The New Hybrid Event

A shot of the 10,000 square foot stage that we utilized recently to produce a new type of event, a CIO Virtual Hybrid Roundtable broadcasting to an audience of hundreds of participants all over the country.

What have I been up to lately? As 2021 moves on, we’re starting to see the beginning of production opening back up as the pandemic winds down with the deployment of successful vaccines. Life has been far from normal, but things seem to be moving back, slowly, to a modified version of normalcy as far as production goes. We received a call from a client a couple of months ago who wanted to discuss a different and interesting type of project, proposing a CIO Virtual Hybrid Roundtable.

Let’s break that down. We can probably mostly figure out that a CIO is a Chief Information Officer. These are the folks who lead Information technology teams within corporations. They often interface with marketing, PR and manufacturing, and they tend to have their hands in all of the different facets of the organization since IT and the other functions they’re often in charge of tend to be of primary importance, especially in 2021. A roundtable is self-explanatory, but what’s a virtual hybrid roundtable? The virtual part is simple. It seems that a lot people either are still corporately prohibited from flying or are limiting themselves to avoid flying because of potential exposure to Covid. I’ve only flown once, from Los Angeles to Denver and back, since the pandemic began and it really outlined, from an infectious disease standpoint, how vulnerable flying makes you to potential exposure.

The hybrid part is more interesting. This client wanted to bring in a small audience of about 30-40 CIOs local to Los Angeles so they too could participate as the live audience and in the Q&A sections of the event. Some of the speakers would appear in person and some of them virtually. Some of the audience would be there in person, but a larger percentage was going to watch the session virtually. The question the client posed to us was how would we create an environment where this event could take place? How would we be able to weave live event with virtual for both live and virtual participants? A solution that, as far as we knew, didn’t exist, needed to be thought of. We’ve produced Live Internet Broadcast hybrid events before, but never with the close and fluid participation from an audience of hundreds of participants.

Unless you already work in a corporate environment, you may not be familiar with Microsoft Teams. It’s the main platform we utilized in a new way, that as far as we know, nobody else has tried yet.

The Platform

We normally either produce shows and footage the traditional way—we pre-produce, produce, shoot the show, edit it and deliver it—or, alternately, we live stream, which is essentially live internet broadcasting on a variety of platforms like YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Vimeo Live or our own custom-created web landing pages we create for clients. The client will often embed our page we create on their corporate website as well.

Our client for this project didn’t want to use any of these methods. They were intent on producing their CIO Roundtable within a Microsoft Teams Environment. If you work in the corporate world, there’s a good chance you’ve used it, but if you’re not, there’s a good chance you may have no idea of what Teams is as it’s a relatively new Microsoft platform. Microsoft describes Teams as “a cloud-based team collaboration software that is part of the Microsoft 365 and Office 365 suite of applications. The core capabilities in Microsoft Teams include business messaging, calling, video meetings and file sharing. Businesses of all sizes can use Teams.”

Teams is Microsoft’s core cloud-based unified communications (UC) offering, and it competes with similar products, such as Slack, Cisco Webex and Google Workspace. As a business communications app, Teams enables local and remote workers to collaborate on content in real-time and near real-time across different devices, including laptops and mobile devices.”

Ok, enough of the Microsoft commercial, but it’s important that you understand what the platform is and most significantly what it’s intended to do. It most assuredly wasn’t designed as a live internet broadcasting platform; it’s much closer to a business version of Zoom with more robust corporate security and better work team distribution integration. My producing partner Gregg happens to be a brilliant webcast engineer, so he took it upon himself to learn how we could integrate our Live Internet Broadcast into the Teams environment for an audience of around 250 CIOs from all over the world.

Space precludes me from getting deep into all of the hours of engineering and experimentation that went into figuring out how to make the video and especially the audio work, but with some intense research and proof of concept, Gregg cracked the code on how we could make what the client wanted to achieve happen in real life. We had our platform, Microsoft Teams. But how would we integrate a Live Internet Broadcast with both in-person and virtual guest presenters and speakers with an in-person and virtual audience? That required some more secret sauce.

This is Standardvision Studio’s 26-foot-wide 4K LED video wall. It’s curved, the image is very bright and lifelike looking and is the current state of the art in LED monitor wall technology.

The Other Half Of It

The client proposed utilizing a 26×10-foot 4K LED video wall. We’d output from Microsoft Teams and place the dynamic interface onto the video wall. At any given moment, the Teams interface could be placed in any of several different viewing modes so that specific participants could be placed on the huge video wall as a single shot, two shot or in a “Zoom-like” multi-panel display that would show dozens of the participants at a time. The challenge was finding someone locally who had the technology, stage and knowledge to take the output of our Live Internet Broadcast and integrate it into the Teams environment and then project and map it out onto the 26-foot video wall.

Fortunately, we were able to partner with Standardvision Studios, a virtual production LED stage in Los Angeles. StandardVision Studios is a 10,000 square-foot full-service film production studio facility featuring a high-resolution 4k panoramic LED virtual production stage, extra-large green screen cyclorama and white cyclorama walls and a variety of programmable LED backdrops serving all scales of motion picture and video productions for cast and crew sizes up to 150 people.

A BTS shot from my VMix workstation interface showing the switched feed that was being output into Microsoft Teams and broadcast to the live audience using the video wall and to the virtual audience viewing on Teams.

The Live Internet Broadcast Component

Our company, Webcast and Beyond, brought the Live Internet Broadcast portion of the equation to the table. Our budget was extremely tight, so we ended up deploying three of NDI PTZ Optics cameras to capture the three angles needed for the show in lieu of three camera operators with regular video cameras. I acted as director, manning our VMix Live Streaming Station that was utilized to feed both Microsoft Teams and the video wall. Not only was I calling the show, switching and rolling in prerecorded videos, I also controlled and positioned the three PTZ cameras with our dedicated PTZ Optics camera control panel.

We added the new Allen & Heath SQ5 digital audio mixer to our list of gear for this project. Its auto-mute and scene recall features proved to be foundational to executing this project.

My colleague Gregg was charged with manning our new Allen & Heath SQ5 48 channel digital mixer as well as miking and unmiking a revolving cast of presenters using three channels of wireless microphones. As is true to most other forms of production, audio proved to be the most challenging part of the whole project. We had to feed a PA system for the live audience as well as a sub-mix for the remote audience via teams and at any time, a remote Teams viewer might chime in with a question for another remote guest or an in-person presenter.

One of our PTZ Optics cameras capturing the action. We used a single Ethernet connection, utilizing the NDI HX protocol and transmitting power to the camera via POE (Power Over Ethernet). These technologies make for a very quick and efficient way to power and transmit signal to our switcher over a single cable.

Reactive Versus Rehearsed

Because of the nature of this project—it was a live meeting, not a “presentation”—we only had the briefest of a technical rehearsal the morning of the event. It wasn’t a proper talent rehearsal because our participants weren’t “talent,” they were merely participants in the roundtable. This meant that for the entire production, which lasted about 4 hours, we were “reacting” to what was happening rather than knowing exactly what was happening next.

This is the PTZ Optics camera control panel. I utilized the panel to pan, tilt and zoom—PTZ—the cameras as well as adjust exposure and focus.

Fortunately, the client understood that we were producing the meeting in a way that few have ever attempted, so he laid the groundwork with the audience that there might be some moments of roughness and/or technical challenges. There were moments of technical challenge with participant connections, but overall, the event came off more smoothly that we thought it could. The client was thrilled with the outcome and we learned an entirely new set of skills as well as a deep understanding of how the Microsoft Teams environment can be molded to fit into a box it wasn’t designed for, Live Internet Broadcast.

These were camera positions that I quickly programmed into the PTZ Optics camera controller. If we’d have had a talent rehearsal, I could have more carefully prepared the camera positions, but as this project was entirely impromptu as far as presenter location and position in camera, I had to react on the fly.

The End Result And The Future

The feedback from both the in-person and remote audience was stellar, and we anticipate that we could be pursuing many other corporate events and functions within the Teams environment. This production also confirmed our evolving view that now that we have endured a worldwide pandemic, the hybrid event—combining the live in-person audience experience with a premium remote audience experience—is the new reality. A lot of people who used to travel for a lot of different events have learned that the remote experience can be executed at a very sophisticated level and there can be a true virtual experience that’s meaningful and technologically sophisticated if the right mix of resources, gear and providers are skillfully combined.