This past weekend, I was involved in a pretty cool project call The Deconstruction, the brainchild of creative collaborist Jason Naumoff.
What is the Deconstruction? It is a game about re-thinking the world as we know it, taking it apart, making a few adjustments, then putting it back together a little awesomer-er. It’s a light-hearted competition, but it’s really more of a large-scale collaboration between friends, participants, and the public. The concept is to make the world a slightly better, more fun, and more interesting place over 48 hours.
Yes, that’s an aspirational tall order, but we pulled it off with the help of over 60 participating teams spread across six continents. The winners have yet to be officially announced, though one lucky team will walk away with a Full Spectrum laser cutter.
My role in the Deconstruction was to put together the live stream infrastructure and production. Similar to the Red Bull Creation project that I helped Jason with last year, this was to be a distributed happening. Each participating team was encouraged to live stream the builds of their creations and update their team page on the official Deconstruction site.
We setup a home base at the studios of Synergize Live here in San Francisco. Alan, who runs the space, already had much of the streaming infrastructure in place. A multi-camera studio set with a green screen, live video switchers, encoders, monitors and plenty of decent bandwidth.
The plan was to have our hosts here on set communicate often with various team members from around the globe throughout the 48 hour challenge. To do this, we needed to make a variety of technologies work well together. In the mix, on the video side, were Skype, Facetime, Google+ Hangouts, Justin.tv, Ustream, Livestream, Black Magic, Wirecast and Resolume Avenue.
We brought in several Mac Minis that would serve as media hubs for communicating directly with remote teams over Skype and Facetime. Based on our experiences with Red Bull Creation, we knew what we needed to do to make this work. We took the HDMI output of the Mac Mins and fed them into a live video switcher (a tower PC with several Black Magic video capture cards running Resolume Avenue) and did a little mix-minus magic on the incoming and outgoing audio feeds. This allowed our producers to make “calls” to remote team members and then bring them in live so the local hosts could communicate with them on the virtual set. It’s similar to what you might see on a newscast when anchors communicate with remote reporters in the field, though without expensive satellite trucks.
Remote teams could use whatever live stream platform they wanted, though we encouraged them to use Justin.tv if they didn’t already have an account somewhere. We made this choice because it’s easy for users to setup and stream for free. While free does mean Justin.tv inserts annoying pre-roll and mid-roll ads (as does Ustream) we were able to avoid seeing them by paying $10 for a Justin.tv Pro account. Ustream also allows for paid removal of ads, but from the broadcaster side at much greater expense. This gave us a way to inexpensively host team feeds and let us cut to them without having to worry about ads popping up mid broadcast.
We used Livestream’s “new Livestream” product for the main produced live stream which we embedded on the front page of the Deconstruction site. This worked reasonably well, though we weren’t happy with their text based chat system. While the new Livestream text chat looks good and is attached to the player, there is no way to embed it without the additional event page chrome. Also, their text chat requires a user to create a Livestream account and it censors links automatically, which sucks.
We did have the intention of making use of Google+ Hangouts and Hangouts on Air as our primary way to communicate with remote teams, but we ran into several roadblocks. The primary problem being that Hangouts wouldn’t recognize our capture card in the live encoder. Hangouts is really meant to work with webcams and doesn’t give you much control over input options. A second big issue is that if you push a Hangout to a Hangouts on Air, which is essentially a live YouTube feed, there is no persistent URL. Also, Hangouts are limited to 4 hours. We worked with our friends at Google to try and make this work for us, but the product just isn’t ready for the type of event we wanted to pull off. We’ll revisit Google+ Hangouts next time.
All told, we pulled off a successful global decentralized, multi-participant fun live event using an assortment of disperate technologies. Have a look at some of the final videos of what people built over those 48 hours.