The Digital Conference- some thoughts on Live Streaming

Posted on April 4, 2015


Over the last couple of months I’ve had several conversations about the idea of a digital conference i.e. recording conferences and putting them online through videos, streaming, live interactions, etc. I have been meaning to blog about it but … life and what not. A few days ago I got the nudge I needed-

‘so do you think Meerkat & Periscope will replace filming conferences & live tweeting?’ @lornarichardson

FYI Meerkat & Periscope are brand new apps for streaming video from your smartphone. They have received lots of hype recently, though some are already declaring Meerkat dead (we hardly knew you existed).  If you are reading between the lines an app that lets you stream video seamlessly from your smartphone could potentially mean that anyone and everyone could start to stream conferences — no need to live tweet when people could just watch it.

The simple answer to Lorna’s query is ‘No’ for technical, cultural, legal reasons and the actual need for it.


Lets start with the easy stuff, the technical problems. Video is easy to do but very hard to do well.

  • The Blair Witch Effect – Shaky video sucks. I hate it when they do it in movies to try and give you the feeling of authenticity – like somehow the screen shaking really conveys getting punched in the face. Now imagine getting faked punched in the face for twenty minutes straight because that is what most videos shot on phones are like. Most people will simply feel sick after watching the videos, not the feeling you want to convey.
  • What Sort of Battery Do You Have? Can you shoot 6-8 hours of video on your phone before the battery dies?
  • Visuals – I have seen some presentation given without visual aids but those are few and far between. For the most part, when a speaker says, ‘as you can see on this map’ you really need to be able to see the map. Can you stream HD? Not with those apps. To read text or see any sort of intricate detail you will need HD video, otherwise it will be like a Rorschach test when trying to see presentation slides.
  • $$$ £££ – Streaming HD video takes about 5MB per second so you are looking at 3GB or so an hour, at least, in data use. Anyone willing to volunteer their phones data plan to cover that use? It will only set you back several hundred dollars in coverage charges from your phone company. Of course there is Wifi which is getting better but now you are at the mercy of the venue’s Wifi. Can it support several hundred people using their phones with some of them streaming? (in most cases the answer is no).

Sound, Oh My God the Sound

That is all a walk in the park compared to getting quality sound. Phone speakers are actually designed to minimise sound that is far away. They are more likely to pick up the people whispering next to you than the speaker 20m away. The truth about video is that people will forgive blur, shaky and bad visual, but they will not forgive bad sound.

Is there a solution?

You might be thinking that you have a solution for these problems and you would be right. You plug-in your phone so it won’t die. Get a stand/tripod to hold the phone. Get an external microphone to get better sound, etc. etc. Except it is not always that easy. For example, the only plug might be at the back of the room – too far away for good sound. There is a lot of friction involved in the process of streaming video which begs the question … why bother with streaming with a phone?

Any conference can now be streamed with far fewer problems than using a smartphone. You use a free and open source software like Open Broadcaster Software and put it on the conference/session computer. It screen captures the power point/ prezi on the screen and you hook up a web camera to capture the speaker. The camera or mic will be close enough to the speaker to get decent sound. There are issues with camera angles and you must have your speaker stay stationary but overall easier than smartphones.

In terms of technical work I don’t see many advantages to  Meerkat & Periscope over what we can already do. In fact, they add more issues like not being able to screen capture or stream in HD. The few areas where they might be better is if you can’t add software to the conference computer. Maybe you don’t have a webcam but do have a smartphone. In a few areas that might be better but the quality of the broadcast will suffer.

So You Want to be Sued

Ok, lets pretend in 10 years time all of those technical problems are solved. There is an app that streams HD and captures the screen of a computer. Your phone has an amazing mic, comes with a stand, batteries last 20 hours of streaming, and data plans are 1 terabyte etc. etc. It still is not going to solve your legal problems. Every country has its own Copyright laws which means there are about 200+ different laws around the world. Some have exceptions for presentations like those at conferences so you can have copyright material in your presentations. However, that protection pretty much disappears as soon as you publish it – like with streaming (also if you post your slides online).

The music industry has done a very good job of convincing people that downloading music, movies, etc. is illegal i.e. illegal downloads. In some countries it is but in the US it is not. Let me repeat that it is not illegal to download copyright material. A few years ago when they went after “illegal downloads” they actually went after people who used software to download music but unknown to them that software turned around and shared that music with others i.e publishing it. Publishing copyright material is illegal – consuming it in most countries is not. Though thanks to some very good wording in press releases organisations like Disney has convinced you that the download is illegal.

But here is the problem with streaming – the streamer is the publisher. The moment you push the publish button on any website you are accepting the risk for copyright violation or your employer is. If the speaker uses copyright material you are the one who is going to get sued as the publisher. The details of this would be a whole other post on copyright, but I would not encourage anyone to stream or video anything without first doing some heavy investigation into copyright law.

Changing Cultural, Good Luck

Lets pretend that technical problems are solved and so are the copyright issues, you now have to change the culture.

People Don’t Want to Be Filmed

Except for a few occasions in almost every conference I have filmed there is always at least one person who does not want to be filmed. There are many reasons for that, camera shy, “unpublished data”, etc. In other disciplines like computer science where papers are written before the conference and published within a month of giving it the problem of “un-published data” seems to be less of a concern but there are still many people who are camera shy.

And on  some occasions people don’t want their presentations tweeted that tends to be very rare.

Giving Up Control

When I video record conferences I let the speakers see the videos before I post them and occasionally they ask for changes to the video.  Changes are relatively rare but requests to see the videos before they are published are not. Being able to approve videos puts many people at ease and I suspect with live streaming you will have fewer people willing to do it without the ability to control the output.

 What Gets Said Behind Closed Doors

Sometimes you feel comfortable saying stuff to friends or small groups but don’t want your words repeated to a wider audience. Maybe when you are slagging off an organisation or person? Most of the time the offenders don’t what a record of that.

At the end of the day you will have lots of resistance to live streaming. Yes, we can slowly change that but it will take a long time. Moreover some things such as stage fright you might never be able to overcome.

Demand and Use

Hypothetically, lets say we solve all the above problems – who will watch these streams? One of the great things about conferences is that you take off school, work, etc. to go to a specific location to watch presentations and in many cases your work pays you to do that. They do that because usually you are also presenting at the conference — money has been put aside for this. Very few employers will give you the time off to watch a stream and not present. Who is going to get the time off from classes, work, and life in general to watch live streaming? Moreover, live streaming only works if you are relatively close in location to the conferences so that timings work out. Are you going to get up at 3 in the morning to watch an Archaeology conference that is somewhere else in the world?

I have done streaming and you might reach an additional dozen or so people. This is great because they could not attend the event, but I reach hundreds with edited videos because people can watch them later in their pajamas drinking their weekend coffee or on the bus ride home or when they are bored at work and the boss is out. In my opinion live streaming is a lot of work for very little reward and I am not sure what problem it is trying to solve. Why do you need to watch a presentation live?

As long as you don’t post pictures of slides on Twitter – live tweeting a presentation pretty much avoids copyright issues. Twitter works even with bad Wifi. You can read tweets later and it does not need to be live. I don’t see any advantage streaming video, via a smartphone or any other method, has over recorded and edited videos or even live tweeting in most instances.

I have more thoughts on digital conferences in general but will save them for other posts.

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