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Streaming Media's Gear of the Year, 2014-15

The 12 products and technologies described in this article reflect what four of our writers found when they unraveled the industry developments of the past 12 months and picked Streaming Media's Gear of the Year.

Anthony Burokas' Picks

Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4

4K was the big news at CES 2015, and it will be most assuredly at NAB this year as camera companies move forward in delivering the 4K cameras they teased or announced in 2014. Meanwhile, one camera has been delivering delicious 4K video for over a year now: Panasonic’s DMC-GH4 (Figure 1, below), which debuted in early 2014 for $1,700. This was the fourth version of Panasonic’s top-of-the-line GH-series camera, but just one of dozens of Micro 4/3 cameras from Panasonic and Olympus in recent years.

panasonic gh4

Figure 1. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4

While it was soon followed by the low-light master, the Sony a7S, the Sony can record only HD internally. It requires an external recorder that costs more than the GH4 in order to record 4K at all. Meanwhile, the GH4 records DCI p24, UHD p24, UHD p30, and HD in frame rates up to 96 fps.

Right out of the box, the GH4 gave end users the ability to stabilize in post, zoom, crop, reframe, or just squeeze down the 4K footage to a 1080p frame and have some of the cleanest, highest resolution HD that's possible at this time. Add a battery that can go nearly all day and the Micro 4/3 format that can adapt to almost any lens made, and you have a very capable production tool for today and tomorrow.

Is 4K really viable (or necessary) for streaming? We could have asked the same question about HD a few years ago. While SD may still be the predominant webcast resolution, we see more HD streams all the time, such as Yahoo Live Nation “broadcasting” a live concert every single day in HD to smart TVs and streaming boxes that now fill more homes than ever. Bandwidth will only increase. Compression will only get more efficient. Higher-end production tools ensure your product is ready for the future.

Video Mixer: NewTek TriCaster Mini HD-4i

NewTek has been delivering multicamera mixing hardware and software for decades. As the company’s TriCaster line has evolved over the years, much of the innovation has gone into high-end, SDI-based solutions. Until recently, their lowest-end ($5,000) model could do HD only with analog component HD inputs.

In late 2014, NewTek released a Mini version of the TriCaster system that homed in on the lower end of the market—producers using consumer cameras with HDMI. The four-input TriCaster Mini HD-4i (Figure 2, below) has four HDMI inputs and stereo audio inputs in a box that is less than half the size of the TriCaster 40, and it’s considerably lighter too.

NewTek TriCaster Mini Side

Figure 2. The NewTek TriCaster Mini HD-4i

But despite the Mini’s streamlined appearance, there’s little to no skimping on features: virtual sets, streaming, recording, internal titling, playback, and more all still come as standard, just as on bigger and more expensive TriCaster models. Connectivity to networked computers, Skype as an input, iOS AirPlay, and hardware control surfaces are part and parcel of the TriCaster Mini. There’s even an option for an integrated 7" LCD screen that you can dedicate to a specific source, program, or even for scopes.

Although it costs about $1,000 more than the TriCaster 40, with the Mini you get HDMI inputs for today’s HD cameras instead of analog video inputs. You can easily pack the Mini and four consumer cameras into a small pelican case. Add a monitor and keyboard and you have the essential gear you need for a polished live production or webcast. It’s evolutionary, for sure, but it’s a nice development that’s well-matched to its target market.

Trend: Direct-From-Camera Streaming

In 2013, I saw the ability to stream directly from a camcorder on the JVC GY-HM650 (Figure 3, below), and didn’t think much of it at the time. But now as more camera companies adopt the ability to push a single camera’s feed directly to the web, I’ve come to recognize this as a legitimate feature of its own. Plug in a 4G LTE USB stick and your camera’s feed can find its way directly to a live streaming page, or, more likely, be received by someone else who incorporates it into another production. The days of needing a news van to report from the field are numbered.


Figure 3. The JVC GY-HM650 with 4G modem in the USB port

While it’s one thing to use a cellphone and Skype, or another dedicated production app, to get news back to the station, a phone has only limited ability to provide clean production audio, to zoom in on a shot, or to enable to the newsperson to really focus the viewer’s attention. But give that news producer a decent camera, with XLR inputs for microphones, a place to put a camera light, a smooth servo-zoom lens that enables him or her to adjust the framing of the shot while it’s live and on the air, and you have something else entirely.

The applications of this technology go well beyond newsgathering. This same capability can be leveraged by any mobile producer to get wireless access to a camera feed that would otherwise be impossible to get. Previously, this required expensive and cumbersome external backpacks. Then Teradek shrunk that capability down to a small, camera-top package. Now, camera manufacturers are baking it into the hardware of the camera itself.

While it’s unlikely that anyone coming into the field today remembers the short-lived 1980s TV series Max Headroom, in that series, the human newscaster Edison Carter operated exactly like this—by himself, in the field, with nothing but his camera, which could be picked up and broadcast at a moment’s notice on “Network 23.” It's taken 25 years, but now we are indeed “20 minutes into the future.”

Innovation: Skype TX

Whether in the form of Skype, Microsoft Messenger, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime, integrating face-to-face chat tools into professional productions has always been a bit tricky. By “professional,” we typically mean that there’s a dedicated box that we plug in to other video gear and it just works. Moreover, it gives us the ability to change output settings, audio levels, and the like as it interfaces smoothly with all the other video sources we have.

Skype’s announcement of Skype TX (Figure 4, below) at Streaming Media West 2014 was important because it seemingly legitimized Skype as a truly professional tool for “getting the shot” into a production. Technically, you’ve been able to do this for quite some time by feeding the output of one Skype laptop into the video mixer as a dedicated source. But with the announcement of Skype TX as both a product and a standard, this capability can be integrated directly into software-based video mixers, and external boxes for existing production studios.

Figure 4. A Skype TX schematic. Click the image to see it at full size.

The external Skype connection can still come from any Skype client, such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. But these clients can also be fed alternative video and audio; for instance, the return audio can be a mix of both the interviewer asking the questions and the director’s instructions to the camera operator. The return feed can be the actual program video with the graphic overlay so the camera operator can better see how to reframe the shot.

Skype TX-type integrations enable producers to break through the walls of whatever facility they are in and utilize cameras wherever they may be, over the internet. Whether across the street or around the world, bringing people together through professional video production just got a whole lot easier.

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Rather than tempt you with the Next Big Thing, in this "Gear of the Year" feature we invited three contributing writers—and producers in their own right—to choose four products each, all released in the last year, that have proven themselves indispensable to professional online video production and webcasting workflows, or represent the best currently available choices in their particular category.