A new generation of hardware is making it easier than ever to record, manage and distribute almost any type of presentation.
No matter where you work, by now you've probably seen a presentation of some kind online or remotely via videoconference. Maybe it was an archived keynote address from a large conference that you missed. Or maybe it was a lecture or business training lesson. In any case, if you couldn't be there live, and sometimes even if you were, that visual archive can often be a helpful resource. And in any case, it's certainly better than just a printout of the slides.
The technology for capturing and playing back those presentations has, of course, been around for several years now. However, it's not just for keynote addresses and other high-profile or special-event presentations anymore. Delivering presentations digitally is also becoming practical for traditional business settings thanks to an emerging category of rich-media capture tools and servers.
There are a variety of products to meet different needs and uses, including audiovisual and slide-oriented capture methods, and hardware- and software-based servers. All, however, are designed to be integrated seamlessly into a conventional business infrastructure and to make recording and distributing video a lot easier.
Today's more-affordable, easier-to-use camcorders and more-accessible editing systems have made creating polished video programs much more practical than it once was. But it still takes time and talent to achieve acceptable, television-like quality. Yet today's "video appliances" offer a more straightforward way to use digital video than trying to emulate Hollywood. Instead of traditional video production, these tools make it easy to record, save and replay person-to-person presentations and other visual communications that are already a part of business.
Video appliances, like their household namesakes, are typically designed to plug in and do a job, often with one-button simplicity and without the barriers of creating polished videos. Advanced Media Designs' MediaPointe recorders are a great example. Imagine a videoconferencing station in a corporate office that's used for live visual communication. Now picture a black box, digital, VCR-like device with a single button on the front sitting next to the videoconferencing equipment. That button is the Record and Stop button. Any time you have a quarterly financials videoconference, a CEO's address or product-update training from a remote R&D office, all you have to do is push Record and the videoconference is automatically saved to a server for future review or streaming to other desktops live. Press the button again at the end of the presentation to stop recording.
There are actually several MediaPointe flavors depending on your potential needs, and all are just as easy to use. The MediaPointe digital-media recorder series — DMR100, DMR200 and DMR300 — all record the visual part of a presentation in either an MPEG-4 or Windows Media 9 format and save it to a file or stream it to another IP address for real-time viewing, or both. The DMR100 records standard-resolution video as a Windows Media 9 file, while the DMR200 allows for higher resolutions (a CAD desktop, for example) and captures to MPEG-4. The DMR300 can record two streams of video, both parties in the videoconference, and can separately save any presentation slides or other images as JPEG still images, offering a variety of layout templates for positioning and synchronizing the various elements. Advanced Media Designs also has recorder appliances that only capture presentation stills from a videoconference or a desktop computer screen, again with one-button simplicity.
Sonic Foundry has recently announced a similar videoconferencing recorder to augment its Mediasite brand. The Mediasite VL400 recorder integrates with existing videoconferencing equipment and, like the MediaPointe DMR300, captures both streams of a video call. Sonic Foundry's RL440, on the other hand, brings single-button simplicity to conference-room or meeting-room installations that already have a video camera and audio feed. Hitting the Record button on the RL440 (or controlling it by any common Crestron or AMX touchpanel) automatically captures and streams (and/or stores) the live, in-room presentation. It can even burn a presentation to a CD-ROM immediately after it's ended.
If you're already familiar with the Mediasite brand, it's likely because of Sonic Foundry's portable Mediasite Live application and its original field-unit portable computer hardware, now called the Mediasite ML. Mediasite ML hardware is similar to the company's RL440, but geared toward presentation-recording at remote locations. Mediasite Live is the software interface for recording the video and audio, but it also independently captures presentation slides, complete with templates and positioning options for synchronizing elements. The system was designed to be so straightforward that the presenter can operate it directly, but it does require some technical configuration, and a second person helps. When tied to a Mediasite server, Mediasite Live can even assist a presenter, both because of its slide automation and through its online Q & A polling capability.
Throw a VBrick at it
VBrick Systems takes a much different approach to saving and distributing video-based presentation content. VBricks are MPEG-based video appliances that convert traditional audiovisual source inputs — whether it's a live camcorder shooting a presentation or seminar, or a recorded video source — into IP data for transport over an existing IP network for storage or playback elsewhere. VBricks come in a variety of configurations that can include MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 encoding and/or decoding. They have standard AV jacks for inputs and an Ethernet port for output (and vice-versa for the decoder on the receiving end) and can send live video across local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs) to anywhere in the world. VBricks can also simultaneously send that video to a server for real-time recording and future playback.
With two encoder/decoder VBricks connected over a WAN, you'd literally have an always-on, two-way, television-quality visual-communication system. However, VBricks are more consistently used in distance-learning, surveillance and remote-training applications that require only one-way video, using an encoder on the source end and a decoder attached to a large-screen monitor on the viewing end. In all cases, the VBrick devices are designed to be easily plugged in, quickly configured and often left alone to do the job. And in all cases they can send a real-time stream to a server for archival storage and on-demand viewing. Some also offer capture, local storage, and automatic file-forwarding functionality.
Down in the valley
As a capture device, Grass Valley's Turbo iDDR (for Intelligent Digital Disc Recorder) is the most like a living room, Tivo-style personal video recorder, which isn't surprising given Grass Valley's pedigree in the broadcast-video world. The Turbo, however, is designed specifically for the AV industry as a digital disc recorder and player for larger-scale presentations. It has storage for up to 40 hours of built-in, standard-definition video (or 10 hours of high-definition video) and features standard professional-level audio and video inputs — SDI, component video, S-Video, composite video and DVI, as well as XLR and S/PDIF audio — for recording media directly. It can also import media in a variety of formats — DV, GXF, MPEG, QuickTime and Windows Media — via 100Base-T, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire and USB 2.0. And, as a self-contained server, it can simultaneously record one stream and play back any two video streams captured to its drives or imported from other digital sources.
Play it back
All of these video- and presentation-capture devices leverage digital video technology to dramatically simplify the process of capturing and saving business-oriented visual assets. But that's only half of the equation.
Like any other type of data, for on-demand access, media data has to be managed and distributed by a computer server. And, generally speaking, digital video and audio have become additional data types that have added to the demand for increasingly powerful computers and servers to do the processing. However, there's a caveat, particularly with motion video: It requires special handling if it's going to work in an acceptable manner. For example, waiting an extra second to access a spreadsheet across the network is hardly noticeable, but wait that long for the next frame of video and you've got a stuttering, jerky picture. A video server must also manage media files typically beyond a simple tree list of files.
In addition to being a video- and audio-capture station, Grass Valley's Turbo iDDR is such a server. Actually, it's more a cross between a traditional, professional VTR — with a jog/shuttle knob and Play, FF, REV and Pause buttons on the front — and a traditional computer server with built-in storage. On the one hand you can preview and identify clips, trim and edit them, and even create a simple play list, all using the Turbo's front LCD panel, much the way you'd use an old VTR/video monitor combination. On the other hand, the Turbo connects to a standard Windows desktop computer to offer expanded control of its front-panel functionality, which includes image cropping, play-list support and scheduling, and media management. Because the Turbo is a computer, it has no trouble working with video material captured through its own AV inputs or with media files that have been imported from another digital source, in formats such as DV, HDV, MPEG, QuickTime, Windows Media and WM HD.
Serve it up
Advanced Media Designs, Sonic Foundry and VBrick also have server products in their respective product families; each is a software-based media server application designed to run on standard Windows/Intel server hardware. All feature similar media-management tools with the goal of allowing non-IT and non-AV personnel to access files (assuming proper security clearance and access rights), enabling wider use of video and presentation assets. However, each is designed for different purposes and has different functionality.
Sonic Foundry's Mediasite LX Server supports the quick and easy Web-publishing of Mediasite presentations, including support for both archived and multicast streaming of live presentations. For those live presentations, the LX Server can add real-time, interactive polling, question-and-answer moderation for a presenter, and the synchronization of video and slides regardless of network latency. For stored presentations, Mediasite can group and manage presentations as catalogued courses. There's also tracking and reporting support for published and viewed streams, all with multiple levels of security access. An optional MediaLandscape feature gives Mediasite LX the ability to convert rich-media presentations into the Macromedia Flash format.
On the other hand, Advanced Media Designs' Conferserv Media Management Server is oriented more toward the videoconferencing functionality of other MediaPointe recorders. The Conferserv server is designed to act more as a repository of presentation slides to be used during a future presentation. In this case, the server encodes video from a local videoconference station and marries it with previously stored slides. The two are positioned in a template and sent as a rich-media presentation of video and slides over the Internet to a recipient at an authorized IP address.
Like WebEx, only not
That might sound similar to the Internet-based presentations offered by companies such as WebEx, and it is in a way, although there are a few important differences. WebEx is a service rather than a product, and sessions are billed on a per-use or subscription basis. Conferserv and MediaPointe are for-purchase products that provide some similar capabilities without the additional charges (beyond Internet connectivity). And, WebEx typically works in conjunction with a telephone for audio, with the presenter simply controlling the advancement of the slides. Conferserv delivers video and audio, as well as slides, from the presenter.
VBrick's EtherneTV-MCS media-control server is a companion to VBrick's encoders and decoders. The EtherneTV-MCS acts as a Web-based management and program guide for MPEG-video assets stored on a video server or content that can be scheduled to stream live at some future date and time. Like Grass Valley's Turbo, EtherneTV isn't limited to proprietary streams and it can also store and distribute presentation slides, PDFs, Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, as well as HTML pages.
In a way, the EtherneTV's program guide may be reminiscent of Cisco's IPTV guide from the mid-1990s. The difference is that the digital-video industry has had a decade to mature, and its manufacturers are now building solutions that go well beyond the conventional uses for digital video. For the presentation and AV-communications industries, that's starting to mean products that are tailored to specific needs and uses. And, the increasing size of the communications industry is catching the eyes of traditional video companies like Grass Valley.
Rich media for the rest of us
Like many other types of integrated computer solutions, the MediaPointe, Mediasite and VBrick product lines aren't particularly earth-
shaking for what they actually do. The technology for streaming and archiving rich media has been around for a decade, and many generic video-capture-card configurations and standard file servers can be configured to achieve similar results. However, until recently, actually producing rich media has taken a lot more technical savvy than is typically practical for solving the everyday problems of business professionals. These types of targeted, specially designed solutions help remove those barriers, giving even the most technically challenged presenters a way to record, manage and distribute their genius.
Jeff Sauer is an industry expert who has been covering digital video for more than a decade. He is a video producer and consultant based in Pepperell, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.