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Can Google Hangouts on Air be used effectively at conferences and events? In this post we describe how to use Google Hangouts in an event context and explore some of the potential issues for conference organisers.

 
I have spoken to a lot of people who struggle with Google Hangouts and Google Hangouts on Air. On the surface, it seems like such a great tool with enormous potential for events, but when you try to use it in anything other than an informal setting, it can be tricky to get right and frustratingly flaky.

As I described in my last post, we have been investigating how to use Google Hangouts on Air as a way of offering a space for a remote audience to engage with an event more directly, including a backstage-style experience during the coffee and lunch breaks.

In this post, I’ll describe how Google Hangouts on Air can be used at a conference or event, and highlight some of the issues that need to considered before offering a Hangout as part of your event amplification strategy.

 

Planning an Event Google Hangout on Air

 

It is important to plan your content carefully to keep your Google Hangout flowing.

At FOTE14, the Google Hangout was used to give ‘behind the scenes access’ for the remote audience, so we had to plan enough content to fill the extended lunch and coffee breaks, whilst keeping the schedule flexible enough that we could bring in remote attendees and give them space to ask questions and interact with the event.

We opted for the following formula:

  • The organisers designated a stand for the Hangout, thus providing a fixed point to direct delegates towards throughout the event so they could join the discussion and share their views.
  • The Google Hangout was hosted by an experienced presenter who knew a number of the regular event attendees and could therefore easily invite them to chat as they passed the stand.
  • A production assistant was dedicated to the role of finding interesting people willing to talk on camera and lining them up ready to step forward when a slot became available.
  • The Hangout itself was operated by a dedicated member of staff, who was able to handle the technical aspects of the Hangout, including the camera work, audio, and online audience support.
  • We planned a flexible schedule of interviews to help map out how we would use the time. This helped to give the presenter an idea of how much time to allow for each interview, and where a conversation could be encouraged or wrapped up quickly.
  • We asked remote participants to sign up via a Google Form if they wanted to join the Hangout to quiz a speaker directly or give their own view on an issue. This allowed us to provide participants with some guidelines via email before they joined the Hangout to help things go smoothly when they were on air. Remote viewers could watch the Hangout on Air publicly, but could not join the Hangout via their own webcam without signing up first.
  • We ran the Hangout using our mobile live streaming rig, which gave us the flexibility to take the Hangout audience on an impromptu tour of the venue when we ran short of interviewees.

The key to keeping the Hangout flowing here was an abundance of vocal attendees with opinions to share, and the flexibility to respond to the availability of people to interview by roaming around the venue.

It is also important to note that running the Hangout required three people with dedicated roles: the presenter, the Hangout operator, and the production assistant. Each of these people were fully occupied whilst the Hangout was live on air and were vital to its success. If you are planning to use a Google Hangout at an event, make sure you do not underestimate the number of staff required to support it.

 

Using Google Hangouts at an Event

 

Setting up your Google Hangout on Air

 
One of the places people seem to get most frustrated with Google Hangouts on Air is at the set up and scheduling stage. The main reason for this is the difference between using Google Plus as an individual and using it as a page. This can also cause confusion when you try to find a scheduled Google Hangout in order to start it. To avoid frustration, you need to make sure you are using the right identity.

Here are the steps you’ll need to follow:

  1. Login to http://plus.google.com
  2. In the top right hand corner, click on your profile picture. This will bring up a list of the business pages associated with your Google identity. Click on the right identity for your event, so that when you schedule the Hangout it will appear as a Hangout organised by your business/page, rather than by you as an individual
  3. Next, go to the ‘Google+ Page’ drop down menu on the left of the screen and select ‘Hangouts’
  4. Click the ‘Start a Google Hangout on Air’ button
  5. Fill in the required fields to give your Hangout a name, description and a start time, then click ‘Share’
  6. You will be taken to a holding page for your Hangout on Air. Make sure you save the link to this page so you can easily get back to it when it is time to start the Hangout. Note: If the blue start button does not appear when you come back to this page, it is because you are viewing the page as ‘you’ rather than your page’s identity. Repeat Step 2 and you’ll be fine!

In the ‘Details’ section of your new Hangout page you will be able to access links to share the event and an embed code so you can add the Hangout to your conference website, if you prefer.

As with every other aspect of your event, you will need to promote your Google Hangout on Air. Make sure you invite everyone who follows your G+ page and promote it to your potential audience more broadly.

Starting your Google Hangout

 
When it is time to start your Hangout, you need to navigate to the Hangout page described above.

There are a few things to bear in mind before you press start:

  • Make sure you turn on the Q&A app by clicking the ‘Q&A’ icon.
  • Turn off the applause app by clicking the hand clapping icon. This is optional. Personally, I find the applause feature a bit gimmicky, but it might suit certain events.
  • Make sure your camera and audio source are set up and ready to go.

The camera and audio set up are going to be the trickiest things to get right when using Google Hangouts on Air at an event. Google Hangouts are designed to be used informally a place for group video calls. As such, it uses your webcam and inbuilt microphone by default. This may not be appropriate in a conference setting.

How you choose to address this will depend on the type of computer you are planning to use to run the Hangout, and the type of camera/microphone equipment you have available. We have successfully run a Hangout on Air using a Macbook Pro laptop and an external video camera and microphone. However, we use a piece of software called Wirecast to mange the inputs and to add overlays, branding etc. Wirecast can broadcast as a virtual camera and microphone. Once broadcasting, the virtual camera and virtual microphone will appear as input options for your camera and microphone when you start the Hangout. Other solutions may be more practical for you, depending on the equipment and expertise you have available.

Inviting Guest Speakers to Join

 
At FOTE14 we invited remote participants to sign up for a ‘Soap Box Slot’ where they could talk freely for three minutes about any topic they like. We used a Google Form to manage sign ups, which gave us an opportunity to screen applicants and email them information about joining the Hangout ahead of time. This helped us to prevent the Hangout being taken over maliciously, and made the process of bringing an external speaker into the conversation much easier.

However you manage the sign up process, guest speakers who join the hangout whilst you are live on air will need to know the following:

  • The link to join the Hangout (once the Hangout is live, you can choose to share the quiet link, which will allow someone to join without being immediately visible to viewers watching the Hangout on Air)
  • That they will not be visible to viewers until it is time for their slot
  • How to check their audio and camera settings
  • How to chat to the Hangout operator if they need help
  • What will happen when they are live

As the Hangout operator, you will need to:

  • Launch the cameraman app in the Hangout and select the appropriate settings to ensure that anyone joining your Hangout will be muted until you decide to bring them into the conversation.
  • Click ‘You’ in the bottom right so there is a white box around your video feed. This will ensure you have control over what is seen on the screen, otherwise the Hangout will automatically show the video feed of whoever is currently talking.
  • Make sure the chat app is open so remote participants can communicate with you prior to their slot.
  • Choose the remote speaker’s video feed when you want them to go live, un-mute their microphone and mute the presenter’s microphone.

Presenting

 
It is important to set up your Google Hangout so that the person presenting can see what viewers are saying and respond to any questions. Enabling the Q&A as described above is the best way to do this.

The presenter will need to have a laptop or computer screen in front of them but out of the camera shot. This should show the Hangout as it appears to the remote viewer. When you click the play button on the Hangout as a public viewer, the Hangout on Air will open in a new window with the Q&A column on the right. This will enable the presenter to see any questions submitted and either put them to an interviewee or answer them directly. If you get a lot of questions, your Hangout operator will need to mark answered questions as answered so that they don’t cause any confusion.

You will also need to agree some hand signals with your presenter so that the Hangout operator can communicate some basic messages, such as “hold the mic closer”, “ask the interviewee to speak up”, and “five minutes left”.

 

Potential Issues

 
Even with a strong plan, appropriate staff/equipment and lots of interesting content, there are still some issues associated with using Google Hangouts on Air for events in the way we have described above.

A few of the issues we have identified include:

  • When using Wirecast as the virtual camera, if you have the Hangout operator window open full screen in Chrome, it thrashes your computer’s processor. This results in a very poor quality stream. We found that shrinking Chrome browser window resolves this problem.
  • The frame rate that Google Hangouts on Air sends down to viewers is not that great (around 15 frames per second). We have experimented with lots of different frame rate settings and it doesn’t seem to matter what quality we send up, the frame rate coming down to the viewer remains the same. This suggests that it is something to do with the way that Google compresses the video footage, which probably matters less when you are using a standard webcam.
  • If you have a low internet speed at your venue, using the screen sharing feature of Google Hangouts can cause problems. When we attempted this with a remote presenter at a different event, the Google Hangout froze and chucked me out. Whilst the Hangout organiser now has five minutes to get back into the live Hangout on Air before it stops broadcasting, it would obviously be preferable not to deal with this type of stress.
  • If your computer or internet connection goes down for more than five minutes, for any reason, the Hangout on Air will end. You cannot restart a Hangout, so you will need to start a new one if the worst happens. This means you need a plan for getting the word out about your new Hangout’s link, including updating any links on your own website.

 

Conclusions

 
I believe Google Hangouts on Air has some great features that could be really useful for event organiser – if they were a little more stable and a little less convoluted to use. The benefit of being able to offer a live stream viewing experience (albeit at a low frame rate) featuring live and remote presenters seamlessly is a big plus, as is the Q&A feature that allows viewers to engage directly with a speaker or interviewee at a live event in realtime.

Bringing a remote audience into a live event in an active way is always difficult. Most people will watch a live video stream or follow along via Twitter – and may chip into the amplified discussion on Twitter beyond the obligatory ‘I wish I was there!’ message. Engaging them in a realtime conversation is a harder proposition and will need to be considered as part of the design of the event as a whole.

As a tool for events, Google Hangouts on Air is still a little flaky and stressful to use, so I’m not sold on using it for mission-critical activities. However, for some jobs, it is the only tool that will do the job, so it is important to experiment and understand the limitations in order to get the best possible result.

If you want to check out some of the interviews we carried out on the FOTE14 ‘Behind the Scenes’ Google Hangout, check out the FOTE14 YouTube Playlist.
 
Image Credit: Chris Renton