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How to Create Google+ Hangouts On Air: A Complete Walkthrough

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I recently presented a webinar via Google+ Hangouts On Air. Overall, the system performed well, and the presentation came off without a hitch, though the lack of iOS compatibility is a definite downer. In this article, I’ll describe what Google+ Hangouts On Air is and the procedure used to produce the webinar.

The Lay of the Land

If you’re not familiar with Google+ Hangouts On Air, here’s the quick flyover. As you may know, Google+ Hangouts is a feature of Google+ that let groups of up to ten individuals collectively videoconference, share desktops, edit Google Documents, watch YouTube videos and perform other group functions (Figure 1). It’s a free service and definitely has some nice utility on its own.


Figure 1. Here’s a Google+ Hangout.

Hangouts On Air is also free, and it lets you broadcast Google+ Hangouts to any number of viewers who can watch on YouTube (Figure 2), your Google+ page, or a YouTube player embedded in another website. The viewers can watch, and may have some interactivity with the Hangout participants depending upon where they watch, which I’ll detail below.

While we have Figure 1 in comfortable view, let’s discuss Hangout operation. All Hangout participants have roughly the same view as shown in Figure 1, absent the Cameraman option which only available for the originator. The windows on the bottom show webcams from each participant. During discussions, whoever is speaking appears in the main window that David occupies in Figure 1. The video follows the audio (more on this below). During the On Air session, only the center screen is broadcast to remote viewers, who see neither the controls on the left, nor the comments on the right.

At a high level, these concepts are easiest to understand if you remember that two different processes occur. The Hangout is the workspace where you and your guests interact, as shown in Figure 1, and a Hangout can occur without an On Air broadcast. The On Air broadcast is the streaming of the Hangout to viewers afforded limited interaction with the Hangout itself (Figure 2). You can’t have an On Air broadcast without a Hangout.

Figure 2. Here’s the Google+ Hangout broadcast to YouTube via Google+ Hangouts On Air.

The use case for the On Air feature is pretty clear. You can broadcast a single speaker live via YouTube Live or any number of other services, but if you want to broadcast a discussion involving two or more speakers, you need Hangouts On Air. In addition, YouTube Live doesn’t offer an easy way to broadcast screens or applications, which Hangouts On Air does.

As an example, the webinar that I produced covered adaptive streaming. I was joined by David Hassoun, CEO of RealEyes Media, a consultancy that implements adaptive streaming and many other video-related projects. I started with a thirty-minute PowerPoint presentation, broadcast via screen sharing, which described what adaptive streaming is and identified the technology alternatives. Then, David answered technical questions from the audience that had been emailed to me before the presentation.

Now onto how to implement a Hangout On Air.

Getting Started

To broadcast on Google+ Hangouts On Air, you’ll need both Google+ and YouTube accounts. To go beyond 15 minutes, you’ll need a YouTube account that’s been extended beyond that limitation. To start a Google Hangout On Air, login to your Google+ page, click the drop-down menu on the extreme left and choose Hangouts On Air.

Figure 3. Getting to the Hangouts On Air start page

This takes you to the Google Live Hangouts On Air page, which displays all On Air broadcasts currently under way. Once there, you should see a blue, Start a Hangout On Air, button in the upper right (Figure 4). Click the button, and, if it’s the first time you’ve run the Hangout feature, a wizard will walk you through downloading and installing the Hangouts Plugin. You may also have to agree to some terms and conditions along the way.

Figure 4. Starting the Hangout On Air

Next, you’ll be asked to name the Hangout and invite participants (Figure 5). You can invite viewers in your circles or type in email addresses. However, you don’t have to invite anyone to start the Hangout and you can invite people to join the Hangout after the Hangout begins.


Figure 5. Naming your Hangout On Air

When you click Start Hangout on Air in Figure 5, the Hangout starts and you’re taken to the interface shown in Figure 1. In the Hangout, you can chat, prepare for the broadcast. and the like. When you’re ready to start the On Air broadcast, click the Start Broadcast button on the upper right of the Hangouts interface. This appears as the End Broadcast button in Figure 1 because the broadcast has already started. 

After you click the Start Broadcast button, a message reminds you that you’ll be broadcasting publicly. Click that and the Hangout On Air goes live after a few moments of processing. In my experience, there’s about a 45 second delay between when you push the Start Broadcast button and when the video appears in YouTube or on your Google+ page. That’s because Google has to input the streams from all participants, produce the multiple iterations offered during the broadcast (and later via video-on-demand) and transmit the streams to the On Air viewers. To be clear, you shouldn’t wait 45 seconds to start talking. Instead, you should start talking right away, and the video will appear about 45 seconds later to On Air viewers.

Controlling the Hangout

Once you’re in the Hangout, a toolbar on the upper right controls most video and telephony-related functions (Figure 6). On the extreme left is a volume meter with a clipping warning. The next two icons mute audio and disable video, while the bars let you limit the bandwidth consumed by the Hangout. The gears icon opens the controls for your webcam, microphone, and speakers, while the phone icon ends the hangout.

Figure 6. Hangout controls.

Though I didn’t exhaustively explore the features available for the Hangout, several are worthy of note. You access them all on the left side of the Hangout interface (Figure 1) which I’ve duplicated as Figure 7.

From the top down, Invite People lets you add people to the Hangout, while Chat opens the chat window in the Hangout for Hangout participants only. Screenshare lets you show an application screen or full screen in the center of the Hangout, a feature I used during my discussion to display PowerPoint slides.

Figure 7. Hangout Features.

Q&A allows viewers watching on your Google+ page to ask questions during the broadcast (see Figure 8). Note that comments from YouTube do not appear in the Hangout; more on this below.

Capture grabs a screenshot of the Hangout, Cameraman lets you control the audio and video feeds from the Hangout participants, and YouTube lets you all watch the same YouTube video. Google effects include a bunch of consumer-y effects like hats and mustaches to paste over participants. View more apps lets you install additional apps, like the Hangout Toolbox, which produced the lower-third graphics shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Where to Watch?

Probably the biggest organizational challenge is figuring out where to send the On Air viewers to watch the broadcast. I marketed my webinar to my mailing list, asking recipients to register beforehand and promising to send them a day-of email with a PDF copy of the presentation and instructions for viewing the webinar. The big question was, where to tell them to view the On Air broadcast.

At a high level, you have four options; your Google+ page, the YouTube page the On Air broadcast will display within, your YouTube Live page, and an embedded player on your own website. There are three groups of variables to consider as summarized in Table 1. I’ll discuss each.

Notice Period

First is the notice period. Your Google+ Page will automatically update with the Hangout once it starts, so you can provide that URL to viewers days in advance. When viewers arrive at the page, the Hangout should be at the top of the page. There’s also a way to schedule Hangouts which I didn’t use or try -- you can read more about it.

Alternative two is to direct your viewers to the YouTube page automatically created when you start the On Air broadcast. Unfortunately, you can’t get the YouTube URL until you actually create the Hangout, which likely will be about 30 minutes before the broadcast. That makes sending the viewer to the YouTube viewing page a bad choice, because if you don’t get the email to your viewers in time, they won’t know where to watch the video. 

A better choice is your YouTube Live page, which has a fixed URL of www.youtube.com/user/username/live. For example, my YouTube Live page is www.youtube.com/user/janozer/live. You can send this URL to your viewers at anytime. Once you create the Hangout, again, usually 30 minutes in advance, the Hangout will appear on the YouTube Live page. Once it goes live, viewers can watch there; if they come to the YouTube Live page after the Hangout starts, they’ll be automatically taken directly to the specific YouTube viewing page. 

The fourth alternative is a page on your own website into which you embed the YouTube Player, using the same embed procedure used for VOD YouTube videos. While you obviously can create this page days in advance, you won’t be able to get the embed code until you actually start the Hangout. 

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