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Choosing a Streaming Appliance

So, you've decided to buy a streaming appliance for live event production. In this article, we'll start with a high-level history of the live streaming appliance market, then identify the factors you should consider when making your buying decision.

Surveying Your Needs

Beyond the threshold four HD-SDI inputs, all needs assessments should start with a firm identification of other required inputs and outputs, and the associated additional cost, if any. For example, do you need to accept input from a specific PTZ camera, or from a mobile device or computer on the same LAN? Do you need to input a remote video via Skype, or through an RTMP or RTSP connection? Do you need to connect physically to another computer or device via HDMI or DVI?

Not all systems provide these features in their base configurations. If you plan on producing in 4K in the near term, you’ll need to find out if this is supported by the system in question, or whether it can be upgraded and, if so, at what cost. For audio, you’ll need to identify all audio sources that aren’t ingested with the video, and make sure the system can handle those requirements.

On the output side, do you need HD-SDI out, say, for IMAG projection? How many streams do you need to output to various streaming services, and in which configurations? Some systems top out at 720p, while others can produce 1080p. By this point, all live systems can access most RTMP-based live streaming services, though products such as Wirecast and TriCaster simplify operation with presets that let you log directly into a service such as Ustream or YouTube Live, rather than entering server addresses and stream names manually. If you need to connect to a server using a protocol other than RTMP, you should verify that the software can do so before buying.

Beyond streaming, you should determine how many ISO recordings you need, and from which sources. By way of background, an ISO recording is an “isolated” recording of an incoming camera feed, or the mixed program feed. Before you start comparing systems, determine how many camera inputs you need to record, and whether you need to record the program feed If so, does the program feed need to be a “clean” feed free of bugs, logos, or other overlays; or a “dirty” feed, with all on-air content. The various software programs (and hardware/software combinations) vary greatly with respect to these capabilities, so you need to identify your requirements very specifically up front.

Regarding the core mixing-related feature set, you’ll find only minor variations in the systems. All can insert transitions during camera switches, which you can select and configure. All allow you to integrate VOD clips into the live event, along with logos and other overlays. If you create your titles in Photoshop, you’ll find little variation in the mixers, but if you’re looking for an integrated titler with useful templates, offerings vary significantly in this regard.

Third-party support for animated titles, generally a simple way to add significant polish to your productions, varies widely by system. Wirecast recently began supporting live 3D titles from NewBlue, while NewTek offers integration with multiple developers, including Chyron, PlayBox, AGF Multimedia, and Vizrt. Beyond the availability of the software, check out how simple it is for a separate operator to create titles without disturbing the mixing workflow.

Social media integration is a recent innovation, and now most mixers can insert Twitter and other feeds into the live stream. Less ubiquitous is the ability to post frame grabs or short clips to sites such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. If you’re broadcasting to a particularly socially media aware audience, you’ll want both inbound and outbound social media support.

If you’re broadcasting sporting events, spec out the program’s scoreboard-related features. All programs discussed in this article integrate with Sportzcast’s automated scoreboard functionality, which is available in many large venues. NewTek offers the richest support of other alternatives, including support for soccer games via DELTACAST DELTA-stat IP and LiveXpert’s LiveCG Football Scoreboard and Presentation software, and the ability to integrate scoreboards from Tofervision.

For smaller events with no scoreboard automation, find out how simple it is to create and update a scoreboard manually, and whether a third person can update the scoreboard using an interface other than the main mixing software. Similarly, though most programs offer the ability to create and display instant replays, ease of use varies among the programs, and not all programs allow this to be done outside of the main interface.

Tally lights let on-air talent know which camera to address, and let camera operators know when they’re live, and when they’re not, so they can shift to the next shot. If you plan to add tally lights to your cameras, make sure they’re supported by the system you buy.

Greenscreen functionality and virtual sets have become a checklist item for live streaming systems. If you plan to integrate virtual sets into your productions, check your ability to create and edit 2D and 3D virtual sets, and to access and customize sets designed by third parties. Here TriCaster shines again, with its own Virtual Set Editor (which costs $1,495), and third-party support from companies such as April, Virtualsetworks, and Note that Virtualsetworks can also supply sets for Wirecast, Livestream, and vMix.

Finally, for repetitive productions, you might want to consider the ability to script sequences such as show intros or outros, which is another feature exclusive to TriCaster.