I recently presented a webinar via Google+ Hangouts On Air. Overall, the system performed well, and the presentation came off without a hitch, though the lack of iOS compatibility is a definite downer. In this article, I’ll describe what Google+ Hangouts On Air is and the procedure used to produce the webinar.
The Lay of the Land
If you’re not familiar with Google+ Hangouts On Air, here’s the quick flyover. As you may know, Google+ Hangouts is a feature of Google+ that let groups of up to ten individuals collectively videoconference, share desktops, edit Google Documents, watch YouTube videos and perform other group functions (Figure 1). It’s a free service and definitely has some nice utility on its own.
Figure 1. Here’s a Google+ Hangout.
Hangouts On Air is also free, and it lets you broadcast Google+ Hangouts to any number of viewers who can watch on YouTube (Figure 2), your Google+ page, or a YouTube player embedded in another website. The viewers can watch, and may have some interactivity with the Hangout participants depending upon where they watch, which I’ll detail below.
While we have Figure 1 in comfortable view, let’s discuss Hangout operation. All Hangout participants have roughly the same view as shown in Figure 1, absent the Cameraman option which only available for the originator. The windows on the bottom show webcams from each participant. During discussions, whoever is speaking appears in the main window that David occupies in Figure 1. The video follows the audio (more on this below). During the On Air session, only the center screen is broadcast to remote viewers, who see neither the controls on the left, nor the comments on the right.
At a high level, these concepts are easiest to understand if you remember that two different processes occur. The Hangout is the workspace where you and your guests interact, as shown in Figure 1, and a Hangout can occur without an On Air broadcast. The On Air broadcast is the streaming of the Hangout to viewers afforded limited interaction with the Hangout itself (Figure 2). You can’t have an On Air broadcast without a Hangout.
Figure 2. Here’s the Google+ Hangout broadcast to YouTube via Google+ Hangouts On Air.
The use case for the On Air feature is pretty clear. You can broadcast a single speaker live via YouTube Live or any number of other services, but if you want to broadcast a discussion involving two or more speakers, you need Hangouts On Air. In addition, YouTube Live doesn’t offer an easy way to broadcast screens or applications, which Hangouts On Air does.
As an example, the webinar that I produced covered adaptive streaming. I was joined by David Hassoun, CEO of RealEyes Media , a consultancy that implements adaptive streaming and many other video-related projects. I started with a thirty-minute PowerPoint presentation, broadcast via screen sharing, which described what adaptive streaming is and identified the technology alternatives. Then, David answered technical questions from the audience that had been emailed to me before the presentation.
Now onto how to implement a Hangout On Air.
To broadcast on Google+ Hangouts On Air, you’ll need both Google+ and YouTube accounts. To go beyond 15 minutes, you’ll need a YouTube account that’s been extended beyond that limitation. To start a Google Hangout On Air, login to your Google+ page, click the drop-down menu on the extreme left and choose Hangouts On Air.
Figure 3. Getting to the Hangouts On Air start page
This takes you to the Google Live Hangouts On Air page (https://plus.google.com/hangouts?hl=en ), which displays all On Air broadcasts currently under way. Once there, you should see a blue, Start a Hangout On Air, button in the upper right (Figure 4). Click the button, and, if it’s the first time you’ve run the Hangout feature, a wizard will walk you through downloading and installing the Hangouts Plugin. You may also have to agree to some terms and conditions along the way.
Figure 4. Starting the Hangout On Air
Next, you’ll be asked to name the Hangout and invite participants (Figure 5). You can invite viewers in your circles or type in email addresses. However, you don’t have to invite anyone to start the Hangout and you can invite people to join the Hangout after the Hangout begins.
Figure 5. Naming your Hangout On Air
When you click Start Hangout on Air in Figure 5, the Hangout starts and you’re taken to the interface shown in Figure 1. In the Hangout, you can chat, prepare for the broadcast. and the like. When you’re ready to start the On Air broadcast, click the Start Broadcast button on the upper right of the Hangouts interface. This appears as the End Broadcast button in Figure 1 because the broadcast has already started.
After you click the Start Broadcast button, a message reminds you that you’ll be broadcasting publicly. Click that and the Hangout On Air goes live after a few moments of processing. In my experience, there’s about a 45 second delay between when you push the Start Broadcast button and when the video appears in YouTube or on your Google+ page. That’s because Google has to input the streams from all participants, produce the multiple iterations offered during the broadcast (and later via video-on-demand) and transmit the streams to the On Air viewers. To be clear, you shouldn’t wait 45 seconds to start talking. Instead, you should start talking right away, and the video will appear about 45 seconds later to On Air viewers.
Controlling the Hangout
Once you’re in the Hangout, a toolbar on the upper right controls most video and telephony-related functions (Figure 6). On the extreme left is a volume meter with a clipping warning. The next two icons mute audio and disable video, while the bars let you limit the bandwidth consumed by the Hangout. The gears icon opens the controls for your webcam, microphone, and speakers, while the phone icon ends the hangout.
Figure 6. Hangout controls.
Though I didn’t exhaustively explore the features available for the Hangout, several are worthy of note. You access them all on the left side of the Hangout interface (Figure 1) which I’ve duplicated as Figure 7.
From the top down, Invite People lets you add people to the Hangout, while Chat opens the chat window in the Hangout for Hangout participants only. Screenshare lets you show an application screen or full screen in the center of the Hangout, a feature I used during my discussion to display PowerPoint slides.
Figure 7. Hangout Features.
Q&A allows viewers watching on your Google+ page to ask questions during the broadcast (see Figure 8). Note that comments from YouTube do not appear in the Hangout; more on this below.
Capture grabs a screenshot of the Hangout, Cameraman lets you control the audio and video feeds from the Hangout participants, and YouTube lets you all watch the same YouTube video. Google effects include a bunch of consumer-y effects like hats and mustaches to paste over participants. View more apps lets you install additional apps, like the Hangout Toolbox, which produced the lower-third graphics shown in Figures 1 and 2.
Where to Watch?
Probably the biggest organizational challenge is figuring out where to send the On Air viewers to watch the broadcast. I marketed my webinar to my mailing list, asking recipients to register beforehand and promising to send them a day-of email with a PDF copy of the presentation and instructions for viewing the webinar. The big question was, where to tell them to view the On Air broadcast.
At a high level, you have four options; your Google+ page, the YouTube page the On Air broadcast will display within, your YouTube Live page, and an embedded player on your own website. There are three groups of variables to consider as summarized in Table 1. I’ll discuss each.
First is the notice period. Your Google+ Page will automatically update with the Hangout once it starts, so you can provide that URL to viewers days in advance. When viewers arrive at the page, the Hangout should be at the top of the page. There’s also a way to schedule Hangouts which I didn’t use or try — you can read more about .
Alternative two is to direct your viewers to the YouTube page automatically created when you start the On Air broadcast. Unfortunately, you can’t get the YouTube URL until you actually create the Hangout, which likely will be about 30 minutes before the broadcast. That makes sending the viewer to the YouTube viewing page a bad choice, because if you don’t get the email to your viewers in time, they won’t know where to watch the video.
A better choice is your YouTube Live page, which has a fixed URL of www.youtube.com/user/username/live. For example, my YouTube Live page is www.youtube.com/user/janozer/live . You can send this URL to your viewers at anytime. Once you create the Hangout, again, usually 30 minutes in advance, the Hangout will appear on the YouTube Live page. Once it goes live, viewers can watch there; if they come to the YouTube Live page after the Hangout starts, they’ll be automatically taken directly to the specific YouTube viewing page.
The fourth alternative is a page on your own website into which you embed the YouTube Player, using the same embed procedure used for VOD YouTube videos. While you obviously can create this page days in advance, you won’t be able to get the embed code until you actually start the Hangout.
Overall, from a timing perspective, sending viewers to the specific YouTube page is the worst option, since you won’t know that URL until 30 minutes before the event. Murphy’s Law caught me on this one; my plan was to send viewers to the YouTube page directly, and my email manager went down for “unscheduled maintenance” just after I sent the email about 25 minutes before the start. As a result, some registrants got the email, some didn’t, and attendance really suffered.
Table 1. Pros and cons of the various Hangout On Air viewing alternatives.
The second factor to consider when determining where your viewers should watch the On Air broadcast is interactivity, which is often key to engagement. As mentioned above, the Q&A function that lets On Air viewers ask questions to Hangout participants only works when viewing on the Google+ page (Figure 6); not when viewing from a YouTube page or embedded page. For viewers who like to interact, this is the optimum viewing experience.
Figure 8. The only viewers who get to ask questions are those that watch from the Google+ page.
While YouTube viewers can use YouTube’s comments features to ask questions, these don’t appear in the Hangout, just on the YouTube page. While you can obviously watch the page and respond to comments, it’s not as integrated into the overall experience. The embedded player gets neither option, it’s watch-only, so it offers the least opportunity to interact with the presentation.
If your website content management system has a comment function, you can advise your viewers to use this, though again, these won’t appear in the Hangout and you’ll have to watch the page separately. If you use your own comments function, consider disabling comment moderation (unless you have someone who can moderate during the session), and also CAPTCHA or similar security, as either of these hoops may discourage questions and comments and frustrate your users.
Other factors to consider when choosing where to send On Air viewers to watch the stream are detailed in an article entitled “6 Reasons to Use a Static Web Page for Your Google+ Hangout On Air .” To summarize author Stephan Hovnanian, if you direct users to watch the video in an embedded player on your website, you control distractions around the video, and can add niceties like a link to download the presentation. Viewers also trigger pageviews reflected in your analytics package. In contrast, Hovnanian advises, both Google+ and YouTube may have too much distracting eye candy for many participants to resist, causing them to click away from your presentation.
What’s my take? As mentioned, I opted for the YouTube viewing page the first time around, which was the worst alternative, but will direct viewers to the Google+ page for subsequent broadcasts. Though I recognize the distraction risks posed by Hovnanian, I feel the enhanced interactivity is key. That said, for more permanent viewing, I’ll also create a page on my website with the embedded YouTube video. If you want to avoid YouTube entirely after the event, of course, you can download the presentation video from YouTube, upload that to your website and display it directly within your own player.
For administration purposes, note that you get the embed codes/YouTube viewing page information by clicking Embed on the top left of Figure 1, which I’ve cut out for display as Figure 9. Note that you can send the Google plus URL on top of the browser window to those you want to participate in the Hangout. I’m not sure why you’d prefer this to inviting them at the start of the Hangout (Figure 5), or by using the Invite people button shown in Figure 6, but there it is.
Figure 9. Grabbing the embed codes and YouTube URLs
Regarding your Google+ page URL, all Google+ pages have a home page (https:/plus.google.com/accountnumber/posts). The URL you get when you log into Google+ won’t work (https://plus.google.com/u/0/ ); to find the right address, go to your Google+ home page and select Profile from the drop down menu on the left (see Figure 3). This opens the page to a numerical URL like https://plus.google.com/u/0/114339185640058543911/posts  that should work. Perhaps some day Google will move to a name-based page like YouTube, but for now, it’s a numbers-based address.
OK, now few words on the webinar itself. First, from a gestalt perspective, the Hangout felt less formal than a webinar; just David and I chatting with a few folks watching. So I didn’t feel as compelled to perfect the background and lighting. I also didn’t feel compelled to break out my $3,500 camcorder and wireless lavalier system for audio. Instead, I used the Logitech Broadcaster webcam , which has a video light with just enough oomph to remove the shadows from my face. Rather than use the Broadcaster’s embedded microphone, I plugged a no-name wired lavaliere microphone directly into the webcam, which worked well.
During the webcast itself, Hangout will automatically switch participants into the center frame based upon audio. As you recall, this center frame is the region actually broadcast to On Air viewers. While this audio-based auto-selection generally worked well, it sometimes worked too well; for example, when David was talking, if I clicked my mouse too loudly, I was brought back into the center. The moderator can control this by muting the microphone of non-speaking participants, while individual participants can stop this by muting their microphones when not talking. This is particularly critical when showing a PowerPoint presentation via the Screen Sharing function; a loud click from David would have put him in the center frame. To avoid this, David wisely muted his microphone during my presentation.
Regarding the presentation, you have two options with the Screenshare feature; you can choose an application window, or broadcast the full screen. Unaware of the latter option before the event, I used the former, which unfortunately resulted in the editing controls shown around my presentation in PowerPoint Mac 2011 (Figure 9). Perhaps there’s a way to view only the presentation in that program (there is in previous versions), but I couldn’t find it before the event.
Figure 10. Showing the application window showed the application controls.
As I later learned, if you choose the full screen option in the Screenshare, you can enter full-screen slideshow mode in PowerPoint and the Hangout will broadcast the full screen view without the controls. If you go full screen, consider customizing the layout of your PowerPoint presentation to the resolution of your screen, since any letterboxing will appear as black bars in the broadcast view. If you go full screen, however, you lose the view of the Hangout, so you can’t adjust controls or see any questions that come in. Whichever view you use — application window or full screen — your mouse movements over the screen also appear in the broadcast, which is nice, since it lets you direct your viewers’ attention to details in the slides.
The main negative of the Screenshare view is that you can’t create a view that combines the speaker and the slides — it’s one or the other. There’s a nice summary of the benefits  that presenter video adds to a webinar, which include enabling viewers to lip read to enhance comprehension and the ability to use gestures and facial expressions to emphasize information delivery. I prefer a mixed video/screen view for webinars, and would have liked the option.
As a practical matter, you’ll get the best results using a headset, which both David and I used during the event. There are no controls over video resolution, though both the live and on-demand YouTube streams have a 720p version available. Quality didn’t seem quite as high as that experienced when I broadcast via YouTube Live, but I was using a $200 webcam as opposed to a $4,000 camcorder, which could account for some of the difference. The background was also less compression-friendly; rather than opt for the plain blue background I’ve used for other webinars, I went au natural to promote the Hangout feel. You can view and listen to the webinar  and draw your own conclusions.
Overall, once you get going, you’ll find the system easy to use, and the quality more than sufficient to present to and engage your audience.
Once the broadcast is complete, YouTube automatically converts the On Air broadcast to an on-demand file you can edit, watch, embed, and link to just like any other YouTube file. You also get the standard analytics that YouTube provides for live and VOD videos.
During the broadcast, I didn’t test mobile compatibility. In subsequent testing, I was able to participate in Hangouts with two iOS 6.0 devices, an iPhone 4s and an iPad 2, but not my iPad 1; the Hangouts+ app requires iOS 6.0 or better, which the original iPad doesn’t support. I couldn’t connect to a Hangout or watch the broadcast with my Toshiba Thrive tablet running Android 4.0, but my debugging efforts weren’t exhaustive and I am an Android novice. I was assured by my colleague José Castillo, who has used Hangouts On Air many times (and who provided lots of helpful information presented in this article), that you can participate in a Hangout in many Android devices. If mobile participation and mobile viewing are important to you, I suggest that you flesh out iOS and Android compatibility for participating in Hangouts and watching On Air broadcasts, and advise your potential participants/viewers of your findings.
Overall, the ability to host and broadcast multiple speakers is a killer feature that few webcast providers can match without significant upfront preparation and cost. While these services supply a laundry list of features that Google+ Hangouts On Air does not, including registration capabilities, security options, quizzes, polls, monetization features, branding, and post-webinar indexing, Google+ Hangouts On Air provides several critical functions that can help many businesses with their marketing, sales, education, and other efforts. If you’re looking for a vehicle to reach customers, employees, and partners, Hangouts On Air is definitely worth a look.