Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sometimes they get it Right

I have a confession to make. I watched the whole Whitney Houston funeral last weekend. I’m a streaming guy so I tuned in to see how they handled the streaming. I was so drawn by the service itself that I stayed until the end.

Technically speaking it was pretty straightforward. There was a single camera on a tripod in the balcony away from most of the crowd. I assume this was because the church did not want the video to intrude on the atmosphere of the actual service. There was no switching or fading. There were some slow pans from the platform to the band or choir when the situation required but from a production standpoint there was very little done. I think this helped to preserve the character of the service and prevent it from becoming a Hollywood style production. The video feed was distributed from the building to a production system outside and then was apparently shared with the various television and news groups. Each of them then encoded the signal as needed and streamed it or broadcast it. It was interesting the watch the various streams.

I began with the feed from CNN. I also looked at what was being delivered to the television audience via Fox. I finally settled on the feed offered by the local ABC affiliate. They streamed the entire service with no interruptions and no commentary. I personally found the running commentary added by some of the television networks to be annoying and unnecessary. Technically the ABC feed seemed to be the best. From what I could tell it was HTTP streaming and most likely was Flash. The picture quality was excellent and I was able to expend it on my 1080 computer screen without distortion.

The CNN feed was encoded at a fairly low bitrate that did not look good when taken to full screen. They had some freeze up in the beginning and at one point went completely black. Such are the perils of live streaming… the same thing happened on the Super Bowl a few weeks ago.

More important, I think was the impact of the service as a whole. As someone who has been part of sharing live church services over various media for nearly fifty years I was glad to see them just “Do Church” as Marvin Winans said. The public was invited to view a private and relatively intimate service without intruding. I think as a ministry of the church can get bogged down in technicalities. What is on display should not be the technical prowess of the church but rather the spirit and character of a fellowship.

What this funeral demonstrated was the importance of the Church being itself. Don’t let the process get in the way of the purpose. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

In Praise of Old Technology

Sometimes a fading technology is a plus. I've never been able to write much during and airplane flight. A regular laptop is too bulky to use comfortably. When you open it up it’s right against the seat in front of you. If the person sitting there decides to exercise their dubious claim on your space and recline you're left with no way to see your screen as it is now clamshelled on your hands. iPads and the like have become really popular, but I’ve never been able to type particularly fast on a touch screen. By the time you attach a keyboard and such to your iPad you're well into the range of a mid to high dollar laptop. I've recently found myself among the vast collection of semi-unemployed computer geeks known as "consultants". When I left full-time employment I had to surrender the fine laptop that my employer provided me. I had to go to Phoenix for an engagement and stopped by the local Fry’s to purchase a replacement. Budget being what it is I was disheartened to find the small laptops and notepads to be beyond you economic reach... except for the netbooks! The pint sized netbook has turned out to be a very freeing experience. It fits nicely in my lap on the plane and allows me heretofore unheard of freedom to create stuff on the fly. I find that as I'm not a programmer and not a big media creator I don't need all of blazing speed of the really new stuff. What I really needed is space. Because of the acceptance of notepad computers the cost of netbooks (when you can find them) has stayed remarkably low. Sometimes it pays to buy at the end of a tech cycle. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Streaming Church... not as NEW as you would think.

Understanding How to Use the Radio of Today

Before the days of ubiquitous Internet availability, “streaming” church worship services was actually a common practice.

Back then, “iPhone®,” “Flash®” and “Smooth Streaming®” were still undiscovered technologies, and not many churches had video cameras and big IMAG screens. But nearly all had a microphone and a sound system. Most churches were able to “stream” the audio portion of their services through a common medium, the radio.

Most churches didn’t need to reinvent the wheel to send their service to the radio. They used the components they already had and simply added a telephone connection to the local radio station, which often provided air time as a public service. So, the only cost to the church was the cost of the dedicated phone connection.

Live broadcast of the worship services was within the reach of most churches. Of course, times have changed. Television replaced radio as the dominant media of choice in most homes, and the complexity of producing a worship service for televised delivery became so expensive that it exceeded the practical budget of all but the largest of congregations.

Today, the Internet makes it possible for churches to share their live worship services and events with the public without much of the costly technical gear and other barriers associated with traditional broadcasting. Like our predecessors, most churches can use the resources they already have to connect their live events with remote or homebound users. As in the days of radio, today’s IP video streaming environment simply requires a few components, properly configured, to connect us to our audience.

Consider the service workflow you already have in place. If you are using video cameras to support IMAG for your worship service or if you already videotape your service for later use, you have the most complex part of the solution in place already. You have content.

The next thing you need is a way to prepare that content for IP-based distribution. Because you wish to stream your service live to an audience on the Internet, you will need to convert the video into a format that can be played on the web. You will need a device to capture the video and then encode it for live web-based delivery.

Until a few years ago it was necessary to get a PC and a video capture card and build your own encoder. This was always a balancing act. No two encoders were alike because each one was usually built by the resident “IT wizard” from a recipe known only to a select few. Today, there are purpose-built encoding appliances that solve most all of the encoding and workflow problems for you.

Encoding appliances reduce the complexity of creating detailed streaming profiles and other technical considerations to the push of a button. They take the necessary components, like the capture card and the encoding software, and combine them in a unified engineered solution that is designed from end-to-end for the delivery of live streaming video.

Along with the encoding software, most quality encoding appliances include management software that allows you to simplify the configuration of your encoder. The best appliances include a user interface that is simple to operate from the front panel and doesn’t even require a keyboard or mouse in order to start and stop the stream. Rather than needing to train your volunteers in all of the ins-and-outs of streaming encoders, you simply ask them to push the “start” button when it’s time to stream. The value of simplicity of operation combined in a system that is specifically engineered for the task at hand far outweighs the potential savings of creating your own encoding solution.

Selecting an Encoding Solution
Selecting the right encoding appliance involves a series of choices to create the solution best suited for your needs.

First, you will need to know that the appliance you select will connect to your audio and video gear. If you are using high-definition video, select an encoder that will ingest HD without the addition of converters or scalers. This type of appliance simplifies the encoding process.

Second, pick an encoder that can handle the volume of video you intend to stream. The volume is determined more by the size of the video you want to distribute than the bitrate you wish to stream. If you want to create one stream of standard sized video (640 X 480 for example) you can use a smaller portable encoding appliance. These are generally designed to deliver one good stream, but not much more. If you wish to deliver multiple versions of your video you should select one of the more robust encoders that have multi-core computing power. Streaming multiple versions of the video at different bitrates is a good idea if you want to deliver your video to a wide audience using multiple types of devices.

Third, select an appliance that will encode in the method you prefer. There are many ways to deliver video to the web. Today most video is delivered using Adobe® Flash®, followed closely by Microsoft® Silverlight® and other mobile formats. Your webmaster can help you decide which is best suited for your environment.

The webpage is the connecting point between your live service and the viewer. Many churches start off in web streaming by making video files available from a website that viewers can select on-demand. Usually, Video-on-Demand (VOD) uses a player on the viewer’s PC. For live streaming you will need to embed a live video player into your webpage, and by using Flash or Silverlight, you can create a seamless user experience for your viewer.

Live video intended for viewing by large audiences is usually delivered to the webpage from a video server. There is not a practical way to deliver video to more than about a dozen simultaneous users without streaming to a server.

Workflow Sequence
The workflow goes like this; you encode your video with the method you have chosen. That stream goes live to a video server. The end viewer will click on a link on your webpage. That link points back to the video server, which sends the stream to the end user.

The video server must have sufficient network connectivity to support the number of users who view the video. For instance, if you are streaming live to 100 users who are viewing a stream of 750 Kbps, the video server must support at least 74 Mbps.

By far the most costly component of any streaming project is bandwidth. For most churches, the cost of maintaining an Internet connection to support 75Mbps would be prohibitive.

Fortunately, there are service providers now called Content Distribution Networks (CDNs). These providers will host your video server on a network sufficient to handle the traffic and distribute your video to users wherever they are. By using this shared infrastructure the cost of distribution is lowered significantly. Rather than supporting the entire network load, the church need only provide a connection to the CDN equal to the size of a single stream. In that way, a local church with a dedicated 1 Mb Internet connection can still stream an excellent encoded video to the CDN.

Traditional “radio streaming” notwithstanding, today’s high-speed Internet, combined with purpose-built encoding appliances and content delivery networks, has finally made streaming live video accessible to almost any ministry.

"As seen in Technologies For Worship Magazine- December 2010 Issue- Reposted with Permission.