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Review: Panopto Lecture Capture and Webcasting System
This software-as-a-service solution lets companies and educators create libraries of on-demand content, or stream live to employees or students. We find it well-conceived, but difficult with longer files.
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The increasing acceleration of worker turnover makes knowledge capture and management a critical function for most organizations, large and small. Even organizations blessed with low turnover can benefit from capturing information detailed in presentations, webinars, and less formal meetings for archiving, sharing, and training.

Like most video-related functions, however, knowledge capture has been vastly decentralized during the last 5–10 years. In 2000, for example, the corporate video department had to shoot and capture an executive presentation or training session. Today, anyone with a webcam can host a webinar or present some form of training. For this reason, organizations considering a knowledge capture and management system should move products and services that don’t require a proprietary capture station to the top of the list. Panopto is one such company.

As an introduction, Panopto (company and product name) is a lecture capture/webcasting system that creates a library of videos for public or private viewing. You perform all capture on standard computers or mobile devices, so there’s no proprietary capture stations to buy. Capture options are unusually flexible; for example, you can capture multiple inputs during the live event, such as multiple video cameras, PowerPoints, and screencasts, and maintain them as separate objects for later integration into on-demand presentations. PowerPoint slides are input as text, making it simple to index presentations by slide and to search within a presentation for relevant information.

Once captured, viewers can access video in the library via computers and mobile devices, and logins and video views can be integrated with different learning management systems and Active Directory-compatible portals. On-demand and live videos can also be made available for general web viewing on computers, though notably, mobile devices can’t view live webcasts at this time.

In terms of pricing, Panopto is offered as a SaaS, with per-user pricing starting at around $50 and dropping significantly for very large numbers of customers. In the corporate market, you pay for both viewers and producers; if you have 10 producers and 500 viewers, you pay for 510 licenses. In the educational market, you only pay for producers; students can view for free.

Overall, Panopto was very well-conceived, and in general, is very easy to use for both presenter and viewer. One key differentiating feature, however, is the ability to input video from multiple sources, such as a document camera or extra webcam. I found this feature challenging to use both during the presentation and when preparing content for distribution; I explain why near the end of this review.

From a high-level technology perspective, Panopto chose Silverlight as its recording, management, and playback platform, which generally worked well in my tests, but may force potential viewers to download the Silverlight player. While acceptable within the enterprise, it’s a negative for those seeking to use the system for external viewers, many of whom won’t have the Silverlight player installed. In addition, recording capabilities vary in both functionality and interface on Windows and the Mac, with the Mac the red-headed stepchild. As you’ll read, if the Mac is your primary platform for live webcasting, Panopto is not for you, at least in the short term.

Panopto is transiting to HLS and DASH this year, which means the end of Silverlight, and also hopes to provide identical form and function on its Mac and Windows clients by the end of 2014, as well as mobile viewing of live events. So the company obviously has a lot of critical development tasks on its plate, and much of what you see in this review will look a little different by the end of 2014. With this as prologue, I’ll walk you through the various ways you can create, deploy, search for, and playback content from the Panopto system.

Creating Content on Panopto

As with most SaaS offerings, you enter the service by logging in with a browser. You start all content creation activities on Panopto by clicking the Create button in the main interface. As you can see in Figure 1, there are five different ways to create content, which I’ll run through in the following sections.

Figure 1. Creating a recording in Panopto

You can record a new session on both Mac and Windows clients, though you can only produce a live session (or webcast) on a Windows client. Click Record a new session, and you’ll be shown download links for either the Mac or Windows Recorder; once that’s downloaded and installed, you’re ready to record.

The Windows Recorder (Figure 2) is more visually similar to the actual presentation than the Mac Recorder (Figure 3), which makes it more intuitive. On the Windows client, you configure the Primary presentation source, typically a webcam, separately from the secondary sources, which can be PowerPoint, your desktop, or a document camera or other video source. Webcam options range from 320x240 to 720p at a maximum data rate for that component of 1.5Mbps. Depending upon which setting you choose, Panopto will encode the video file into two (Standard quality) or three (High and Ultra) streams for adaptive delivery. Your secondary screen can stretch as large as you care to make it, though Panopto recommends the settings shown in Figure 2, 1280x800, 500Kbps and about 10 frames per second.

Figure 2. Here’s the Windows Panopto Recorder. 

Figure 3. The Mac client isn’t as logical or functional as the Windows client. 

Once you’ve got all of your sources ready and configured, you press the Record button (Windows) or Start Recording button (Mac) to start broadcasting. Then you start talking, and use normal commands to view your PowerPoint slides or an application that you’re demonstrating (Figure 4). At this point, the Recorder is not in view, though any questions asked by the live audience will pop up so you know to address them.

Figure 4. Here’s what a presentation looks like during viewing

During the live event, all video sources, including screen capture, are streamed to the Panopto servers, so viewers can switch between them during the event. If you have multiple input sources, such as a webcam, screen capture, and one or more document cameras, you have to stream them all out separately, so outbound bandwidth requirements bear watching.

Panopto also stores higher-quality versions of the streams to hard disk during the event. These are later uploaded to the Panopto servers to serve as the basis for the on-demand presentations. More on this later.

Not surprisingly given the reliance on Silverlight, Panopto captures in the Windows Media format using the VC-1 codec, converting the streams to H.264 for delivery to mobile and for all the desktop streams that I could check. I’m sure that Panopto will change over to H.264 during its switch to HLS/DASH.

More Content Sources

Working down the list of ways to create content in Figure 1, the next technique is to upload a video file, which is as simple as it sounds. Note that you can drag and drop multiple files simultaneously, a nice convenience for those transitioning into the Panopto system or who otherwise need to upload lots of content. As with all content in Panopto, once uploaded, you can add descriptive information or captions, or elect to have Panopto transcribe the video at a cost of $2.75/minute for 2-day turnaround. Captions added to the file also become searchable.

To create a live webcast, you choose this option in the Create menu, which opens a screen for the name and description of the event, with an “Anyone on the web can see this” check box for making the event public. Once checked, the system hands you a public URL you can distribute for general internet viewing. You can also grab a code to embed the Panopto player into your website for viewing there.

When it’s time for the event, you run the Panopto Recorder (Windows only), and choose that event in a drop-down list -- no, you can’t produce a live webcast on the Mac version, though you can record a presentation. Then click Record on the Windows Panopto Recorder to start the event as normal, and the incoming streams are fed through this event.

For scheduled recordings on other systems, you would need to first configure the remote recorder into the system. Then setting up the event is similar to creating a recording as discussed above, except that you insert a future date and time into the event creation screen.

Combining Video and PowerPoint

Even after you start using Panopto, there will probably be times when you can’t use the system to record an event, such as informal events where you can bring a video camera but not a notebook or desktop or videos captured with a mobile device. For this, Panopto provides an editor for integrating uploaded video with a PowerPoint deck. I tested this with a presentation from the Streaming Media Europe conference in 2012 and found it unintuitive and painful.

The browser-based editor (Figure 5) works by downloading a very low-quality video stream and low-quality slide images into the editor. You play the video, and then click an Add button next to each slide when you want to add one to the presentation. Rather than simply inserting the slide at that point, and moving on, you have to click the playhead in the timeline to insert the slide. Not a huge burden, but it is definitely an unnecessary step, multiplied by 60 for each slide in the 1-hour presentation.

 Figure 5. The Panopto editor was clunky when integrating video and slides. 

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