Are you serving up canned or live content at your Olympics?

While talking to Judy Kucharuk on the weekly #eventprofs happy hour hangout this week, she mentioned that she was watching the Olympic opening ceremonies live in her home in British Columbia. Our U.S. chatters were having no such luck. NBC made it hard to watch the Olympics online in the U.S.—you have to subscribe to cable-huh?-and have MSNBC and CNBC—and refused to show the opening ceremonies live, deciding to delay broadcast until “prime time” (whatever that means these days).

Doing stuff like this annoys lots of people. Indeed, many technologically savvy US citizens simply found live Olympic web streams in other countries or watched other country’s live coverage on their Roku boxes. Net result – loss of eyeballs on NBC.

Of course, we know why NBC is doing this. The company’s business model is to wrap what it decides are highlights of the Olympic Games in lucrative advertisements. The same old TV model we’ve had for years: serve up canned content, carefully packaged to maximize revenue. (Though, come to think of it, cutting out the tribute to the London terrorism victims during the opening ceremonies isn’t my idea of careful packaging.)

NBC isn’t doing what its viewers want. It’s doing what it wants, to satisfy its legacy business model. A model that is becoming more and more out of touch with what the consumers of its content—the folks who supply the eyeballs for advertisers—want.

When NBC broadcast the 2000 Olympic games, online internet streaming didn’t exist and the company had a U.S. monopoly on placing its expensive cameras around the Olympic venues. Today, every spectator can bring an inexpensive decent quality videocam, stream what they can see, and tweet commentary. (A special law was passed to make this a criminal offense; yeah, with hundreds of thousands of spectators, that’s gonna work really well.) Twelve years ago, NBC could decide how to package its coverage and get away with it because there was no alternative. Today, using the same model leads to widespread complaints and increasing defection from their content.

When spectators at an Olympic event can provide better live coverage than a $30 billion company, that company had better watch out.

What’s happening at your Olympics?
Today, the old model of providing canned content at a conference has become archaic. People no longer want to be passive spectators; they want live opportunities to connect with and be part of what’s going on. There are plenty of alternatives for broadcast content now; they don’t need to attend a face-to-face event any more to access this style of content whenever and wherever they want it.

When your conference competition can provide a real time, interactive, and relevant conference experience to attendees, a large majority will choose them over a traditional, broadcast-heavy event, no matter how slick the production values. If you’re still serving up the latter, you’d better watch out.

Using Google Hangouts On Air to stream a keynote

On May 7, 2012 Google opened up Google Hangouts On Air—a free service for broadcasting and recording live video with up to 10 participants—to all Google+ users. Six weeks later, the night before edACCESS 2012 started at the Peddie School in New Jersey, I decided to try using Google Hangouts On Air to stream and then archive the conference keynote. A couple of edACCESS old-timers who couldn’t attend in person this year had asked me if there was any way we could stream any of the “public” conference sessions, and I had nothing to lose by trying out this new technology.

Here’s what I did, what I learned, and how things turned out.

Google Hangouts On Air preparation
First I created an empty Google+ Circle and went through the process of creating a test Hangout On Air. This allowed me to get familiar with the process and check in advance for any potential problems. I was able to successfully view myself streaming, and see how the stream turned into a YouTube video once I ended the Hangout. This gave me the confidence to announce through social media channels that the stream would be available (though I neglected to figure out how to provide a link to the stream in advance).

Peddie’s charming and efficient Director of Academic Technology provided a laptop with a decent external webcam and we circled each other on Google+ so I could add her computer to the hangout on the morning of the keynote. (Important note: you cannot invite people to a hangout unless they’ve added you to one of their circles first.) I decided to use her computer to stream video and audio of the keynote speaker, and my trusty 17″ MacBook Pro with built in webcam to setup the hangout and publicize and monitor the feed.

To broadcast Hangouts on Air you must have a linked and verified YouTube account associated with your Google login. This linked account will be where the broadcast stream, and later the video recording will appear. You only need to set up this linkage once, but I strongly suggest you do so (and test it) before your first Hangout On Air. Verification is apparently necessary if you want to save a hangout that lasts longer than fifteen minutes!

Showtime!
Ten minutes before the keynote was due to begin I started a hangout in the usual way by clicking on the START A HANGOUT button on the Google+ hangouts tab. Then I added Emily to the invitee list, named the hangout, checked the option “Enable Hangouts On Air” (and agreed to the warning dialog), and clicked the Hang out button. This led to a normal-looking hangout window, with the addition of an Embed link and a Start Broadcast button at the top right.

Once Emily accepted my invitation, we were nearly good to go. Because the big picture feed in a hangout is switched to the webcam with the loudest audio, I wanted to avoid having the stream switch away from Emily’s webcam so I muted the microphone on my computer by hovering over my small video window at the bottom and clicking on the microphone icon.

But I still needed to share a link to the stream so that anyone could watch. Clicking the Embed link on the Hangout page I obtained the embed code for the stream and quickly created a blog post with the embedded keynote stream. This embedded a YouTube player onto the page, and visitors could watch the live Hangout On Air directly from the page, as well as on Google+ and my YouTube channel. (Note: once the broadcast is over, this link points automatically to the resulting YouTube video post.) I checked the blog page to ensure the video looked OK before we went live and then tweeted the page link to the blog page.

[Later I discovered that when the hangout is starting, if you right-click on the timestamp of the Google+ post that announces the hangout you will also get a link to the stream.]

We were ready!

By this time the speaker was being introduced. I clicked the Start Broadcast button and we went live.

I found that while hosting the hangout on my computer I could watch the broadcast stream, delayed by 5-10 seconds, in another browser window. Pretty cool! I also noticed that an updating count of stream viewers was displayed on the hangout page. Also cool!

After a few minutes I realized that seeing my face in a small window at the bottom of the hangout was probably distracting, so I turned off my camera.

Then I received a tweet from my friend Ruud Janssen in Switzerland(!) who was watching. He asked if I could use my camera to show the slides as the main video, moving the video of the speaker to a small window at the bottom of the screen. This made sense, so I turned my laptop round, pointed it at the slide screen, and clicked on its window to make the slides the main video for the stream. This worked well. (I should have thought of this earlier. Next time I will explore using a tool like CamTwist to pipe presenter slides directly into a hangout feed.)

Unlike a regular hangout, where any participant can override the camera switching that Google normally does, the main window for a Hangout On Air is either determined automatically from the webcam with the loudest audio or by the person streaming the hangout. So I became the camera operator. When the speaker asked for and answered questions, I chose Emily’s webcam. When he began speaking again, I returned to the slides as the main video.

We had no audience microphone, so I asked the speaker to repeat audience questions so that those following the stream could hear them and they would be available on the final YouTube video. I see no reason why next time we couldn’t add a small netbook webcam to the hangout and have a volunteer run it round as a mike (and video) for audience questions.

When the keynote was over I simply clicked End broadcast. After about ten minutes, a recorded video of the 105 minute hangout automatically posted to my YouTube channel as well as the post on my Google+ Page, and the embed post on my blog. At this point I was able to edit the video information on YouTube, where it appeared as a video in my YouTube Channel with the same title I had given the hangout. Apparently you can use YouTube’s tools to edit the video itself, provided it’s under two hours in length, but I didn’t do this.

Conclusion
Considering the small amount of preparation needed to broadcast this impromptu stream, which upon completion automatically turns into a standard permanent YouTube video, I am very pleased with the ease and quality of the result. Sure, it’s a far cry from a professional broadcast and recording, but for the cost (free!) and minimal effort required, Google Hangouts On Air provides an attractive solution for streaming and archiving events that will fill many needs. I recommend you try out this approach for a low-profile event.

Tips and resources for Google Hangouts On Air
Here are a couple of useful tips from a longer list of Hangouts On Air tips by Fraser Cain:

– You can join a Hangout twice from two different devices. This will let you put up screenshots, videos, etc in another pane.
– Create an intro screen graphic beforehand that introduces the Hangout. You’ll run this in your hangout for the first 5 minutes before you actually get started.

And here are two useful resource guides for learning more about Hangouts On Air:
Hangouts On Air Technical Guide <pdf>
Google+ support page for Hangouts On Air

Got any questions? I’ll try to answer them if I can. Have you run a Google Hangout On Air for an event? Share your experience here!

Building conference programs: lessons from the $1 million Netflix Prize

“In 2006 we announced the Netflix Prize, a machine learning and data mining competition for movie rating prediction. We offered $1 million to whoever improved the accuracy of our existing system called Cinematch by 10%.”
Netflix Recommendations: Beyond the 5 stars (Part 1) by Xavier Amatriain and Justin Basilico (Personalization Science and Engineering)

The above quote comes from an interesting blog post by two Netflix engineers who explain why the company has never fully implemented the algorithm that won the Netflix $1 Million Challenge to improve Netflix’s customer movie recommendations.

Why didn’t Netflix use the improved movie recommendation algorithm?
Although an earlier part of an earlier version of the algorithm was incorporated into the way Netflix recommends movies, by the time the prize was awarded in 2009, Netflix’s world had drastically changed:

“Netflix launched an instant streaming service in 2007, one year after the Netflix Prize began. Streaming has not only changed the way our members interact with the service, but also the type of data available to use in our algorithms. For DVDs…selection is distant in time from viewing, people select carefully because exchanging a DVD for another takes more than a day, and we get no feedback during viewing. For streaming members are looking for something great to watch right now; they can sample a few videos before settling on one, they can consume several in one session, and we can observe viewing statistics such as whether a video was watched fully or only partially.”
—Ibid

Conference program building: DVDs or streaming?
The traditional way we build conference programs is like how we order DVDs on Netflix. We decide in advance the content we want and order it from presenters. Once the conference starts we have no choice except to view the presentations we’ve ordered.

At participant-driven events, building the conference program is much closer to how we pick a streaming movie to watch on Netflix. When it’s time to settle down on the couch with our popcorn, we pick the movie we want at that moment and start to watch. Not to our liking? We can stop the stream and try something else.

Notice there are two things different about the streaming movie choice. First, we get to choose what we want to watch when we’re ready to watch it, rather than having to make a choice several days in advance. And second, we can switch to any other movie right away if what we choose isn’t to our satisfaction—an option not available with DVDs.

Netflix’s move towards streaming delivery of movies is the reason why the carefully tuned, Prize-developed-at-great-expense algorithm has been largely abandoned. It turns out that people choose different movies when they can decide what they want to watch when they’re ready to watch, and when they can change their mind if their choice is unsatisfactory.

Lessons for your event, courtesy of Netflix
Netflix’s observations parallel my experience of building conference programs. Programs that participants create at the event are noticeably different (and, in my experience, better) than those chosen in advance by a program committee. As I’ve observed before, half or more of the session topics that participants choose via the Conferences That Work design are not predicted in advance by a program committee. If program committees do such a poor job of creating conference sessions that registrants actually want to attend, perhaps you should consider replacing at least some of your conference sessions with those chosen via an effective tool like Open Space, World Café, or Conferences That Work‘s peer session sign-up.

I subscribe to both DVDs & streaming from Netflix, and notice that my DVD queue is getting shorter and shorter these days; we watch far more streaming movies than we did just a year ago. We’re not alone; Netflix streaming users now outnumber DVD subscribers 2:1. With the rise of online, providing topical, up-to-the-minute conference sessions is becoming more important than ever. Let’s plan for a streaming rather than a DVD future for our conference programs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jovino

Hat tip to the always interesting Techdirt where I first came across the Netflix article.