Sonic Foundry MediaSite ML440
Feb 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer
Record slides and video from presentations for download or live streaming.
Video communications can mean different things to different people, but most would agree that “seeing” something enhances business communications as long as the technology doesn't get in the way. Of course, that's a big caveat in light of the fits and starts that plagued technologies that are now solid, such as streaming video and videoconferencing.
With its MediaSite line, Sonic Foundry tries hard to ensure that technology does not get in the way. By focusing on a very specific task — recording slide-based business presentations — MediaSite offers a straightforward way to leverage video effectively.
MediaSite is a family of products designed to capture presentation slides (or other images from, for example, a document camera) along with video of the presenter, and then easily distribute the integrated result either over IP or on CD-ROM. The MediaSite ML440 I reviewed is the newest member of that family. It's a portable recorder of what Sonic Foundry calls “rich-media” presentations. A simple camcorder attached to the MediaSite recorder can expand the reach of those rich-media presentations by streaming them live over IP or storing them as an archive for later viewing.
The ML440 ($24,950) is one of three presentation recorders currently in the MediaSite family. (This includes the VL440, which specifically works in conjunction with videoconferencing equipment as something of a digital videoconferencing recorder.) The mobile ML440 is more closely related to the original room-based, rackmountable MediaSite recorder, now known as the RL440, but it comes in a rugged, briefcase-style computer chassis with a built-in LCD screen. It runs on an embedded Windows XP OS and is pre-installed with the MediaSite Recorder software application and all the necessary hardware capture cards needed to record both the camcorder video and the slide images directly from a presenter's notebook computer.
INS AND OUTS
That may sound like a bit of an unusual configuration, but the concept and the process of capturing a presentation are really very straightforward. Video capture is through either the ML440's native IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port for digital audio/video or a pre-installed Osprey capture card and splitter cable for analog S-Video or composite video and unbalanced audio from a camcorder — or balanced XLR audio from a sound board or mixer. Obviously, there's nothing special about installing an Osprey or a Windows-native 1394 to capture video, but that's just part of what MediaSite is designed to capture.
There's also a VGA input — yes, input — on the ML440 for capturing a direct slide feed from a presenter's notebook computer. (There's also a VGA output from the ML440 to go out to a projector/display, although that displays the entire ML440 desktop and MediaSite Recorder application rather than the arguably more appropriate passthrough of just the slides. Better to use the projector's passthrough or a distribution amplifier.) You can capture individual slides manually by clicking an interface button, or set the MediaSite Recorder to scan (at a selectable frame rate) the VGA input for changes, automatically capturing new slides. Presentation slides also can be loaded directly onto the ML440 computer, although only if they've been converted to JPEGs and advanced manually on the ML440.
The MediaSite Recorder's real value-add is marrying the video with the slide images into one synchronized stream that can then be recorded onto disc or, if the ML440 is connected to a network with a MediaSite Server application running, streamed live to remote viewers. Or, using the MediaSite Server and Presentation Manager, presentations can be scheduled for playback at specific times or listed on a web page for on-demand viewing.
The MediaSite Recorder was designed to be so easy to use that a lone presenter would be able to use it and deliver the presentation without assistance. And that is possible using the auto-advance feature for the slides, although it would take a presenter with good multi-tasking skills and a distinct lack of technophobia. On the other hand, it's probably more appropriate to have a cameraperson actively monitoring the camcorder, and that operator could easily perform double duty on the MediaSite Recorder.
The MediaSite interface is very straightforward, with only four main interface elements. The live camcorder feed is at the top. There are two fields for slide images in the center, the live feed on the left and the “take,” the slide actually being recorded to the MediaSite stream. (The left and right slide images are often the same if the auto-advance feature is set to a small number of frames, but this preview-program paradigm offers good control for manual slide advance or a document camera feed.) And there's a file manager for loaded files from the hard drive or other local or networked storage. That's pretty much the whole interface.
There are, however, a variety of configuration options in the Recorder's sub-menus that let you control image compression settings, for higher quality or smaller file sizes, with a variety of templates for dial-up, broadband, Dual ISDN, etc. There are also setup functions for sharpening or repositioning the offset of the analog VGA input; however, most of the detailed configuration for setting up streaming video is done at the MediaSite Server, which I did not test, including building Q&A, audience polling, and other interaction into live-streamed presentations. Technically, the stream is integrated html and WMV files that play just about anywhere, and you can alter the look or skin of the page to match a corporate design. You can even put a logo or “bug” on the video itself.
As easy as the ML440 is to operate, there are a few shortcomings in terms of making it completely user-friendly. These have more to do with troubleshooting than with straightforward usage. There are no error messages to explicate many simple problems. I'm thinking of “DV device not detected, please restart MediaSite Recorder,” or “VGA input is out of range,” or “Please insert a blank CD-ROM into CD drive.” As it is, you're left with blank screens or alarming feedback like “Failed to publish to CD.”
On the other hand, none of those is a significant obstacle once you're familiar with the MediaSite Recorder. The mobile ML440 version, although extremely noisy due to the necessary cooling, is a smart addition to the MediaSite family. Portability means flexibility for capturing rich-media presentations in more locations. Naturally, the $24,950 price is extremely high for many potential users, and that's too bad because MediaSite represents an accessible approach to visual communications — one that could benefit a very broad audience. However, the price does reflect an emerging economy of scale, and MediaSite still can produce a very high return on investment for companies and organizations that will give it plenty of use.
Company: Sonic Foundry www.sonicfoundry.com
Product: MediaSite ML440
Pros: Portable. Easy to master. Versatile set of inputs and outputs.
Cons: There is little troubleshooting help when things aren't perfect.
Applications: Recording and distributing business presentations.
Display 17" backlit LCD 1280×1024
Graphics Integrated AGP
Hard Drive 120GB
Component Video Input 1xHDDB15 interface captures up to 1600×1200×24-bit SXGA
Analog Video Inputs NTSC, PAL via 1x composite BNC/RCA and 1x S-Video; VGA
Digital Video Inputs IEEE 1394 DV (6-pin), USB
Analog Audio 2x balanced XLR, 2x unbalanced RCA
Secondary Audio Line In unbalanced 1/8" TRS stereo, Mic In unbalanced 1/8" TS mono, Line Out unbalanced 1/8" TRS stereo
Other Inputs Ethernet (10/100/1000), mouse, printer, serial port, Internet keyboard
Projector Output 1xVGA
Dimensions (H×W×D) 13.8"×18.7"×6.1"