The NewTek TriCaster Studio As the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Stakeholders Conference for the western United States approached in mid-February, many potential attendees from police, fire and other first-responder groups saw their trips to the Bellevue, Wash. conference center fall victim to slashed state and local government travel budgets.
But if they weren't able to come to the conference (event sponsor the National Defense Industrial Association said the Bellevue meeting drew half the onsite crowd normally seen at the conference), DHS was able to deliver the conference to them, via the Web. And with inclusion of a chat feature and other additions to the browser-based viewing screen, in some ways the Internet attendees had some advantages not enjoyed by those in the meeting room itself.
Since the meeting room had four broadcast-level cameras to serve large in-room video screens and an audio console to provide the PA feed, Webcast enabler Theo Mayer, senior technology advisor for TechApplication.com, was able to switch his own video feed and encode the output for Webcast by adding only a NewTek TriCaster Studio unit.
"I took Isos [isolated feeds] from everything that was in the room, including the cameras, as well as the PowerPoint laptops," he said. "For the PowerPoint, I used a little applet that NewTek provides with the TriCaster, called iVGA. With the applet installed on the machines, and then putting the computers on the same local area network (LAN) as the TriCaster, I was able to 'screen-scrape' what came out of the laptops, providing me with the PowerPoint images."
Mayer chose the Studio version, the top of NewTek's TriCaster line, because it could handle six video input sources. TriCaster includes frame syncs for each video input, plus a processing amplifier (proc amp) to provide the ability to optimize and color-match video sources.
Mayer noted the differences between the in-room audience and his viewers on the Web when explaining why he didn't simply send the in-house switched feed to his viewers. "The experience for the audience in the room is not the same as that of the remote audience. Simply sitting in the room, the live audience is experiencing the wide-shot, so there's no need to show that on the big screens. But for the Web feed, you need a wide-shot for context."
He also chose to leave lower-third name supers on the screen for the entire time a person was talking, because a Web viewer may only glance at the screen every once in a while.
Since control of the camera direction was handled by the in-room director, Mayer listened in on the headset line so he would know if a camera was about to change shots. "So if the director was saying 'OK, let's change the shot on three,' I'd go 'Uh-oh, what shot am I on?' And I'd switch before the camera moved."
Mayer's work on these Webcasts (he's done several for DHS) didn't begin when he walked into the room with the TriCaster. The Web portal that included the Webcast had to be developed, and developed within certain rules.
"The rules of engagement for government Web projects are that you cannot allow plug-ins or downloads or installs," he said. "Whatever you do has to work with standard 'vanilla' Windows XP computers using standard browsers. The core focus is on Internet Explorer with native Flash version 9 or older. Of course you then need to test to see if your feed is blocked by departmental firewalls and get your requests in weeks in advance if you would like to provide access on blocked systems."
Mayer said he chose Flash to design and power the pages because almost any browser on any computer has Flash capability, and there are now new services that can propagate the Webcast to the audience in Flash. It also gave him the ability to include a chat client on the same page as the Webcast, as well as an SMS (text message) voting capability, creating an interactive experience for both the remote and local audiences.
The chat function was an area where Mayer thinks the Web experience might be on a par with that of someone actually attending the conference.
"As our ChatMaster encouraged them to introduce themselves, they would very often post what was essentially a mini-résumé. For example: 'I'm the Assistant Police Chief for Emergency Services in Wichita, and I specialize in bomb disposal, I am currently working on an educational training program for my team,' and then everybody would know who they were and what their interests encompassed."
Theo Mayer Web-attendees were able to pose questions to the speakers through the chat-master, and special screens placed on the stage were used to send the questions to the podium. The remote audience often had more questions than the local, and sparked some 20-30 minute conversations in the room, Mayer said.
In the chat window, any Web participant could double-click on another chat participant's name and send them a private message, not unlike an inroom attendee going up to talk with a participant after a session.
At some point, Mayer thinks these conference Webcasts will enable the use of mobile devices such as BlackBerrys and iPhones for viewing. But he noted there are challenges in mobile Webcasting having to do with the lack of a standard format and screen aspect ratio.
Stakeholders' conferences such as the one in Bellevue do not deal with classified information, so Mayer said putting them out over the Internet is not a problem. Attendees had to pre-register, but the permission process intended not for security but to provide some control over attendance.
"If there are any security issues with the content, then you should stay off the Web," he said. "You could go on a government secure network, and of course you can use all the same technologies and tools at a different security level. The TriCaster would do a terrific job doing exactly what it does, even if you were doing something restricted."
Mayer described the Bellevue Webcast as "a technical Beta-test. We didn't press very hard in trying to build a large audience—we're going to do that next." But he said part of what DHS has been learning is how Web participants can be integrated into the flow of the event itself. "What happens when the remote audience can start inputting their data back to the conference itself, and see it applied, or see their question responded to, and then have all of that go back to them? Will the meeting of the future actually have a relatively small number of people in the physical meeting room?"