The first live streaming of talks at a IWMW event took place at IWMW 2006, when we experimented with an in-house streaming service and use of the Access Grid.  The following year live streaming of the plenary talks was provided by staff at the University of York, and recordings of most of the talks were subsequently made available on Google Video.

On both occasions the numbers of people watching the live streaming video was low, with the maximum numbers of viewers being less than 20 at each of the events. Despite the low numbers we felt the service was valuable as it provided us with an opportunity to gain experience of not only various streaming technologies but also, and more importantly, the non-technical aspects of live streaming at events such as privacy, copyright, accessibility, etc.

This year’s IWMW 2008 event was held in the King’s Conference Centre at the University of Aberdeen.  I was not the only delegate who was impressed by the King’s Auditorium – as one person commented on the event evaluation form “Conference hall had great facilities and microphones meant that you could hear delegates questions“.

The venue also had an excellent AV facilities, and we were pleased that, once again, we were able to stream the plenary talks. The quality of the video was excellent, as you can see if you watch any of the videos of the talks.

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the live streaming was the numbers of people who watching the talks. As can be seen from the accompanying diagram there were 160 people watching the videos on the final day of the event. As IWMW 2008 attracted 180 participants, with a number of them having to leave before the event finished I suspect we can say that there were more remote people watching Ewan McIntosh’s closing plenary talk on “Unleashing the Tribe” that there were in the King’s Auditorium. When I mentioned this to my director, Liz Lyon, she wondered whether we will soon reach a ‘tipping point’ in which live streaming of talks at large conferences in the digital library environment will be expected as a mainstream offering.

For that to happen, though, there will be a need to establish the business case for providing the streaming service, ensure that it is easy to use and ensure that the risks are being buy medications without prescriptions addressed.

The business case is interesting. Who should pay for the costs of providing a video streaming service for an event? Should the costs be taken from the participants who attend the event? Or should remote viewers who wish to access the video stream have to pay? Or perhaps event organisers should be looking for commercial sponsorship to cover the costs (although in light of the current economic turbulence, now is probably not a good time to suggest this).   I wonder, though, whether the costs be covered by the host institution. Once the AV equipment has been installed, can the support costs be included i the rental of the facilities – just as we are now starting to expect access to WiFi network being provided as standard.

Once the business case has been sorted, there will be a need to ensure that the service is easy to use (back at IWMW 2006 people wishing to view the streaming video service needed to install “Real Player and the Xiph Player Plugin or Windows Media Player with the illiminable Ogg Directshow Filters for Speex, Vorbis, Theora and FLAC, with Linux users needing MPlayer with Ogg Theora“). Nowadays users shouldn’t need to concern themselves with details of the technologies, as use of Flash seems to provide the interface to streaming services (although there may be issues about versions of Flash). However I suspect there will be a need to provide a back channel, to enable the remote participants to discuss the talks. There will also be a need for the remote participants to join in discussions with the local audience, especially if a WiFi network is available. There will be a need, therefore, to ensure that the back channel is not tightly coupled to the video streaming service.

Finally there will be a need to address the risks. This will include addressing issues such as privacy, copyright and data protection. In addition there will be a need to consider the quality of service and reliability of the streaming service, especially if the costs in providing the service have been made transparent.

And the more I think about such issues the more I wonder whether live streaming at conferences has reached a tipping point. Might it simply be too much effort to provide on a regular basis?