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Interview with Spacevidcast.com's Benjamin Higginbotham

One of my favorite sites is Spacevidcast.com, a podcast hosted by husband and wife team, Cariann Higginbotham and Benjamin Higginbotham. Their goal? To take space to the masses. We were lucky to get a nice interview with Benjamin, who also went out of his way (upon request) to make this little video, a behind the scenes, if you will.






DI: Tell me the story behind the, er, launch of Spacevidcast.com. Was it your brainchild, or did you take it over?

BH: This was all us, there was nothing like it before we started and really nothing quite like it since. Cariann and I used to have a live podcast over at TechnologyEvangelist.com but the CEO didn't see the value in it and basically had it shut down. *I* saw the value in that we went from almost nothingness to 3,000 daily listeners over the course of a couple of months with no advertising. As soon as we shut down the podcasting section the site growth completely stopped, so I was pretty darned sure that we had a winning formula. At that time sites like TWiT.tv and whatnot were really starting to become popular, so I didn't want to do yet another tech podcast. Exploration had always been a passion of mine and so I locked on to the idea of space with an emphasis on human space flight. My wife Cariann didn't think we would have anything to talk about and basically told me to go have fun with my new project. After live episode 1.01 was done Cariann watched it, told me in no uncertain terms that I was terrible on my own and that she would help for a couple of weeks until we ran out of stuff to talk about (for the record, I really was terrible and that episode is still available on our site to painfully sit through.) Cariann said that once we ran out of topics we could do a real podcast, maybe something on the TV show Lost or similar. 3.5 years later we're still going strong, too many topics to actually cover. Cariann is the first to admit that she is glad she was wrong and we both have a blast doing the show. To be frank, I couldn't do this without Cariann. Fun startup stories aside, she has been and always will be my biggest supporter from 1.02 on which helps a lot when you can't yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

DI: What were you doing before you got involved with the site?

BH: I do a lot of stuff. I work in IT as the Director of New Technology for an ASP in Real Estate and get to play with cool toys all day long. I did that prior to Spacevidcast and still do. It actually helps pay for the show. Going back a bit further, I worked in broadcast television as a director / technical director for a national news station, a national home shopping network, and a few local stations. Between the two I helped design and develop next generation digital television production facilities when I did R&D for a broadcast VAR. So I have a pretty wide and varied background, but a lot of it revolves around video and live television.

DI: I see you also do a series of awesome How-to vids for CamTwist, one of my favorite free tools of all time. How’d you get involved with them?

BH: Them is more of a 'Him'. Back in the TechnologyEvangelist.com days I was trying to find a way to design a home television studio that was inexpensive yet powerful. CamTwist had come out and I reached out to the developer, as I often do, expecting no response. A couple hours later I got a reply asking for more information. Over time we built rapport and began talking about my wishes and dreams for a low-cost HD switcher that would do whatever I wanted. The developer, Steve, was open to this idea and CamTwist Studio was born. Of course with all that power came a great level of complexity, so I helped make the videos to ease the support requests in the forums. It's a bit funny, but CamTwist in many respects is more powerful than some of the low to mid-end broadcast gear. I can do more in CamTwist than I can in the $500 Wirecast application from a live switching standpoint. Heck, with the exception of virtual sets, I think CamTwist beats out even the Tricaster TCXD300 which is a $15k box (although to be fair the Tricaster does more than just live switching). The entire Spacevidcast show is switched live in HD using CamTwist Studio and when you look at what we are doing it is amazing to think that it is *free* software making it happen. That's right, free software that can switch multiple cameras in HD and stream it to Flash Media Live Encoder in real time. I'm still amazed by the solution to this day!

DI: Spacevidcast isn’t a 501c3 so who pays for all this? What’s the business model?

BH: You are correct, we opted to go with an LLC rather than a 501(c)3 for some internal reasons. Right now the show is nearly break even. We have a subscription model where you can get our content without any pre-roll or overlay ads as well as some additional stuff that normal viewers don't get to see (what we call epic or Enhanced Productions, Interviews and Content). Between that and the ad revenue we're darned close to break even. But being that I always want to make the show bigger and badder, a lot of this comes out of my own pocket as well. I pay for all of the travel to the different events that we cover and I pay any time something like an HDTV blows up because a cat decided to pee on it (you can learn more about that cat/HDTV story in the Spacevidcast 3.28 post show, which is only available to epic subscribers.) My hope is that over time we will continue to grow and both the subscription revenue and ad revenue will help pay for the show and make it much easier to do bigger, badder and cooler events for everyone. It is a small niche market, so it may never break even, but I do believe that most people care about human space flight and that we're on the tipping point of something great... So I think this thing will happen! One other thing we do is consulting and live streaming on a contract basis for companies that want to do what we do, but can't figure out how (low quality streaming is easy, high quality streaming is not.) That all goes back in to paying for the show.

DI: Let’s get into the nitty gritty for all our aspiring podcasters. Is that a virtual set we see, with green screen, or are you really in a “space” command center.

BH: HA! No virtual sets here. I ***HATE*** bad chroma key, and it takes a lot of light, time, talent and equipment to make a good chroma key. Good enough is not actually good enough when it comes to keying. If your hair does not look natural when you're trying to key, then stop trying to key and get a real set. For nearly 2 years our set was a black piece of fabric with a blue light shining on it, and even that looks better than a bad chroma key (and it's very inexpensive too.) I am passionate about chroma key, go big or go home. Nothing looks worse than a bad key, nothing. I think I made my point. No, what you see behind us is the actual Spacevidcast Mission Control. There are two HDTVs just for show (soon to be 3 I think) but the rest of the computers you see there are actually doing things. One of them is recording the show in uncompressed 720p (which usually takes around 1TB for 30 minutes.) Another computer is recording NASA TV HD 24x7 and broadcasting it out to the world when we're not on (as well as to iOS devices and Roku players too, all live!) Then we have the CamTwist system with our director Adam (who has the screenname cafn8ed if you ever want to find him online.) All of this is in the back of the Crow River Coffee Company which graciously hosts us. Without CRCC I'm not sure we would be able to do what we do! Allow me to plug them for a moment because frankly they deserve it! http://www.crowrivercoffee.com and they have a special blend of coffee called 'Blast Off Blend' and soon a special tea called 'Tea Minus Zero'. Grab some, it's awesome and it helps keep us in that space!

DI: What kind of cams are you using? The quality is amazing. Looks like 16:9 HD on the Spacevidcasts and maybe 4:3 on the CamTwists? But even on the 4:3 the quality is kick-ass. That’s no iSight, am I right?

BH: It depends on the show. We have switched around a lot from Panasonic prosumer cameras to the Canon line. I *want* to use a Canon 7D to get better depth of field, but alas I can't seem to get it to output full quality HD live and turn off the on-screen overlays (maybe one of your readers knows how?) That brings up the RED Scarlet which might be a good option, but it isn't out yet. For now, HVX's or XHA1's depending on the night. I prefer the HVX because the Canon line is Interlaced and that looks *terrible* for live streaming. But you're right, no low quality webcams for us. We have studio lighting, studio mics and prosumer cameras. All of our shows are shot in 1280x720p which is 16:9 and our live shows are recorded uncompressed and switched in CamTwist Studio at 1280x720/30p. We would do 60p but that makes our MacPro bleed bits and drop frames. Lots of them. The only thing that is 4:3 is the Skype connection coming in. I'm thinking of getting a dedicated Skype PC running Windows (right now it is a Mac) that can do the new Skype HD stuff. We would then send our guests some of those certified Skype HD cameras that have the h.264 chip on-board so we can get native 16:9 from them. For now we just zoom in to the Skype picture and crop off the edges, making sure to frame it properly. Only problem: the guests sometimes end up eating the chat room at the bottom, which drives me bonkers. Now that I mentioned it, when you see it happen it will drive you bonkers too!

DI: How is it that you don’t have to wear headphones? Wouldn’t your mics pick up the speaker sound and throw you into a nasty feedback loop?

BH: We do use utilize quite a bit of magic and unicorn/fairy dust in the show to do the impossible from time to time. You are correct though, we don't have headphones or IFBs on, we are listening to the guest through speakers. But we're hearing only the guest as we have it all patched through an aux bus, so we get mix minus from the board, and the guest gets mix minus too. That way we don't get an endless feedback loop and the guest can't hear themselves when they talk, causing that weird and distracting echo effect. The harder part of the solution wasn't the audio, it was finding a way to get video piped back to the guest so that they could see and hear the show without having to go to the live stream and watch it there. Now that required a level of voodoo and magic I don't think I'm allowed to talk about else I risk tearing open the fabric of space time itself! As a quick aside, one thing I have always wanted to add was an IFB setup because it can be hard to understand the guest sometimes. But that is always at the bottom of my list. Maybe someday when we're worth a kabillion dollars.

DI: I noticed you’re not using Ustream or some such readily available server for the Spacevidcasts. How do you get the stuff from CamTwist up onto the Web and how are you recording the episodes for later viewing?

BH: We actually do use Ustream for our live shows. You can see our channel at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/spacevidcast and they are awesome over there. We have tried all the others, Justin, LiveStream, Oprator11, BlogTV, etc., etc and no one can touch Ustream IMO. We have mobile streaming to iOS devices, we have live streaming to Roku boxes via HTTP Live, we have Flash streaming to the browser and we have it all in HD. When we have a shuttle launch we'll have 500,000+ live viewers and Usteam doesn't skip a beat. I can't say that for any of the other providers, they either have issues keeping up with our stream, or they end up charging us a fortune.  One thing CamTwist doesn't do is the actual stream itself. CamTwist has a virtual driver that can be seen by other OS X applications like Flash Media Live Encoder which is what we used to do to get our stream to Ustream. Just download the FMLE config file from Ustream and off you go. Problem is that FMLE doesn't support AAC audio on OS X and as such the HTTP Live stream has no audio. That's a bummer for Roku and iOS devices. So instead we purchased a copy of Wirecast and run CamTwist in to Wirecast to stream. I would use Wirecast to switch, but CamTwist is a *lot* better at live switching than Wirecast is, so we just pipe one to the other and let Ustream take care of getting the proper format to the proper device. I'm hoping that Telestream fixes their h.264 broadcast engine in their Wirecast 4.0 product or that Adobe adds AAC audio to FMLE on Mac as Wirecast is all over the board when it comes to their encode quality. That is the last piece of the puzzle that we have not yet quite worked out 100%.

DI: What can we expect from you in the near future? What’s coming down the pike?

BH: A lot of the stuff we're working on I really can't talk about just yet. Spacevidcast is a show for people who want to get humans in to space, and we don't just talk about it, we take action. Take that for what you will, but that's the idea behind the show and where we want to go with it. Otherwise, a couple of things we do want to make happen, we want to stream live from Space View Park and have an uber party for the final 2/3 shuttle launches (I assume STS-135 is a go, so we'll say 3 launches.) We're already the only place on the planet you can get live, HD streaming of shuttle launches on the Internet, but now we want to extend that and bring in a ton of people and just have a blast for the final launches. We shouldn't be sad to see the shuttle go, we should celebrate the amazing history of the shuttle and look forward to the future, whatever that may hold.

We are also looking to open a studio on the Space Coast, but that will take a lot more money to make happen. We're trying to partner up with other space teams out there that have monthly meetings, parties, etc and stream all that content live on the Internet. That way you're not bored with NASA TV most of the week, you can see what is actually happening in different areas of the world and participate in these meetings. And the biggest project we're working on is the Yuri's Night global webcast. This is a worldwide party celebrated on April 12th which is when the first human, Yuri Gagarin went to space. It was a tipping point for humanity. The Yuris Night party is a time when space geeks and non-space geeks can get together and just have a great time!

The global webcast will circle the Earth bringing in live parties from just about every time zone. We're even considering staying on for 24 hours straight! It will be an epic party of epic epicness! This is a great year too as it is the 50th anniversary of Yuri's flight, so we're going all out! Go hit up yurisnight.net and start a party in your area, or find a party near you to attend! It really is an awesome time like nothing you have ever seen before! And don't forget to tune in live every Friday at 0200 UTC for our show! That's Thursday nights in the US at 7:00pm PDT / 8:00pm MDT / 9:00pm CDT / 10:00pm EDT. We also have shorter non-live shows called 'SpacePods' that you can see Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as well as a new Podcast series that we're starting tomorrow which brings us two different audio only podcasts. We do our best to make space interesting and through the help of the community strive to truly Make Space Commonplace!!!


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