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Review: Epiphan Pearl Production Switcher

Here's a look at how the Epiphan Pearl Production Switcher performed under pressure on live-switched keynotes at the Computers in Libraries 2016 conference in Washington, DC.

With limited budget, no crew, and keynotes to stream at five conferences per year, upgrading my streaming setup has been a slow process for me. I did my first few streams single-camera using the Livestream Broadcaster. The Broadcaster, like the Teradek Cube (which it strongly resembles), is a handy little box that connects to your camera via HDMI and proved very easy to set up and use and extremely reliable for me. The problem with my Broadcaster streams was the single-source setup, which meant I had to either follow the presenter and ignore the presentation, capture both in the same shot (and neither very well), or to swing the camera over to the screen every time the presenter advanced the slide deck.

Generally, the approach I followed was to show the presenter only, capture the slide deck separately, and get a quickly assembled, composited version online as soon as possible after the keynote to erase all memory of the single-source version. Given my other production responsibilities at these conferences, and the glacial pace of video uploads at conference hotels, “as soon as possible” wasn’t always fast enough: As one keynoter told me in 2014 after seeing the single-cam archived stream online just after his keynote, “I had 247 slides that were integral to my presentation! You’ve cost me a TED Talk!”

Not knowing I had such power, I vowed then and there never to cost anyone a TED Talk again. My next setup involved a couple of variations on the Epiphan Video Grabber devices, which connect DVI sources to a laptop via USB 3.0 for switching or compositing in Telestream Wirecast. Since my cameras output HDMI and HD-SDI, and I typically get a presentation via a split VGA signal from the presenter’s laptop, this setup also required a couple of small adapters to convert the signal to DVI, but it generally worked pretty well when I didn’t have both sources connected to the same USB bus.

But this setup became less reliable in practice the more times I had to disconnect and reconnect the devices, and the camera signal captured via HDMI and converted to DVI always seemed to lose some vibrancy in translation (Figure 1, below). But certainly, for a sub-$1000 solution (including the 2 units and the Wirecast Pro software), this bundle proved a very cost-effective way to deliver a competent live-switched stream, and by and large, the critics were kind.

Figure 1. On the left, the image of a conference panel captured to SDHC in 50Mbps XAVC by the Sony PXW-X70; on the right, the same image (roughly) captured by the Epiphan via HDMI/DVI/USB to Wirecast Pro and recorded at Wirecast’s uncompressed setting. Note the muted colors and lost sharpness in the image on the right. Click the image to see it at full size.

Enter the Epiphan Pearl

When an Epiphan representative saw me using the setup to live-switch two-camera booth interviews at Streaming Media West last November, he offered to loan me a review unit of the Epiphan Pearl (Figure 2, below), a full-featured production video switcher that takes two SDI, two HDMI, and two VGA inputs, and allows the user to switch and stream them and record ISO and program feeds as well.

Figure 2. The Epiphan Pearl Production Video Switcher (MSRP $4875)

Jan Ozer did a useful tutorial on how to operate the Pearl for Streaming Media Producer last September. Jan produced his tutorial within the friendly confines of his own home office; I wanted to test it out in the field at the Computers in Libraries 2016 conference, in front of an unforgiving live online audience and at least one high-profile keynoter whose future TED Talk eligibility might hang in the balance (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. Dave Snowden, CSO Cognitive Edge, presenting his live-streamed opening keynote at Computers in Libraries 2016. The Pearl is streaming and recording. Click the image to see it at full size.

As Jan described in his tutorial, you can switch media sources on the Pearl using its built-in touchscreen, but the real action happens in the web interface, which you access by connecting the Pearl via Ethernet, going to System Status, noting the IP Address shown, and then typing the following into your browser: (or whatever address appears there plus /admin), then logging in as admin (no password required unless you set one).

Epiphan recommends connecting your laptop to the Pearl via wireless. At the event venue where I tested it, my in-house A/V tech told me that a firewall would prevent me from connecting to the network set up for the stream via wireless, so he had to provide me with an Ethernet switch so that I would have a hardwired connection to both my laptop and the Pearl. If you’re taking the Pearl on the road, I recommend bringing one along in case it isn’t readily available.

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Jan Ozer demonstrates how even the most non-technical user can pull off a live-switched stream with the Epiphan Pearl streaming appliance.