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Streaming Video over UStream and/or Livestream



Lately, there has been an upswing in the amount of artists drawing on camera. Click around YouTube and you'll see a mass amount of folks sketching, inking and sometimes even doing whole tutorial series for those out there who want to watch. It has been quite the boon to young artists looking for some good instruction or simple "Bob Ross"-style entertainment.
With this came a jump to services like UStream and Livestream - sites that allow the artists to draw in front of the equivalent of a live studio audience. For the artist, they can get instant feedback from viewers and fans alike while building a stronger following. Likewise, the viewers get the chance to shoot the breeze with their favorite artists and watch the magic as it happens. How do I know? I'm both a fan and an artist who broadcasts. It's an interesting experience all around, really.
Though I have spent time doing (or attempting) both YouTube videos and streaming video, this article will focus primarily on streaming video from the Windows platform. Fear not, Mac fans! You have it a bit easier and I'll cover some info for you, too.

  • The Software

Like I mentioned before, I stream my video through a Windows box. It's not the greatest - 2GHz Pentium 4 with about 1GB of RAM - but I think it represents what is now a good low-end consumer system with some slight tweaking. The biggest difference is I run Windows 2000 SP4. Rest assured, results will vary.
There is a lot of software out there that will let you do a lot of neat tricks with your video. Most of these are pay products. Through some digging on my own and the recommendations of others, I've found three good free programs that will let you stream your desktop to the various 'net services out there. If all you want to do is stream a live video feed from your webcam, you can skip this part and move on.
First up to bat is SplitCam. This is a relatively small download that is pretty easy on the processes. It will let you send out one video stream at a time and it is very much a no frills product. It doesn't bog up my programs too badly but can strain a system if you have too many windows up at once. You can find it at http://www.SplitCamera.com/
Next up is ManyCam. Still a relatively small download, though it offers a bit more options. You can do various visual effects as well as make your own if you feel so inclined. While running, my system felt a little more sluggish than when I used SplitCam but not enough to really discourage folks from giving it a try. The one noticeable downside is the relatively large bug in the corner of the screen. It's an ad and, though it staves off those nagging questions of what program you're using, it can get in the way of art every now and again. You can find it at http://www.ManyCam.com/
The last one I tried is SuperWebcam. This program is about equal to ManyCam in both download and system strain. The biggest advantage to SuperWebcam is that it is the closest program for the Windows platform to CamTwist - the free program to use on a Mac to stream video. SuperWebcam allows you to pop up a WinAmp song ticker and to do picture-in-picture. You can find it at http://www.SuperWebcam.com/
Like I mentioned before, Mac folks have it a little easier. Though my Mac crashed pretty hard before I could get to test it, CamTwist seems to be the go-to free program for streaming video from your OSX box. It gives you a myriad of special effect and give you the option for picture-in-picture. You can find it at http://www.allocinit.com/index.php?title=CamTwist

  • The Setup

There are a few things you'll need to rock a nice video setup regardless of your budget. Since the last section dealt primarily with the digital, this will focus primarily on the traditional - those brave few who decided to rock the pencils, markers, paints and other such tools to make their work and want to show how it's done online.
The best place to start is figuring out where you want the equipment placed. I draw on relatively small sheets of paper so I can manage a smaller space than most. The key is how far are you from your system. As mentioned, I can take my gear and sit at my computer desk, putting me right where I need to be to interact with folks and answer questions. If you work larger, try streaming from a nearby laptop.
Webcam placement can be a big issue for most folks. It took me a while to figure out the best place to put it so the audience can see while I can still work properly. I decided to place my webcam over my work. With some tweaking of the settings (mirroring the image and flipping it upside-down), it gives the viewers the feeling that they are seeing from my point of view. An over-the-shoulder PoV, if you will. This allows me to focus on working how I normally would without having to flip my piece around to show off to the folks at home. Again, it's a time saver that I like to use.
The next thing to deal with is lighting. Lighting your work properly is key. I have a desk lamp that I use when working at night or for extra lighting (like seeing my keyboard at 3am) so I just shine it onto my piece and let fly. Remember that the amount of light you would normally use for drawing may cause a hot spot - a particularly bright or washed out point - to appear in your webcam's feed. Always take the time to tweak your webcam's settings before you start broadcasting. Never rely solely on the automatic settings that come with your webcam. It will adjust and oft times overcompensate when your hand or other object comes into view.
It may seem like a lot but you can have your setup done and tweaked to perfection in less than a day.

  • The Feed

Most artists rarely get the chance to practice their craft in public outside of conventions or the off chance they happen to be drawing in a public space. By streaming video, you are inviting folks into your world to watch you draw. This may take a bit to get used to. One thing that you need to remember is take time out to check the chat every now and again. If you don't feel like typing back a response, use the microphone on your webcam/headset/system to reply to questions. If you feel kind of goofy, just think about it as talking to someone on a telephone. The only difference is your audience has to type to talk to you.
When streaming your desktop, a whole new set of issues may need to be addressed. One thing is lag. Testing before you begin to broadcast to the world is a good way to find out if the program you are using will slow your system to a crawl or not. You may need to close some of those extra programs in the background to gain some speed. Let me tell you, it sucks to have to wait for a program to load when you're the system's user. It can't be much more fun to watch on camera.
Another streaming desktop situation comes from window sizes. When I'm working on a piece in Illustrator CS2 or Fireworks 4, I don't mind if the program fills the screen. In fact, I work faster that way. Though I have the option to feed video out to another monitor, I don't have the room for it on my computer desk. This means that, while I work, the chat gets ignored. Remember to flip back to the chatroom every now and again to answer questions or join in the conversation. It is part of the benefits of streaming video, after all.
Something I do that others may not is I play music, podcasts and audiobooks while I work. This is where that little WinAmp ticker in SuperWebcam comes in. People will be interested in your playlist and I find that ticker helps folks figure out what I'm listening to without me having to call out my tracks again and again. It let's me do what I do best - draw.
Though this part mostly applies to folks with an existing fan base, newcomers can use this too. Over time, you may notice your chatroom filled to the brim with folks. Don't worry too much about keeping on top of every conversation. One mistake I have noticed on the viewer side of things is the Link Drop. Someone will find something neat and drop the link into the chat. This can spark a flood of links, one confused artist and the piece is left unfinished. Always remember: Try not to get too distracted by your audience! Interaction is groovy but taking four hours on something that would normally take 30 minutes cuts into your day and can set you back on other business you need to do.

  • The Wrap Up

Streaming video is a cool, helpful tool and lets you get that much closer to your audience or favorite artist. You can do a lot with it if you work it right. Like Twitter, RSS feeds and mailing lists, it can help you reach a wider crowd that may not normally take an interest in your work. The instantaneous nature of streaming video increases interaction with fans and gives you one more piece of content to work with. With a little prep and a bit of testing, you can be on top of your game.
Hopefully, this will help folks out with their questions about how to make this whole deal work better - especially on the Windows side of things. As always, keep your pencil to the paper and keep drawing.
Peace!

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