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Saturday, September 23 2017 @ 02:23 AM CDT

Video Production

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The first live cameras that HWF put up went directly to the distribution facility. There was no option to either grab high-res archive or overlay commentary or other information onto the stream, not even time and date.

Since that time the tools and techniques to deal with live streaming video have come a long way. Not only are there tools that the various distribution networks have put together to allow almost anyone with a web-cam to create live video, there are camera mix and special effects packages that can add and change a stream in almost any way conceivable. These give you, the stream owner, the ability to do things like running commentary, overlay logos, time stamps (although many cameras do this now) and messages. They allow you to do things like picture-in-picture and split-screen, and allow you to run archived video on the channel when the camera site is in darkness.

They also allow you to use some cameras that simply are not ready for direct use in today’s defacto standard format; FLASH video.

Warning: many/most of the tools/techniques here require a PC with fast hardware. This means things like multi-core, full-feature processor, lots of RAM and usually multi-display.


As an example: with an Intel Core-2 dual core processor (2.4GHz) with 4 Gigs of RAM and dual 1920x1280 screens I could get 5 live streams showing (1 local camera, 2 instances of 2 incoming streams – one full and one “zoomed”) and mixed down to one outbound stream using picture-in-picture and an overlay. This all but maxed out the system.

My 2 GHz laptop has problems running one local camera at 20fps while mixing in one captured stream from a remote camera.

Be prepared to throw hardware at the problem if you need much beyond adding a single local camera to a single stream for re-broadcast.

Turning H.264 and/or something proprietary into FLASH

As noted in the camera section, most of today’s IP cameras put out some form of H.264 encoded video, but some of them don’t, and some of them put out video that nobody will tell you what format it is in or allow you to even grab just the stream from to re-encode in some way.

These cameras simply won’t work to broadcast to the rest of the world without some fairly significant help from a special server or, in many cases, a desktop production package on a fairly fast PC (set the proprietary software to show the video and then use the production software to “screen capture” just that portion of the video screen).

Axis Video Capture Driver

For most Axis IP cameras they have a utility that will turn a stream from their IP camera into what looks to the encoding software like a local camera.

This utility is designed to work with Microsoft’s Windows Media Encoder, and in some cases loading this software may be the only way to get to the setup utility. Once this is done the first time, the only time you might need to go back into WME is if you want to change the settings – unless of course you’re using WME to actually stream from.

Other software packages will allow you to directly access Axis’ setup utility from within their programs. This includes Wirecast for example.

Once it is set up, the stream appears to the PC as a local video feed. Many software programs will see it as such and provide you with an option to select it. Note that audio is not included in this stream by default.

Ustream.TV Producer (free) and Ustream.TV Producer Pro/Wirecast

When used with the free download utility from Telestream called Desktop Presenter, these will allow you to designate a window on another PC (on your local LAN usually) desktop to pull video from. Depending on the version of the software you may or may not be able to select just the video from this window.

VidBlaster

The VidBlaster software allows you to define a specific piece of screen and pull the video from that and treat it like a video camera. This means that any video you can bring to your PC, regardless of what software it requires, can be treated as a new camera entity for re-broadcast to the streaming distributor of your choice. The limiting factors will be the total amount of screen real estate you can use to show the various windows the software will capture from, and the horsepower of the computer itself. If the incoming view comes with audio, you can set the system to send the audio back through the VidBlaster mixer to the output.

If you have enough computer power and screen real estate, you should be able to pull in several cameras, mix between them, archive the results to disk and re-encode it to send out to the distribution system. Hancock Wildlife Foundation uses this software to pull in video from as many as 8 different cameras, mix it with several local cameras, and put out a news program to various stream broadcasters. This is done on a HP laptop with an Intel i7 processor and 6 Gigs of RAM, plus a second screen plugged in to add screan real estate for the "camera capture" function.

The software is available as a free demo (puts a VidBlaster logo in the upper right corner of the output, but otherwise runs fine but with a limit on how many modules you can load) as well as several paid levels that allow a hundred modules or more and some additional features. The HWF system uses up to 25 modules.

Live Commentary

If your live camera is coming to a PC encoder in your home/office, you may be able to run one of the “producer” packages available from the various live streaming distribution companies. This would allow you to do things like “picture-in-picture” where you (or some expert or other commentator) could appear in a corner of the live picture to talk about your camera’s content. These packages also give you the ability to substitute archives for the live video during times when the camera is down or the subject is uninteresting (darkness, etc.)

Archive Use

Having archives available to you from your live camera stream means you have the opportunity to:
substitute archive for live if there is a camera or subject problem (darkness, end of season, failure, etc.)
create other products such as compilations of “best of” or “highlights”

Distribution

While many IP cameras and encoders allow multiple people to view them directly from your LAN, this is not really an option for general distribution since the outbound network bandwidth (from your system to the rest of the world) generally won’t support more than one or two live streams at full data rate. In order to pass your camera’s output on to the rest of the world you need some method of distribution.

Back when we first started the Hornby and Sidney live cameras in 2006, this was a major problem. FLASH video had not yet come into its own, and there were lots of proprietary systems that had fairly expensive licensing options per simultaneous viewer and almost nobody doing any great numbers of concurrent streams. Only Microsoft's Windows Media Server was fairly ubiquitous (and “free” for any number of viewers) with viewers on most desktops simply because it came bundled with Windows. The server itself was also “free” but only ran on Windows servers – not an issue for those who had them. This is why we ended up running our streams through my friend Ed Clunn’s company – it was already set up to deal with fairly large numbers of streams, and his encoder software was proven in use for encoding live sports and other similar content. We ran up to 40,000 concurrent streams from one camera for over 4 months that year.

Since then, FLASH video has risen to the forefront of internet streaming video technologies, mostly due to Google’s use of it for YouTube. We’re predicting that HTML5 will supplant this but the actual details of what video codecs will work with what browsers is still shaking out.

Along the way there has developed a number of companies who have set themselves up to take any/all manner of live FLASH video streams and distribute them; putting live advertising on the streams to pay for the bandwidth used. Most of these have risen only in the past 18 months or so, perceiving the root problem of monetizing long-term live streams (that we ran into in 2006) as an opportunity they could apply their FLASH video expertise to. Hancock Wildlife Foundation moved their streams to one of these companies through their partnership with WildEarth.TV, whose streams go through the facilities of Zaplive.TV. Today, WildEarth.TV is running their own facilities because Zaplive.TV has closed their “free” service. Things are not yet stable it seems, but there are still lots of places to run your stream through. Some of them will even pay you if you get any reasonable number of viewers.

In general, if you use the free encoding facility each of these services provides, you can get a local (i.e. tied to the PC you’re using) camera online in minutes, but you’re limited in what you can do if the camera is “remote”. Most of them will also tell you how to use Adobe’s (free) Flash Media Encoder software to feed their site. At this point, getting one of them to properly deal directly with any IP camera is a problem.

If you have a camera that attracts enough viewers, you may be offered a split of the revenue from it. The criteria are different for each of the services.

Free

Content Delivery Networks

In addition to providing "free" (aka advertising supported) distribution, each of the above also have paid accounts that eliminate the ads. Others provide such "content delivery" as well, usually as part of their other web services packages.

If you would rather roll your own advertising overlays, or need to deliver ad-free video to the likes of schools or other restrictive viewers, you may want to simply pay for your own bandwidth used. This can be done through various options on many of the free delivery sites – where you sign up and provide billing information, and they simply don’t put ads on your streams.

It is also possible to get an account with a pure CDN (content delivery network) such as Voxel.net or Akamai. They will deal not only with Flash video but also with other types of video including Windows Media and some other proprietary formats. You’ll need to change the encoder setups for these, but in some cases this will be justified by better quality, and of course you completely control the distribution of your streams.

 

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