Conference Room Systems (CRS) is an aspect of Haverford Systems, a Philadelphia area A/V sales & integration company. I’ve been watching this company for some time as they seem to have a better than average grasp on USB attached webcams for applications beyond the desktop. Not too long ago one of their team posted an article on Using Multiple Cameras with GotoMeeting, Skype, Webex or Zoom.US.
This article, based upon a SlideShare document with a few additions, is a bit on the thin side. The author starts with the ultra-simple idea that a user with a laptop can select an internal or external webcam as the video source. This is a great point, and well worth noting since an internal webcam tends to be quite lame. A good quality, external webcam can provide much better quality video. My current favorite is the Logitech C920.
He then makes a great leap to using an external video switcher to allow live switching between multiple video sources. While both are valid options, what he describes represents a rather dramatic leap from $0 to thousands-of-dollars.
There is in fact a middle option, which is the approach that we’ve be using for the VoIP Users Conference. You can use a software-based production tool to handle a variety of video sources right within your computer. There are a few different programs that fit this role. Some are inexpensive, or even free. More professional tools of this sort may cost a few hundred dollars.
Wirecast is by far the most popular professional software production tool of this sort. It basically emulates a video production switcher, allowing the selection between multiple video sources, including USB-attached cameras, capture cards, locally shared screens, or screens shared on a networked computer, etc.
It happens that I use a licensed copy of Wirecast Studio ($495 list) that is available for both Mac and Windows. The licensed versions vary in capabilities, running from $195 to $995, but there’s also a free version called Wirecast Play for those who wish to experiment.
Wirecast Play is the version that You Tube gives away. It’s limited in what can be done relative to the paid versions. For example, it emulates a webcam, which makes it possible to use with many different programs or services. It’s restricted to only transmitting a stream to YouTube. You cannot set it up to send to UStream. However, UStream has their own version that they also give away.
The most crippling aspects of the free Wirecast Play software are as follows:
- Only allows one webcam.
- Only allows one capture card.
- The composite presentations, called “layouts”, are limited to a small handful of presets that cannot be tweaked.
If you want to overcome these limitations you can purchase license to “Wirecast Studio for YouTube” for $199. This version of the software remains tied exclusively to YouTube, but enables more of the creative toolset for those who have such concerns.
SparkoCam ($30) is an inexpensive program that allows the user to emulate a webcam using a diversity of different sources, including; USB attached cameras, DSLRs from Canon & Nikon, a shared desktop or application window, etc. It further allows for simple layering,for example, you can add a lower third or an animated icon over your camera. It even has a rudimentary sort of preset virtual set capability. You may recall that I mentioned it once before early in my exploration of tools for webcams. SparkoCam is Windows-only.
For the Mac user there is CamTwist Studio, which claims to “Turn your Mac into a Television Studio.” Most interestingly, CamTwist is free. It has webcam emulation, green screen keying, effects and layering. It can stream to various online destinations. It can access up to three BlackMagic Design Intensity Pro PCIe capture cards, which means that capturing live video from analog or HDMI sources, up to 1080i.
While I’ve not used CamTwist, it seems to fall somewhere between the retail/consumer goofiness of SparkoCam or ManyCam, and the professional capabilities/cost of Wirecast.
All of these programs are valid options that fill the void between no options or costly external hardware. There are other, even lesser known programs that serve similar functions. Looking across application contexts one often finds interesting tools. For example, XSplit started out as a way to stream a gaming session online, but has since grown to have both gaming an “broadcast” variants. Open Broadcaster is an open source project for video recording & live streaming.