Everyone’s streaming, and it’s here to stay

Streaming is here to stay even after the pandemic ends. Tim Kridel explores the market’s technologies, tricks and business models.

Mark Kamp knows how to work a room. As a motivational business speaker known professionally as “Marvelless Mark,” he’s done thousands of keynotes in 24-plus countries for clients such as AT&T, Bayer, Expedia, IBM and Volvo. 

But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, a packed ballroom or auditorium suddenly was the last place anyone wanted to be. That forced Kamp and his clients to pivot to virtual events.

“This was not a gradual shift,” Kamp says. “We had to jump right in, and we’re still learning as we go.”

What they’ve learned so far is applicable to a wide variety of other settings that traditionally were home to in-person interaction, including university classrooms, houses of worship, concert venues and theatres. Some of those lessons learned are technological, while others are methodological.

For example, in their home offices, people are more likely to check email, browse and do other things while attending virtual events such as all-hands meetings and product launches. New production strategies can discourage multitasking. Instead of the traditional single-camera, webinar-style setup, Kamp uses three angles, sometimes including a behind-the-scenes shot, and then frequently switches between them.

“Any time something changes or flashes on the screen, you get their attention back,” he says. 

Carl-Fredrik Malmgren, owner of Fremlab, agrees that more cameras make for a better audience experience. 

“Three is the minimum we want to do because otherwise it looks terrible: no dynamics,” he says.

To increase engagement, Kamp pulls in audience members for games such as Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud, and gives away virtual gift cards.

“Just about every game show that’s on TV, we’re able to do virtually now,” he says. “We’re selling that to clients for educational purposes because they don’t want boring. To get more ROI, you’ve got to keep their attention.” 
All together now
A lot of these engagement techniques are applicable to higher education. Many students and parents are demanding tuition discounts or even refunds because they feel that distance learning doesn’t provide the same high-quality experience that classrooms do. For universities, part of the business case for increasing their AV budgets is to overcome that perception. 

“I read an article where somebody said, ‘When we think about the online experience, people will have to think of Hollywood meets Harvard,’” says Ellen Van de Woestijne, segment marketing manager at Barco, where her responsibilities include the higher education market. “I really like that phrase because that’s what the ones paying for it will expect.”

“The big shift with Covid-19 is that schools will need to search for a solution not only for the online programs, but also for the campus-based programs so they can do a mix.” 

So instead of equipping a classroom with just one camera, it might have three or four. In the short term, all of them might show the lecturer from different angles. 

In the long term, when things return to semi-normal, some of those cameras might be trained on students in the classroom. Although their impetus is Covid-19, these new hybrid classrooms also help universities accommodate the growing number of students who don’t have time to commute to campus, such as older adults pursuing a graduate degree or retooling for a career change.  

“The big shift with Covid-19 is that schools will need to search for a solution not only for the online programs, but also for the campus-based programs so they can do a mix,” Van de Woestijne says. “That’s a major change.”

weConnect hybrid virtual classroom_all students looking at teacher web
Belgian university KU Leuven won an award for its hybrid virtual classroom at the Kulak campus in Kortrijk that uses Barco’s weConnect hybrid classroom

Roland also sees growth in the hybrid space, which it’s targeting with its VR line of streaming switchers.

“We see it taking off,” says Chris Wissinger, global strategic product marketing manager. “The VR Series, for example, has traditional AV connectivity for the in-room audience and webcam out for the remote, live-stream audience.”

Hybrid business opportunities
Hybrid classrooms provide integrators and vendors with a variety of business opportunities. For example, they’ll need multiple displays, or a wall of them, that enable both the professor and the in-class students to see the remote students. Multiple cameras are necessary so remote students can see their classroom peers, such as PTZ models that automatically switch to the person asking a question.

Quality mics ensure remote students can understand everything that their classroom peers say. These could be mounted in the ceiling, or at every seating position in the case of a seminar room.

In most cases, the hybrid systems will be in existing classrooms rather than new buildings. Many of those rooms have designs that aren’t conducive to video and audio, such as walls of windows and hard surfaces. So for AV firms, an additional opportunity is motorised shades to mitigate the ambient lighting that would overwhelm displays and cameras, or acoustical treatments to minimise echo. 

“I think we’re going to see a wholesale redesign of classrooms, conference rooms, meeting rooms,” says Marc Risby, DigiBox group CTO. “They’ll have to become more multipurpose.”

Integrators that offer HVAC services could also offer to tweak blowers so they don’t overpower ceiling mics. Additional lighting also could help remote students better see the lecturer and their peers. 

“[All of] that really helps provide a classroom experience,” Van de Woestijne says. “The only difference is that everybody is sitting in the front row.” 

Similar considerations and opportunities apply to non-academic spaces. Take the example of enterprises that used to fly in hundreds of salespeople or dozens of customers for a product launch at headquarters. A hybrid setup would save money and, in the case of customers, boost attendance among those who don’t have time to travel. 

Of course, many enterprises have been streaming training sessions, all-hands meetings and other in-person events for years. The difference is that Covid-19 elevates streaming from an afterthought to a business priority.

“There’s nothing that can compete with meeting in person,” says Fremlab’s Malmgren. “But I think small and big companies are going to rethink their strategies because you don’t have meet in person each and every time.”

Tight supplies and budgets
The streaming surge is one of the bright spots amid the Covid-19 gloom—unless you’re trying to buy equipment or procure it for your customers.

“Anything to do with home broadcasting has just doubled and tripled in price,” Kamp says. “$150 [approximately €130] webcams are like $400. I was just pricing a motorised green screen for my home studio. It was normally $150. It’s $399 now.”

DigiBox’s Risby can sympathise: “A week before the lockdown, I bought some Logitech cameras for the office systems and paid £59 [approximately €64]. A week later, they were £160. Then they were out of stock. We sell a lot of PTZ cameras, and we have a lot of backorders.” 

The backorders are partly a byproduct of Covid-19 striking China first. Now production lines there are restarting. 

“We’re starting to see the backlog clear,” Risby says. 

Some AV firms caution that even when clients see value in high-quality, large-scale streaming, that doesn’t mean they have a big budget. The good news is that a big budget isn’t necessary for big improvements.

“[A small Roland mixer,] I think it’s around $1,200,” Malmgren says. “That and three very basic cameras that you can get for a couple of hundred dollars, and you’re up to something really good on your own. There’s very little that’s actually needed to make it so, so much better with some lighting and some proper sound.”

Automation can overcome the sales barrier of clients that want multi-camera systems in each room but don’t have the budget to add operators. 

“Some customers are using the VR-1HD AV streaming mixer with no operator at all,” says Roland’s Wissinger. “They just program it, set it on a table and it does its thing. They have no interaction with it. We can put our audio mixer into automatic mode so the operator doesn’t have to mix and level sound. 

“Say you have a couple of cameras and a couple of people talking. Based on whoever talks, the VR can automatically switch to their camera. You can basically run your show hands free with a single person. That’s important as we come out of Covid-19, and events start happening again in this hybrid model.”

Cloud, connectivity and bundles 
The cloud is another major streaming opportunity for AV firms. For example, even though streaming is more convenient than traveling, many people still won’t be able to attend live—including college students who oversleep. This creates opportunities for integrators to offer managed cloud services, such as archiving streamed events and indexing them so attendees can quickly jump to the parts they’re interested in.

Some vendors and integrators were offering cloud solutions long before Covid-19, making them well positioned to capitalise on the uptick. For example, IBC 2019 saw the launch of BirdDog Cloud.

“Over the last few months, Cloud has been a big talking point for us as everyone hasNelson Antoine Shutterstock been looking for ways in which to work during lock down and social distancing,” says Phill Lane, BirdDog vice president of EMEA sales. “We have seen a huge increase in remote production workflows and live streaming from many different sectors, including broadcast, corporate, medical, education and house of worship.” 

BirdDog Cloud is among a growing number of pro AV products using Secure Reliable Transport (SRT), an open source video transport protocol and technology stack designed to provide high-quality streaming over the public internet.

“It allows us to overcome fluctuating network conditions while still being able to maintain low latency, but also keeping the speed of transmission high,” Lane says. “This can all be done securely using AES encryption. 

"Within Cloud we can set various parameters for the SRT settings to allow for these lousy connections. Because of the way SRT works, we can even run with up to 50% packet loss while still receiving a high-quality HD video.”

BirdDog also offers Network Device Interface (NDI) products, but SRT is a better fit for streaming that spans a lot of people in a lot of places.

“We have seen a huge increase in remote production workflows and live streaming from many different sectors, including broadcast, corporate, medical, education and house of worship.”

“As a protocol, NDI was not designed to bridge networks separate by a few miles, let alone ones separated by a few thousand miles,” Lane says. “Being able to take an NDI source encode and wrap [it] as an SRT file has given us the ability to move video, audio, tally, comms and PTZ control over vast distances using the public internet as the pipeline. We have a long list of customers that are utilising Cloud, including Fox Sports, Amazon, Facebook and F1.”

Connectivity is a key consideration when streaming originates in home offices. Whether the reason is a quarantine, a blizzard or a schedule too packed to permit travel, some professors, executives and other presenters will need the ability to deliver a studio-quality presentation from home.  

A June 2020 Inavate article explored how Verizon’s acquisition of BlueJeans could enable a bundled system that provides videoconferencing hardware, software and cellular connectivity. That way, the quality of the collaboration experience wouldn’t be at the mercy of another provider’s wired or wireless network. 

The same model could be applied to streaming. In fact, some vendors say they’re already seeing demand for bundles that can be quickly deployed in a home office, corporate office or elsewhere. 

“We’re hearing more customers say they want turnkey packages where everything arrives in one box, including cables and adapters,” says Roland’s Wissinger. “We have distributors that are taking our solutions and [other vendors’] PTZ solutions, and selling them as one [package].”

Photo credit for image above: Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock.com

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