This is the first part of a new series on virtual streaming for conferences, teaching and general academic use. All views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent any organisation named or otherwise. This post contains affiliate links to products. We may earn a small commission should you choose to follow these links. We only include affiliate links to products we believe are relevant to our posts.
The Pandemic is not going away anytime soon. Even with the promise of a vaccine, 2021 will still have at least 6 months of the new normal. There has to be a better way to deliver virtual events such as lectures, conferences and other activities that would normally be face-to-face.
Online teaching typically involves one or more people talking to a webcam, showing PowerPoint slides. The use of videos and other media still augment the teaching style of many instructors. Students generally ask questions in a chat window or over a microphone link. Some instructors require participants to have cameras live while others do not care. Having student’s give presentations is particularly challenging with a messy exchange of permissions normally executed to enable screen sharing with the inevitable “can you see my screen?”
A decade ago, I would ensure smooth transitions by using a video mixing desk (hardware) and multiple inputs and outputs. Sadly, this just isn’t possible in a virtual environment, with a low budget, minimal people on hand and supply chains still disrupted. Luckily there are software solutions that have come about in the last decade that can replace these hardware requirements.
There has to be a better way.
Enter OBS and NDI
OBS stands for Open Broadcast System. It is a dedicated free piece of kit that virtualises many of the hardware tools I was used to a decade ago in software. We can think of this, as a virtual video mixing desk. Using OBS we can setup scenes and more to bring about a level of professionalism to a video output that is patched into Zoom instead of the normal webcam.
However, to get this to work, we need another piece of kit called NDI (Network Device Interface).
For the average academic trying to run a conference, don’t worry about what this is. Consider it as some broadcast magic which will allow everything (camera, microphones, Zoom etc.) to talk to each other over a network, or even within the one computer.
For the super-User, here’s a decent technical presentation with far more information than what your virtual conference will need:
Installing OBS for Mac and Zoom Compatibility
Installation of OBS is straight forward but, to ensure the setup is compatible with Zoom on Mac there are some hidden tricks needed.
I recommend following this YouTube video by Michael Feyrer Jr. He guides you through the setup of the NDI tools we need to get Zoom to recognise the OBS streams. While watching the video note you don’t need the NDI Video Monitor that he suggests you install, just the NDI Virtual Input and the associated runtime environment.
While NDI can be used to get the video and audio stream into Zoom, I found that when using NDI for video, Zoom didn’t like the audio. Instead, I used the virtual camera output from OBS 10.2.0 as the video feed and then relied on NDI for the audio output.
Once you have installed NDI, Zoom and OBS you have the basic requirements to facilitate a live stream – be it a conference, an online lecture, or even gaming if you really wanted to go down that path.
Basic Scene Setup
Now that we have OBS installed and the ability to send audio and video to Zoom it’s time to look at how I setup OBS to facilitate a basic presentation. OBS is extremely powerful and has multiple features that are beyond the scope of what many academics will need.
If you are interested in these features I would encourage you to watch this video from the How To Tech channel.
For my use, I run five basic scenes with the appropriate sources. These are as follows:
Start-Up: This scene is to be used while students or participants are joining your stream or class. I use this to show the reminders that my institution requires us to tell all our students every class regarding COVID-19. You could use this to showcase upcoming assessments, reminders about what the class needs to do for prep for this class or even just a simple picture with a count down to when the class would start. I have the information displayed as a rolling slideshow using the image slide show source.
Streaming: this is the main presentation stream. I use this to showcase my webcam on a background. I use a green screen in my setup and a dedicated broadcast-quality microphone. Each of these is added as discrete sources as shown below.
Screen Share: This is a scene where I share the content of my screen along with a smaller version of my webcam in a bottom corner.
BRB: This scene is to allow for presenter privacy during breaks. Some of my classes go for multiple hours with a 10-minute break every hour. This scene I put up an image saying we are taking a break, the COVID reminders and play some royalty-free music. I also use the OpenDyslexic font.
Ending: A scene to allow for the class to exit or conference to display sponsorship logos. I generally don’t use this scene when teaching but, will make use of such a scene when running a conference with appropriate branding.
The good thing about using OBS and Zoom in this manner is that you no longer need permissions to share your screen with the meeting. Simply change your scene from one showing your camera to one showing your desktop or application window. The virtual camera will output the scene to Zoom and the meeting participants will see the virtual camera. This is powerful and can save lots of time during meetings.
For those that need to record classes, OBS can be setup to record simply with the push of a button, this allows greater control than simply recording in Zoom to the cloud.
There are additional tools that you can use to augment the use of OBS such as UpDeck and a properly installed and set up green screen. I’ll run through these in future posts. UpDeck is my favourite little tool on my phone which has saved me $400 from buying a professional streaming deck. If programing is not your thing, the Elgato Stream Deck is a great alternative but does cost anywhere from $200-300. Feel free to use our affiliate link if you’re interested in buying one.
Using OBS to run your class will also add a level of professionalism that has been missing during 2020 as we have all converted to online teaching in some form.