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Review: Panopto Lecture Capture and Webcasting System

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Even worse, on the two machines on which I tried this procedure, one a brand-new HP Z1 all-in-one workstation running Windows 8, the other a Mac Pro, after adding a slide or two, the video window disappeared into a white screen. That is, the video window shown on the upper left in Figure 5 would turn white, and you had to save the edits, refresh the browser window, and pick up where you left off. This was complicated by an overly twitchy video playhead that made it difficult to scan to a specific spot in the video.

I was testing with a 60-minute video file, which perhaps was the source of my problem because the editor was much more responsive in the shorter webcasts that I edited. Still, if you’re integrating long-form videos with PowerPoint slides in the editor, you may be in for a frustrating time.

Mobile Recording

Panopto offers a free iOS app that lets you record videos and then upload them to the server, after which you can present them stand-alone or integrate them with other presentation elements. This function worked well on my iPhone 4S. Note that Panopto has an Android app in the works for later 2014 delivery that will provide similar functionality for that platform.

Viewing Panopto

So far, we’ve concentrated on the creation side. Now let’s turn our attention to viewing. Overall, searching for and finding live and on-demand content to watch in the video library is straightforward on both desktop/notebooks and mobile clients. Actually watching the events is where things can get a little hairy, particularly if you add a third source such as a document camera into the mix. But let’s start with the default experience that most viewers will have.

The live experience is shown in Figure 6. Beneath the webcam on the left, you can add private notes or public comments, or read information about the webcast. You ask questions by typing them into the Ask a question field beneath the slides. Note that there’s only one tab in the upper left of the larger player window on the right, labeled Screen Capture.

Figure 6. Here’s the live experience.

The corresponding on-demand presentation is shown in Figure 7. During the presentation, Panopto monitors when you change slides, creating index points that appear in the Contents tab beneath the player and also the thumbnails beneath the main player window on the right. All text, also pulled from the slide, is searchable in the Search tab, along with captions or any other metadata.

Figure 7. Here’s the on-demand experience of a live webinar (or recorded presentation). 

Again, all this is pretty straightforward. The only concern is in the main viewing window on the right, specifically the two tabs on the upper left for Slides and Screen Capture. The Slides tab shows the PowerPoint slides, while Screen Capture shows what was shown in the same window during the live webinar. If a viewer clicks the Slides tab for some reason, they may miss action taking place in the Screen Capture tab. Since the Slides tab performs no useful purpose that I can see, Panopto should consider removing it or at least allowing users and producers the option to remove it. Either way, it’s probably not a big deal.

Paradoxically, the situation for mobile viewers of on-demand content is much cleaner. That is, on tablets, all they see is the Screen Capture content with the webcam on the upper left, similar to what you see in Figure 6, except there are no tabs, just the content. On smartphones, the webcam window gets embedded on the lower right, outside the Screen Capture content, so there’s no obscured content.

The potential for problems and confusion gets much more serious when you add a document camera or other source into the picture (Figure 8). During the event itself, Panopto displays another tab for Object Video in the main window, which contains the document camera. As presenter, you have no simple way to direct which tab the viewer watches; if you’re switching back and forth between your desktop and the document viewer, you have to instruct viewers to do the same. Or, within the Panopto interface, you can add the document camera to the presentation when you want to show documents, and delete it from the presentation when you’re done with it. This would open the Object Video tab while the document camera was configured in, and delete the tab and return to the Screen Capture tab when it’s removed.

Figure 8. A live webcast -- you have to tell the viewer to switch tabs to watch the correct stream.

Both of these solutions are awkward and error-prone; Panopto needs a simpler mechanism to allow the presenter to control what the viewer actually sees. For example, webcast systems such as Go To Webinar or Google Plus Hangouts typically record and transmit what’s showing on the screen, a much simpler approach. While you don’t maintain the screen and document camera as separate inputs for subsequent editing, I’m not sure this is useful to most presenters, who typically want to edit as little as possible.

On-demand viewing of a webinar recorded with a second video source is even more confusing, as shown in Figure 9. Unless you edit the second video in and out after the presentation, the viewers will be forced to manually change the tabs themselves to view the right stream. On mobile devices, where the tabs aren’t available, they’ll only see the document camera unless and until you edit the event.

Figure 9. Until you edit the event, the viewer has multiple viewing choices that won’t automatically switch. 

Editing would have been easier to manage if the Panopto editor was straightforward, but I found the tool very unintuitive and lacking expected niceties such as an undo button (Figure 10). In theory, editing should be simple; you edit out what you don’t want on the respective timelines and you’re done. But that wasn’t the case in my use, and the multiple tabs in the main player window (Screen, Object, Object, Slides) made it very difficult to understand what the viewer will actually see and when. While operations such as deleting heads and tails from the session are simple, I found steps beyond that very challenging.

Figure 10. I found the Panopto editor very challenging.

Fortunately, if you need to show a document camera or other video source, there’s a simple workaround: Don’t configure it as a separate source within Panopto; just show the input from your desktop in a separate viewing application, where it will be recorded and streamed as part of the screen capture. While this won’t save the input as a separate editable stream, it will vastly simplify both the live event and any postevent editing.

Again, if you’re not interested in adding a document camera or similar source to the mix, the last 500 words of criticism are largely irrelevant; your viewers will see what you want them to see during the live webcast and when viewing the on-demand version, with no editing required. But if you are interested in this feature, keep in mind that it may be challenging to use both during and after the webcast.

Overall, if you’re considering a learning capture system, you should check Panopto out; the economics of a system that doesn’t require proprietary hardware capture stations is simply too compelling. However, be sure to go into the evaluation with a very well-formed view of the types of presentations you’ll be producing, and determine the precise workflow necessary both during and after the presentation to achieve the desired result.

This article appears in the April, 2014, issue of Streaming Media magazine.

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