"The truth is, I have no great love for modern technology; it is an amusement at times, but mostly it is a tool, one that when properly understood and used can make life a little easier or open doors to other avenues for individuals to develop meaning and understanding through their communication, never a replacement for face to face communication, but an extension of it." — Benj Matzke
We started the process of planning for this Bible study with a grandiose plan of running a hybrid Bible study with participants both on-line and in person, in an untested facility with some crucial equipment still on order. This means that we complicated the entire project for ourselves quite a bit. We had to meet all of the challenges of a live studio production and an interactive online synchronous discussion without the benefit of having done either in the space or with the equipment we were using prior to this Bible study. As one might expect the technological challenges we faced caused a number of bumps along the way and at the time we felt we were narrowly avoiding disaster after disaster. Instead of dwelling on those near disasters I am going to present to you observations relating to the particular equipment and technology needs of a live, interactive distance Bible study.
The basic needs for any live streaming production are a camera or audio device, a streaming device, an internet connection, and a streaming service. I could list the exact devices and specifications we used, but we went through three completely different combinations of devices before the final night of the Bible Study, and none of them may be ideal for your situation. So I will discuss those technological needs in a broader sense as they fall under the areas of production equipment, encoding equipment, and internet services.
The minimum requirements to produce a live stream production is a camera or audio device with an output feed. You could use a functional 20 year old VHS camera and a $100 capture device to get that analog signal into your computer or other streaming device. You could also use an i-pad, webcam, or a USB camera. We used at first a prosumer-level Canon camera and later a pro-level Sony camera, to allow for higher quality video and more control over color balance and light. Similarly any audio device could be used as long as you can get the signal into your streaming device. In our scenario, a group of in-studio Bible study participants were as much a part of the production as the Bible study leader. (I'm not sure that is something we ever really got through to them. Our in-studio participants were on a Bible study talk show where they were on the stage with the host. Emphasizing that may have been a benefit to them and to the individuals participating online.) We used a standard 58 handheld mic running through a USB audio device and a Sony wireless lapel mic run through the camera. At first the wireless lapel was placed on the study leader and the SM58s were placed on a table in front of our in-person participants. This was a mistake; we had a noticeable echo in many of our early productions, partly the result of having to turn up the sensitivity on the handheld mic to get clear sound from our in studio participants who seemed reluctant to speak up loudly enough, but primarily because our various devices were not synced properly. Without some additional equipment in the mix we had no way to match up our audio delay. For our final evening we solved both problems with "equipment saturation." We brought in an audio mixing board that could handle all of our microphone sources; this way we could control the individual audio levels of each participant and send a single audio source to our streaming device.
If you are one of those who participated in the online Bible study, you might now be asking, "Wait a second — if you were using a pro-level camera and high end microphones in a dedicated studio space, why didn't it look and sound better?" The answer is our choice of streaming device. It doesn't matter how much you spend on sound and video if your streaming device can't handle encoding and sending a high quality stream to whatever service you are using. Because a computer part we needed was on back order we had to do our first streams using a laptop barely up to the task. The system met all of the streaming provider's minimum requirements, but just enough to send a medium quality stream. Because we were live streaming PowerPoint slides at the same time, we had to turn the quality down even more so PowePoint had some resources to use. Once our computer part arrived and we could move to a desktop machine dedicated to streaming. It was better, but we still had to keep our quality fairly low to allow for a simultaneous PowerPoint's resource consumption. Since then we have upgraded our system to nearly twice the minimum resources recommended by our streaming software provider, Livestream. You shouldn't cut corners if you don't have to. It may seem like you are saving money for your church, school, or organization by coming in under budget, but if you have the funds available get a more powerful streaming device, even if it seems like overkill. Minimum requirements are generally unacceptable for most applications and recommended specs are for current generations of software, not for the next generation, so even if your system is overpowered right now it probably won't be a year and a half from now, and it is difficult to determine how many resources simultaneously active software programs will require.
Internet Streaming Services
Most streaming providers recommend twice as much upload bandwidth as the quality of stream you are sending. So if you have a 1Mbps stream you would need at least a 2Mbps upload connection for reliable streaming. In my experience this is deceptive. First, this requirement is a real speed requirement, not an advertised speed requirement. You rarely get the speeds your ISP advertises, so run some speed tests to make sure your internet connection makes the grade. Second, with many ISPs your connection will fluctuate, based on a number of factors. With cable providers it usually means lower speeds when your neighbors hop on the internet. With DSL you will likely have even less bandwidth available, so if someone hops onto YouTube somewhere else in the building your stream might be reduced in quality to almost unwatchable, or even fail. Ideally a streaming system will have a dedicated connection. Since this is rarely an option it is best to err on the side of caution and make sure you have 3 to 5 times the speed recommended; this means 6-10Mbps for a 1Mbps stream. There are a number of excellent streaming services available at various price points that may meet the needs of a particular project or congregation. We used LiveStream, but after doing this once I think we would have been better off with some other service. Early in its development Livestream was an ideal service for this type of project, since it was designed for live video podcasting. However, recent releases have focused much more on live event production. That is, the newest versions of their software are focused on making sure the viewer gets high quality image and production, rather than a high quality interactive experience. So the new Livestream is an excellent tool for streaming a concert, but it misses the mark when it comes to meaningful live interaction. One of the problems is the great degree of variance between participant computers and internet quality. With the current LiveStream an attempt at a synchronous Bible study drifts out of sync by roughly 1 minute for every 10 to 15 minutes of broadcast, on the best of participants' computers and internet connections, and as much as 4 or 5 minutes on the worst. Do the math and by the end of a 1 hour broadcast some users are around 20 minutes behind and responding to topics that have long since been passed by. Livestream in its newest software release has also failed to include a key feature sorely missed in an interactive online event: the ability to respond to comments from within the streaming software tool. I have yet to come across the perfect software/service to meet all our needs. Please in discussion report your suggestions and experiences.
Despite our troubles and the shortcomings of some of our technology, online interactive Bible teaching was and is a great idea, and I am certain many of the participants benefited from it. If we work out some of the kinks we can provide an even more meaningful experience for the online participants. On occasion you find yourself working with an idea that is ahead of the technology needed to make it truly shine, but if we don't keep trudging down bumpy roads and rough paths no one will see the need to make them straight and paved.
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