Webcasting at the Institute

Calvin Tullos, tullos@stsci.edu


A decade ago, webcasting began at the Institute as an experiment in the erstwhile Office of Development, Technology, and Innovation. The goal has been to increase the impact of scientific talks presented in the Institute’s auditorium by broadcasting them over the Internet. The first event was “Dark Matter,” the 2001 Spring Symposium. Then as now, anyone worldwide could go to the Institute’s streaming-media website and “attend” a talk—listen, see the pictures, and take in the Q&A.

Following the success of the first trial, demand has steadily increased for webcasting technology and services at the Institute. This demand comes from internal and external users, and involves both real-time audiences and browsers in the archive. Today, real-time users account for only 10–15% of the webcasting audience, with the rest being archive users. The archive contains over 1.7 terabytes of webcast presentations.

Webcasting has come a long way in ten years, which is no surprise for an enterprise based on high-performance computers, high-speed networks, and vast information storage. Trying to operate on the cutting edge of such technologies has improved production values, increased the reliability of capturing the audio and video, and has elevated the overall user experience. Initially, we used remotely controlled security cameras and borrowed computers. We experimented with various encoding and serving software. The video quality was barely passable. Production lighting was a constant challenge, in part because overhead projectors and transparencies were still in use. Today, of course, speakers use their computers to transport and deliver their presentations, and the computer graphics now flow seamlessly into the webcast. Meanwhile, the Institute’s infrastructure of audio-visual equipment—cameras, microphones, audio and video mixers—has advanced, as have capabilities for formatting, encoding, storing, and delivering presentations. To users, probably the most noticeable technical advances are due the steady increase of available bandwidth, which translates directly into improved quality of the webcast experience. In 2012, we plan to introduce the high-definition video format.

Despite enormous gains in technology, real-time broadcasts of all kinds retain some of the spontaneity and occasional frisson of the live theater. This is true of Institute webcasting, too. The webcasting team is always on the set, ready to trouble-shoot and fix problems. Going to the front of the auditorium before a packed house is not for the faint of heart! Usually, if we act as if we know what we are doing and stay calm while others may be getting agitated, things work out. Meanwhile, we have become familiar with every manner of undesirable laptop behavior, often due to temperamental hardware or software. In a pinch, we can call on the Institute help desk or colleagues in other branches to bail us out in a critical situation.

The variety of programming of Institute webcasts has also expanded over the years. The staple is still scientific talks, including colloquia, mini-workshops, and multi-day conferences. Regular series include Spring Symposia, Public Lecture Series, Hard Science/Soft Skills, Youth for Astronomy and Engineering, All Hands Meetings, and talks by Hubble Fellows, summer students, and post-docs. We also carry rocket launches, NASA press-release briefings, and visits from astronauts, senators, and other luminaries. This programming is available to the world here.

Our webcasting clients include almost every department of the Institute and some at the Johns Hopkins University. For example, we recently carried a special event put on for graduate students in the French Department—this was the first time we covered an event without understanding a word. (Meanwhile, does attending practically every scientific talk at the Institute for ten years qualify for a degree of some kind?)

The webcasting team is pleased to offer first-class streaming services to the Institute and its communities. We are proud to play a part in the evolution of the workplace, including the various work styles made possible by higher computer speeds, greater network bandwidths, and increasing portability. Indeed, we are now exploring streaming to mobile devices.

Like everyone else in the astronomical community, we don’t know what discoveries and innovations the coming decade will hold. Nevertheless, we suspect you may learn about them on a webcast.