Taking Hangouts On Air On the Road

Over the past few months, we have been developing an interesting new way of communicating with international students. As content creators, we’ve found Google Hangouts to be a new, and valuable content platform that allows international student to meet us virtually face-to-face, engage with us directly, and discover valuable resources about studying in the US. After months of practice and continuous tweaking and editing, we’ve developed numerous resource video hangouts for international students and have provided a new product to our partner schools looking to interact with students one-on-one for international student recruitment.

To introduce Google Hangouts to international educators as a viable, free tool for communicating with their international students and as a high-quality product provided by Envisage International, we traveled around the US and attended eight separate NAFSA regional conferences. At each conference, we presented the topic ‘Google+ and Google Hangouts – the newest technology in communicating and recruiting international students’. But there was a twist. We also decided to broadcast the presentation via an actual Google Hangout, which would live on our Google+ page, YouTube, and could be embedded on our website for future viewers.

Adding this additional level of difficulty to a presentation provides for a number of technical errors, missteps, improvements, and lessons. Here are a few of the challenges we faced, fought, and overcame.

Laptops – Generally the laptops have a lower performing CPU and this affects its ability to smoothly render video streams for broadcast. Laptops also have limited inputs for audio devices and we have resorted to using “virtual” input sources. One of the easiest and most important things to remember is to close as many background tasks that are running as you can. Turn off Dropbox, your messaging app, exit Spotify, completely close iTunes and do everything else you can to maximize the available memory and CPU on your laptop.

Bandwidth – The bandwidth ranges from slow to really, really slow. Google Hangouts on Air usually requires a minimum of 1 mbps upload speed to stream HD video and audio without interruptions or jerky video. This was one of the toughest problems we dealt with and without resorting to buying GSM or CDMA portable hotspots, you will be at the mercy of the available wireless network at your location.

Sound Quality – To achieve the highest quality audio in a Hangout we’ve started using wireless lav mics and a receiver attached to the laptop. Yes, it’s another piece of hardware (3 actually) but it reduces the wiring between the presenters and the computer and allows them to walk around without tripping or pulling the plugs.

Video Quality – For casual Hangouts a off-the-shelf webcam works very well, for under $100 you can find several cameras able to render HD video but you are usually limited in your ability to control the focus, exposure levels and depth of field. Better cameras, like the Canon DSLR we use, have far more control over the image quality but then you’ll need a larger tripod, batteries and other gear to drag around.

Lighting and Color – Each location offers a unique challenge for lighting and color, one room will have less available light and dark walls, while the next place will have an abundance of light and brightly colored walls. Yellow walls, orange carpets, light blue ceilings; each of them reflects light in a different way and will make the colors in your Hangout video look odd or unrealistic. The software that came with your webcam probably has a setting for picture color, white balance or some related option for changing the overall color of the picture. If you’re using a DSLR, look for the white balance control in the menus.

Bring our own lights wasn’t feasible as they would have distracted the live audience and gotten in the way with the presentations. We opted for controlling the lighting as best we could with software.

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