Video Essentials

BoinxTV


Driven by consumer demand and recent advances in video processing, the production quality of streamed video has begun to rival that of broadcast television. While hardware-based video switches and title generators have been around for years, a new breed of software-based video processors has begun to emerge. Leading the pack is BoinxTV, an affordable software application from Boinx Software (www.boinx.com) that transforms a desktop Mac into a full-blown TV production studio.

Like conventional switchers or mixing boards, the BoinxTV platform accepts a variety of video and audio inputs. In its most basic configuration, BoinxTV uses Mac’s built-in iSight camera and microphone as inputs. More sophisticated users can connect up multiple webcams and camcorders to the BoinxTV system in a variety of ways, including USB, FireWire, HDMI, SDI, and composite video. External microphones and audio mixers can also be easily connected. These video and audio devices are then defined in BoinxTV as “sources,” which can be switched in or out of the program at will. Sources are assigned to individual layers within the program so that video overlay effects such as picture-in-picture (PIP) are possible. The software can support up to 50 separate layers and includes a wide variety of built-in special effects such as text and graphics overlays, text crawls (news), RSS feeds, custom backgrounds, video filters, and so forth. The BoinxTV software mixes all these inputs and layers together and renders them in a single video/audio window on the Mac’s screen (Figure 1). This video window can then be delivered or streamed to the viewer in a variety of ways.

Figure 1. The BoinxTV control panel

There are three operational modes for BoinxTV: Live to Disk, Live to Internet, and Live to Stage. The Live to Disk mode is used to record live events to a hard drive for later playback. This approach helps reduce production costs by allowing the attendant to handle all the video and audio mixing and editing on-the-fly rather than in a more time-consuming and expensive post-production mode. Movies are recorded and stored locally as Apple QuickTime .MOV files. Using BoinxTV’s built-in transcoding software, these can be exported in a variety of popular formats, including MPEG-4, Windows Media, AVI, FLC, DivX, and more. These files can also be formatted for portable devices such as iPods, iPhones, and 3G mobile phones.

Software Encoding
BoinxTV supports live streaming in its Live to Internet mode. The mixed video output from the BoinxTV output window on the computer screen can be streamed using either software or hardware. The main advantage of using software encoding is the low cost. The software approach uses a licensed third-party screen capture program named GrabberRaster (http://b-l-a-c-k-o-p.com/ GrabberRaster.html), which takes the BoinxTV video window and turns it into a virtual device or camera that is then recognized by the Mac’s operating system. While the GrabberRaster program works well once it’s installed and configured, the documentation is weak and confusing. Boinx offers a video tutorial on how to use GrabberRaster, but this too was somewhat incomplete. A freeware alternative to GrabberRaster is CamTwist (http://allocinit.com/index.php?title=CamTwist), a techie-oriented program designed to add special effects to video chats. CamTwist can also stream to free Flash-based public video sites such as Ustream, Stickam, and Justin.tv.

With GrabberRaster, the output from the virtual camera is fed into a software encoder such as Apple’s free QuickTime (QT) Broadcaster (www.apple.com/quicktime/broadcaster) and pushed to any content delivery network (CDN) that supports QuickTime streaming. For higher video quality and better compression, QuickTime Broadcaster uses H.264 as its native encoding format. For my live internet testing, I used the NetBroadcasting.TV (www.netbroadcasting.tv) CDN, which transcoded my QuickTime stream into Flash video for playback on any Flash video-enabled client, i.e., Windows PC, Mac, and Linux machine. Setup for the NetBroadcasting.TV CDN within QT Broadcaster was quick and easy, and the network performed faultlessly during my testing.

Hardware Encoding
With hardware streaming, an external encoder or encoding computer is used to handle the video encoding. With this approach, the BoinxTV output is set to full-screen mode and the DVI signal and audio are then fed into the encoder hardware. This reduces the CPU and memory burden on the BoinxTV Mac and gives the user many more options when it comes to encoder choices, selecting a CDN, streaming over private networks, and encoding formats.

In the Live to Stage configuration option, the BoinxTV output is not encoded but, instead, is fed directly to a projection display or other large-sized screen. This opens up the live presentation to all the video feeds and effects present within BoinxTV; it can include live sources such as RSS feeds or Twitter updates.

Figure 2. BoinxTV offers chroma keying to insert artificial backdrops, as well as rich text and image layering functionality.

Video Layers and Features

One of the most powerful features of BoinxTV is its layers capability. A layer can contain any type of image (camera input, movie, JPEG graphic, etc.) as well as text, colors, backgrounds, and sound. These layers are then built up, one on top of the other, to form a composite video image, much as layers of images are built up in Photoshop.

BoinxTV comes with its own library of predefined layers, including movie credits, video switcher, news crawl, station logo, and others.

In the hands of a skilled user, the richness and quality of BoinxTV’s video output compares favorably with broadcast systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. Layers can be controlled in a number of different ways. They can be manually switched on or off, set to trigger based on an event, or even set via timers. Each separate layer comes with its own set of properties to further control its appearance. A static text layer, for example, has controls for font type, font color, text size, kerning, alignment, shadow, and more. Users can also create their own custom layers using Apple’s Quartz Composer software.

BoinxTV comes with a number other features of note. The chroma key or green-screen feature (commonly seen on TV news and weather shows) is used to insert an artificial backdrop behind the presenter (Figure 2). This technique requires a uniformly colored background in the studio and uses filters within BoinxTV to mask the background color and substitute a user-defined color or image as the backdrop.

Special effects can be added to video camera feeds using BoinxTV’s library of filters. Carrying suggestive names such as Comic Book, Pop Art, and Sepia, these filter effects can add visual sizzle to boring sets and make them look as if they just came off a movie screen.

Templates and Usability
To make it easier for new users to quickly start using the software, BoinxTV comes with a set of seven predefined document templates that range from new sand sports show templates to a widescreen shopping channel template (Figure 3). These templates control all aspects of the output video, including size, frame rate,and predefined layers. The news template, for example,contains all those elements needed to produce a professional-looking news show, including station logo,digital clock, news crawl, spinning background globe,and so forth. Users are free to use existing templates or to modify them by adding or subtracting layers as needed.

Figure 3. BoinxTV comes with a set of seven predefined document templates that range from news and sports show templates to a wide screen shopping channel template.

Although BoinxTV offers a number of powerful professional features, the program’s learning curve is reasonable given the functionality of the software. It takes a few hours to get used to working with layers,especially when you wonder where your video camera display went. (Hint: You accidentally hid this layer under another layer; make sure your subject is above the background layer.) It also takes time to learn to use the controls within a layer, but you can readily see the results of your changes in real time in the program’s preview window.

Getting live streaming to work over a CDN sounds simple, but it can be tricky; you have to launch GrabberRaster, BoinxTV, and QuickTime Broadcaster in just the right sequence. Otherwise, the GrabberRaster virtual device doesn’t appear in QT Broadcaster. Let’s hope that Boinx and GrabberRaster publish a more detailed quick start or configuration guide on this.

Editions and Pricing
BoinxTV is available as a download from the vendor or the Kagi software store (www.kagi.com/index.php) in two different versions. A single license for the unlimited full version is $499. The Sponsored Edition (which is identical to the unlimited version except that a 5-second Boinx credit is shown at the beginning and end of each broadcast) is $199. For those users interested in trying the software before they purchase it, Boinx offers a 30-day free trial. Educational customers can contact Boinx directly for special pricing.

If you go the software encoding route, take a few deep breaths before jumping in. GrabberRaster ScreenCastEdition is available from the vendor for $29.

Conclusion
While video overlay programs exist for Windows PCs,most are fairly basic and can’t match the features found in BoinxTV. To accomplish the same thing in studio hardware, you’d need a live switcher, titler, and character generator, logo generator, and chroma key system. Did I mention the video overlay stopwatch and video graphics display engine? Ka-ching.

BoinxTV installed on a Mac for less than $2,000 just might be the video bargain of the year.




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