I recently had calls from two different businesses interested in trying to expand their live, classroom-delivered training to a larger remote audience by offering their courses via webinars. In a bit of synchronicity, I found that somebody mentioned my blog on the Yahoo message board for Sonic Foundry stock investors, causing me to take a closer look at the company and its products.
I had known that Sonic Foundry was used by companies to deliver webcasts, but I hadn't spent much time looking at their offerings. That's because the company's technology model is a departure from the software-only approach that is more common in the webinar/webcast industry. They use a physical hardware device installed at the customer's location to capture the webinar content.
I had a chance to talk with Kristin Zurovitch and Erica St. Angel in Sonic Foundry's corporate and product marketing groups. They confirmed that they don't compete so much with hosted software solutions such as WebEx and Live Meeting. If your webinars consist mainly of narration over PowerPoint slides, Sonic Foundry Mediasite is probably overkill.
But if your primary need is to broadcast and archive a room-based presentation that includes video of the presenters and projected slides or video content (even audience shots if that's important to you), then Mediasite could be just what you are looking for. These kinds of setups are probably used more for training and public briefings than any other kinds of applications, although I could imagine other uses ranging from mixed media performance art to commentary and coverage of a chess competition.
The front end of the technology is a hardware device used to capture presentation content, referred to as the Mediasite Recorder. This comes in two versions: A rack-mounted unit for permanent in-room installation, and a portable unit for multi-location work. The recorder has multiple inputs for video sources, audio sources, and digital signals (such as output from a computer to show electronic slides or documents). Video inputs allow a variety of connection types that should satisfy techies with everything from handheld video cameras to professional studio cameras. The audio side has primary and secondary inputs, but for multi-source recordings (such as microphones in front of a panel of speakers), you will want to run through an external mixer and then feed a combined signal to the unit.
In reading the technical specifications data sheet for the unit, I see some fancy functionality that is nice to have when you need it, but I'll bet doesn't get used too often. You can set recording to start and stop automatically at scheduled times, you can crop the captured video, and manage the slides used in a digital presentation. (Kristin tells me that the scheduling capability is frequently used to automate and simplify the recording process, but my experience shows precious few events start and stop bang on their scheduled times!)
Once you have all the inputs connected, the live presentation proceeds as usual in the room and the recorder captures all the various components. It outputs an instantaneous synchronized audio/video digital stream that can be webcast live or saved to a digital file for playback on demand. One restriction to note is that the digital and computer side of things rely on Windows Media Server and captures the recording as a Windows Media file. Audience members can watch the live webcast on Windows or Macintosh computers through standard Web browsers and you can do an extra conversion step to export the recording to Flash format for additional portability. Mediasite also includes a "Publish-to-Go" functionality that creates a zip file with everything needed to play back the content without an active Internet connection... useful if you are distributing your content on CDs. It is also possible to publish the audio stream as a podcast.
Kristin and Erica emphasized the fact that recording the live content was only half the story. Sonic Foundry also has its own server software for cataloging and hosting events (both live and recorded). The Mediasite EX Server organizes your events in catalogs with your own choice of subdivision or folder titles (useful for corporate applications where you might have content applying to different products or operating divisions). Users can search based on keywords and administrators can customize the viewer look and feel with different "skins" to change colors, logos, and layout of the video/slide windows. Administrators can also specify access security and get reports on usage and views. The server software is designed to be installed on a dedicated Windows-based server (computer) at the customer's location, although options exist... Read on!.
Interactivity during an event includes the ability to submit polls for audience participation. I like the fact that there is no limit to the number of answer choices you can offer (some companies only give you five "slots" to put in the response options) and that you can choose to specify a poll as "one answer only" or "check all that apply." Unfortunately, if you choose to share results with your audience, they always see both percentages and absolute numbers of replies, which means you can't hide a small audience turnout.
If you buy a recorder for your company along with the server license, you're probably going to face a cost in the neighborhood of 40-50 thousand dollars. That may seem like a big chunk of change to some small businesses, but it's yours to use as often as you like for as long as you like, so the cost amortizes out over multiple events very nicely. For companies that only have one or two events that they want to broadcast, or who want to try out the solution on a test case, Sonic Foundry offers an event production package that costs around three to five thousand dollars. They will get a recording professional to your location with a portable recorder, camera, and sound equipment, hook everything up, record your event, and host the recording for an agreed upon period of time. You can also use a loaner Mediasite Recorder yourself and access the server software as a Sonic Foundry hosted service, eliminating the need to install and maintain the software locally.
Multimedia live event webcasting is a smaller niche than either software-based webinars or simple camera-feed webcasts. I was amused to read a thread on the investors' message board where everybody was competing to guess how many individual Mediasite Recorder units the company would announce they had sold in the third quarter. The guesses ranged from 170 to 210 units. That's not a massive volume, but considering that each represents a one-time purchase that can be used indefinitely by the customer, it's not a bad indication that the market is continuing to expand.
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