Why We’re Trying Google+ Hangouts On Air (And Why They Might Fail)

Google’s relatively new service, Hangouts On Air, provides a powerful tool for live streaming videos to a mass audience. In an effort to streamline how we run live events, we have experimented with Hangouts On Air for our last few efforts with promising results.

In the past, we have relied on a service provided by OpenTok with success. We were able to stream events live over the internet with low bandwidth usage and a powerful API that allowed for simple embedding and integration into our online learning platform. We remain advocates of OpenTok and will continue to use their services for certain events. However, we have found Google Hangout offers many of the same services while simultaneously making the process a little more straightforward and instantly archived. The potential for Google Hangout On Air to further synchronous, online education via live events is tremendous. Here’s the breakdown:

So, what does Google Hangout On Air let us do that’s so great?

  1. We can embed it like a YouTube video into our site. In the Hangout On Air interface, once you have initiated the Hangout On Air, we can click a button and pull up an embed code. We can throw it onto any page we want and it will automatically start playing for anybody on the page.
  2. Google archives for us. You could say we are hoarders here at TechChange. For every course, we like to keep track of every resource we offer, what works and what doesn’t, and how people engage with us. Not only that, but we want to make sure we can provide resources equally to all students. Our greatest fear is losing a recording of a live event. Any Hangout On Air we host is instantly converted to a YouTube video that we can add to the course as an archive. Our current system requires us to screen capture part of the webpage, which we then have to process and upload to YouTube. Needless to say, Hangouts On Air saves us a substantial amount of manpower.
  3. Screen share is integrated. Though we love working with the Screenleap API, we’ve been hard pressed to find a reliable solution for capturing both our screen shares and our live video streams at the same time. With Google Hangouts on Air, archiving is automatic and includes video, audio, and screen share in the same archive. We still plan on using Screenleap extensively for tool demos, support, and others (see Hangouts on Air drawbacks 1 and 2 below), but being able to easily capture these presentations is a huge benefit.

Then why not use it for everything?

  1. The Hangout On Air API does not allow for deep integration. Although Hangout On Air is pretty powerful out of the box, we have minimal flexibility in modifying how it works and are always at the mercy of Google. There is nowhere to request direct support and asking for a new feature is about as useful as asking Fox to renew Firefly. Using Screenleap and OpenTok, we are able to allow participants and experts to publish to a live session with one click of a button. This type of deep integration is incredibly powerful, which is why we will still use both of these services extensively, especially in cases when recording an archive is less important (such as office hours, live simulations, etc).
  2. Hangouts require a Google+ account and plugin installation. Not all of our presenters have Google+ accounts. Some people want to stay off the social media grid, others come from countries where Google is inaccessible. For those who simply want to avoid Google+ we provide them access to extra accounts. Additionally, an extra plugin is required to run Hangouts. Our presenters hail from all over the globe, so when working with presenters who may have minimal internet connection or have to work from an internet café where installation of software isn’t allowed, this can be a deal breaker.
  3. Google Hangouts have a delay. Though we think we are safe from any possible wardrobe malfunctions, we cannot prevent an approximately 30 second to one minute delay when live streaming with Google Hangouts On Air. This means that our synchronous event is a little asynchronous. When our students ask questions, they are usually asking them a minute after we have already moved to a new topic. The facilitator must deftly (or not so deftly) return the conversation to the previous topic. In general this works fine, but there are times when it can be jarring.

Through experimenting, testing, and iterating, we have become pretty comfortable running Hangouts On Air as our main live streaming service when capturing an archive is vital. We hope that, as we keep using it, we will find even better ways of integrating and using it to further our online education model. Beyond that, though, we’re hoping to get a clearer answer to the question, How well does this work with mobile?

We have been able, with shaky results, to both watch the Hangouts On Air from a smartphone and broadcast a presenter too. It’s not quite stable enough for us to use, but if Google can make the process smoother, this would substantially improve our live events offering on mobile phones.


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  • jfunk

    The delay is a real killer – I need a similar service that guarantees close to real-time results.

    • Try it — You might find it is not a deal-breaker.

  • Can you now give me any tips about how to show a youtube video within a hangout on air and have that video viewable by anyone watching the streamed version (or the recorded youtube of the hangout)?

    At the moment, my hangout participants can see the videos I’m sharing on a playlist, but the streamed version just shows me and not the video.

    • Matthew Heck

      Hey Tyler – Apologies, didn’t see your post until just now. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you, but we do have a trick for showing a YouTube video that is far from ideal as the video will display rather jumpy. It’ll require you to use a second computer in your hangout and have a program that routes audio installed.

      First, you’ll want to install the audio router on the SECOND computer you are using, but what you use will be different depending on your OS. If you have a Mac, I highly recommend Soundflower (http://cycling74.com/products/soundflower/). If you have a PC, I can’t highly recommend anything as I have not tried them, but it looks like VAC (http://software.muzychenko.net/eng/vac.htm — $25 full version, but apparently very easy to use) or Jack (http://jackaudio.org/downloads/ — free, but supposedly more difficult). This will let you route the audio playback from your speakers back into your microphone jack (not literally, but through your computer’s drivers — this is the trickiest part technically).

      Second, explore your audio configuration to make sure that you are using Soundflower, Jack, or VAC as both your audio out and audio in–though you may need to look at their support pages for specific information on how to ensure that works correctly.

      Third, have your second computer join the Google+ Hangout On Air. Enter Full Screen Mode and choose the first option (should be Desktop or Full Screen) and go to the YouTube video you would like to share. Make that YouTube Video full screen and start it.

      Finally, on your primary computer, toggle the display to the second computer so that it appears to everybody watching.

      This is rather brief instructions for something we’ve experimented a lot with. Let me know if this helps at all! And feel free to reach out to me on Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/matthewheck

      • I did look at Soundflower once, but I also need to be able to speak as well as play videos. The not-very-complicated workaround I am using is given in this checklist, which I am still tinkering with: http://cct.wikispaces.umb.edu/hangoutyoutube

      • peter taylor

        Thanks for taking the time to compose extended instructions. I have now installed Soundflower but the sound quality of the resulting recording is poor (worse than my direct feed from speaker to mic). Any idea what the issue might be?

        • Matthew Heck

          Hey again, Peter! Just saw your post.

          I’m surprised the resulting recording is worse than the feed from speaker to mic. Can you describe a little more what it sounds like?

          Three thoughts come to mind as possible problems, though:One is that you may be using Soundflower (16ch) instead of Soundflower (2ch). As you are likely only playing 2 channels from a YouTube video, the extra ones may be interfering with the quality.

          The second possibility (rather unlikely) is that the sound quality of the source video is rather low and the speaker to mic solution actually makes it sound better by glossing over the problems. Basically, it would smooth out the bad parts. Again, very unlikely.

          Third (and possibly most likely) is that you might be getting audio input that is far too loud through Soundflower without realizing it as Google Hangouts is great at equalizing volumes of everybody in the Hangout. I would go into the Sound part of your Settings and take a look at both Output and Input. Make sure that both are set to Soundflower and then, while looking at Input, play your video and take a look at the Input level. If it’s peaking on the right of the input, it’s possible that the quality is being distorted, but Hangouts is still adjusting the volume to make it not seem super loud. You can fix this by adjusting the Input Volume.

          I’m not necessarily a Soundflower expert, so I hope there’s something here that could be useful! Also, any description of the problem would be helpful too.

          Good luck!

          • peter taylor

            Thanks again for taking the time to write extended instructions. Right now I am (perhaps unnecessarily) worried because after using Soundflower my regular system for hangout recordings is also poor quality. I’ll let you know if I solve either or both issues.