Streaming CES: How We Did It

As the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show wraps up today, we’d like to share a few secrets. The CrunchGear writing team, with support from TechCrunch TV, provided more than 20 hours of live CES video coverage, taking our viewers right to the industry and media access only exhibit floor. For a look at video highlights, check out Hundreds of Twitter questions were answered in real-time, giving our viewers a chance to interact with the company reps and win some giveaways. We also got a lot of questions on how we did it.

The traditional, old-school way of broadcasting a live event would involve driving up a satellite truck with a C or Ku band transmitter. Or, getting a special expensive video fiber circuit connected at the venue. But, that would only allow a video feed from a single location. Otherwise we’d need multiple circuits or time to drive and set-up the sat truck at different locations.

We wanted to stream at a moments notice, from the Sands Expo during CES Unveiled and the following Media Day, from the inside and outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, and from hotel parties and events all over the Las Vegas Strip. Plus, we wanted to roam the halls without any wired connection. We investigated some RF and microwave transmitter options but they involved great expense and production limitations. We finally settled on a mobile streaming solution, with a backup ‘nearly live’ wired solution. We never needed to resort to the taped backup.

We used a LiveU mobile package provided by our live streaming partner, Ustream. The livepack fits in a custom designed backpack. It takes a firewire input containing video and audio from a camera. We used our Panasonic HVX200a camera and some wireless microphones and a camera LED light. The livepack has 6 data modems and attempts to connect to 3 different mobile phone networks (ATT, Verizon, and Sprint). The signal is put back together by LiveU and then sent to Ustream for live streaming distribution.

Giving the bandwidth issues to be expected when 125,000 (Update: CES now says 140,000) tech savvy people get together in one place, we had some concerns that the technology would work. Those concerns grew when we tried un-successfully to use our mobile phones. But, with its 6 modems, the livepack was able to get a connection 95% of the time. The bandwidth was constantly changing. During the best times, we were getting more than 1Mbps upstream. At a few locations, such as the lower level of the Sands Expo Center during CES Media Day, and inside of few of the exhibitors private conference rooms, we weren’t able enough bandwidth. So, the stream froze, stuttered, or turned into audio only at times.

On the livepack, we chose the small CIF video window setting. While a sacrifice to quality, this allowed for more consistent streaming performance. Ustream distributed an encoded feed at 400k, with a 480×270 window and h.264 video. We didn’t get any viewer complaints about the video image quality.

Batteries and battery planning was key. The livepack has an internal battery and also runs on hot swappable external batteries. We got about 2 hours on a full external battery and carried lots of spares. We also had lots of camera batteries (not hot-swappable), wireless mic, and LED light batteries.

Most of the time, the system worked way above our expectations. But, we did have 2 other non-transmission issues. The camera connects to the livepack using a firewire plug. Not the best, robust connection. Even taped down, that came loose a few times, but there is a monitor screen on the pack that alerted us to the problem.

One night, the pack wouldn’t start up. A quick call to the phone number on the pack for LiveU at 10pm Eastern Time, helped us confirm a hardware problem, most likely a loose circuit board. We had just carried it for miles on a busy convention floor. A gentle nudge got the livepack working again. But, we weren’t ready to trust it, and used a backup wired solution for coverage from a fixed location that night. But with another day of coverage coming up with miles of walking the halls, Ustream rushed us a new livepack overnight, and we were up and running on Friday.

The LiveU livepack we used has been out on the market for a year and a half. It’s used by streaming video providers Ustream and Livestream, in addition to broadcast networks. It’s been used at all kinds of sports event and the Grammy Awards. A new HD livepack started shipping last week. It contains 6 to 12 cellular connections (including T-Mobile), and supports Verizon LTE 4G and Sprint and ClearWire WiMax 4G. The new units also feature SDI, HDMI, and analog input, in addition to FireWire. And they output SD and HD to 1080i.

Even with our 1st generation livepack, we succeeded in our mission to bring CES directly to our viewers. Our viewers got to hear about dozens of new TVs, phones, tablets, cameras and headphones plus interviews with the CEO of Ford and T-Pain. And behind the scenes previews of the RED Scarlet, the Notion Ink Adam tablet, and Microsoft’s Surface V2. And they got a chance to see what it’s like to drive around in GM’s EN-V futuristic car.

They also got an honest look at CES, warts and all. They saw when we didn’t get into the Samsung event on Media Day, after waiting in a Disneyland size line. And they came along to several booths where no one wanted to talk to us or our viewers even though the booth representatives were standing there talking with other convention visitors. Our viewers gave us instant feedback on what they were seeing, which booths to see, and even some help when we got lost. All in all, quite the interactive, front row, video experience.