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At TED*: How Far Can a Simulcast Go?

I attended the 2009 TED conference last week, but I didn’t really. I was given a press pass to cover a simulcast of the event held at a separate venue two hours away. As the famed conference expands, its organizers are trying to find ways to include more people in real time, a laudable effort that’s being enabled by live streaming video.

tedpalmspringsSome 400 of us watched the conference from Palm Springs all week, and in a few instances we streamed back presentations and comments from the “kids’ table” to the main stage. Compared to the more than a thousand attendees at the main TED, which was moved from Monterey to a larger space in Long Beach this year, we had an intimate atmosphere. But the core of the conference — an intense gathering of powerful people with a long history together, who bring in inspiring speakers and crazy new devices, cars, and robots — is impossible to replicate. You’re not going to rub elbows with Al Gore and Meg Ryan at the simulcast.

Still, the Palm Springs event showed great potential. Here are some of my observations about the video technology involved.

1. The hookup between the two facilities was surprisingly good, both in terms of reliability and quality. I remember only once when the feed crapped out at a crucial point in a presentation.

2. To some extent, you get what you pay for. Attendees at the main TED pay $6,000. The satellite TED I attended cost $3,750 (though I had a free press pass), which included food, entertainment and parties. For $995 you could get a webcast to your home. All TED memberships include year-long benefits, like a book club.

3. ciscotelepresenceThere are some things that just don’t work as well virtually. While there were 20 reporters covering TED, I was the only one at Palm Springs. The PR team helped me set up an interview with speaker Pattie Maes in the Cisco TelePresence booth — which for $150,000 makes it appear as if the person you’re talking to is standing right in front of you full-size (see photo) — but due to technological and scheduling issues, we didn’t meet until a full day after her talk, which is hardly like finding her off stage and getting to see right then her cool, new “sixth sense” prototype.

4. The TED live video isn’t boring; a team edits together multiple camera feeds of the speeches and performances in real time. However, they were absolutely blown away by the production done for a live-streamed performance by a young people’s orchestra from El Sistema in Venezuela (this was shown as part of its founder José Antonio Abreu winning one of TED’s prizes). With each of many camera angles cued in perfect timing with the music, the amazing performance was one of the emotional highlights of the conference, even though it occurred more than 3,500 miles away from California. This was simply the best live stream I have ever seen.

5. TED also announced at the event that they are expanding their web site next month to include subtitled video from all 25 years of the conference. This is the ultimate way that the conference can expand, and so far TED videos been viewed more than 100 million times. Not only are they globally accessible (and soon to be more so, as they’re translated into many languages), but this also gives people the opportunity to dive directly into the real stand-out talks on their own time rather than devote four days of their life to watching the conference.

At Palm Springs, I spoke with Michael Smolens, the CEO of dotSub, which is powering the grassroots subtitling effort. Smolens said he thought the TED efforts would accelerate the world of video subtitling some three years into the future, given the widespread interest in TED Talks and the high quality of the content. Already, some 40 to 50 percent of TED Talk views are from outside the United States, according to Smolens. dotSub will also power clickable English transcripts of all the talks, so searchers will be able to go directly to the point they’re interested in, making the talks even more accessible by breaking into their standard 18-minute format.

TED has evolved into a virtual forum — rather than a physical place — where people talk about big ideas and what they can do about them. And it will necessarily be awkward as that transforms from an elite physical gathering to a more loosely linked video stream. Meanwhile online video is also democratizing other previously high-faluting events, as we saw with YouTube at Davos.

Ultimately I think TED should hold many simultaneous satellite events, with people self-selecting to attend each one for a certain reason (rather than we in Palm Spring just being the second-class pod), that all contribute to building a central streamed video program. What I saw last week certainly wasn’t perfect, but it really does show the potential of online video to entertain, educate, and engage us in ways that could have never been done without this technology.

Yes, that is a photo of the Ask a Ninja guys in their skivvies. It was part of a TED “kids’ table” skit streamed back to the main stage. Photo 1 credit: TED / Michael Brands. Photo 2 credit: TED blog

5 Responses to “At TED*: How Far Can a Simulcast Go?”

  1. this is very helpful. we are organizing a live stream of the upcoming TEDxRamallah (Palestine) in various locations in Lebanon. since i have not had a first experience of a simulcast, your text gives me a bit more knowledge on how to organize it and what to the expectations may be.