a mystery to us, but it must have been an error on our part, we must have missed muting one of the microphones in Amsterdam.
What we learned
Set up and practice before hand. Despite video calls being common place nowadays, trying to do them in classroom settings with shared bandwidth, speakers in the room, and devices that we might not be used to are all variables that can present challenges. Try to fully test the setup at both ends before the real event. If you have the resources at each end, consider assigning the set up to a person at each end, who will make contact and practice the set up in the actual venues before hand.
When it’s not possible to set up before hand, try and use the system in planning meetings. With our limited resources, busy schedules and different time zones, testing the setup in the actual venues before the event is not always possible, If this is the case, I’d suggest using at least some of the system for project meetings in the months leading up. For example, if you’re using Skype and mobile phones to discuss preparations for a Youtube Live and Hangout conference, consider using Hangouts in your meetings instead, as close to how it will be used at the event as possible. While it will be a nuisance at first, it will start generating some experience and familiarity that may come in handy on the day.
Use devices that can manage audio feedback. Different cameras and microphones have different sensitivity to sound. While Hangouts does have some inbuilt audio feedback management, it may be necessary to go further into system and device settings. For example, here are some in depth methods for managing feedback on Microsoft webcams.
Have a troubleshooting guide at hand for WHEN things don’t work. Here’s a trouble shooting guide from Uni of Minnesota.
Monitor the Youtube Live stream separately. If the live stream is important, such as when participants outside might be watching, or if you want a good recording, it is necessary to monitor the outgoing signal to that stream. For the most part, this can be monitored directly in Hangouts, by switching between the different cameras and muting the microphones. But as we have found out, this can still miss one small thing that can ruin the recording. So periodically stepping away from the event and monitoring the outgoing signal is a good backup. Be mindful though, there can be a significant time delay between the Hangout meeting and the actual live stream. Here’s some information about latency settings that should be able to reduce that time delay if required.
We used Hangouts to reduce the entry level technical requirements – to use a readily available system that others can pick up and use. While for the most part it works, such as for the students meeting with their small teams, using it in the way we were using it (multiple cameras in multiple venues with room speakers) is very challenging. To our knowledge, the problems we had would have been the same no matter what system we were using, and so we might need to invest in equipment that can minimise these problems. Such as echo cancelling conference microphones. The problem remains though, how to reduce the technical requirements so that we have a method that can be replicated as widely as possible. More research and development needed.
If it is not possible to develop a widely replicable method of conferencing and live streaming at the same time, then looking at some form of dedicated live streaming set up might improve the results. Here is Youtube’s Live Streaming Guide that goes beyond using Hangouts as the main input system. Perhaps with better hardware at each end, a better signal can be broadcast from each venue. Each venue would watch each other’s live stream to achieve the conferencing they need, while at the same time generating a multi-camera recording of the event.
Preferencing the online has benefits to the face to face. Asking each venue to present and communicate directly into the webcams instead of face to face in the rooms, seemed to work well in terms of generating a properly shared experience between each venue, as well as causing the coordinators at each end to ensure the technology was working. The people in the room could watch the presentations on the large screen in the same way that people in the opposite venue were watching, and it seemed to reduce that distancing sensation we often experience when the face to face setting takes precedence over the online.