The long road to Virtual Visits

Sample image of a twitch stream, there are two camera angles showing a woman making a hand blown cobalt blue glass. One camera focuses on her hands, while she uses the jacks to create a constriction where she will make a clean break to define the lip of the cup. Also in frame is a small purple glass octopus in a top hat, and Lemon Glass Studio Logo

The long road to Virtual Visits

           As someone who has never been a performance arts person, and always loathed being in front of a camera, it has been a surprising experience to be so excited about streaming my studio.  When I first purchased my mini dragon furnace, one of the things I was so excited about, was bringing glass blowing to unexpected places, and sharing the craft with people who had never seen it before.  I fired it up for the first time in January 2020, and had only gotten to use it a handful of times before the pandemic hit. Which means I never got to bring it to farmers markets, art fairs, or city festivals like I had envisioned. When I learned about the twitch platform I realized that the pandemic didn’t have to get in the way of sharing my work.  

           A little over six months ago, I started gathering the tech things I needed in order to start live streaming. It went a little like this. First, I needed a laptop to run the software and compile the multiple cameras into a single live feed. Then I needed cameras capable of streaming content live to the computer–either through built in software or with a capture card.  We had one gopro that was capture card compatible, but I wanted two cameras: one showing the full space, and one focused on my hands at the bench so that people watching could really see what was happening. So I purchased a midlevel webcam, which after significant research seemed like the most cost effective way to get a decent live picture in full daylight (just to say I didn’t need a camera that could get a good picture in low light). I got a wireless mic set up with a radio based transmitter/receiver so that I could talk about what I am doing as I do it and answer questions from people in chat. 

animated image, appearing sequentially a laptop, a GoPro, capture card and cables, webcam, wireless mic, GoPro, internet hotspot, bluetooth mic

           I test ran the equipment at home, and everything seemed to work seamlessly. I brought it all with me to the lot where I set up the studio, and suddenly the webcam stopped working.  It would run for about a minute and a half, and then quit. Every time. It was hardwired to the computer so interference didn’t make sense to me.  I tried early in the morning when it was only 60* to make sure it wasn’t a matter of the heat. Same thing. For weeks, I would bring everything and set up and try to troubleshoot in the window of time between setting up the Dragon and the glass being ready.  For weeks I kept getting the same failure.  One weekend, Faith offered to help and we brought everything but the dragon, and it all worked on site. The camera stayed on for 35 minutes, so it wasn’t the location–it was the dragon. I have no idea how or why it was causing the camera (which was placed at least 10 feet away and not in direct line of the radiant heat, and not pointed at the heat of the dragon) to fail in that context consistently.  

           By then we were approaching the holidays and my production schedule was very busy. The Covid numbers here were climbing rapidly and by the time I got through the crush of holiday production, I determined that it wasn’t safe for me to work.  ER wait times were 17-20+ hours, so if anything happened while I was working, I would risk not having access to medical care or major Covid exposure risk to get care. So for two months everything was in limbo.  I admitted defeat with my webcam, and started looking at a second GoPro.  

           I discovered that some of the newer GoPro generations are capable of streaming without a capture card.  The GoPro Hero 7/8/9 generations were all on the list, so I found a Hero 7 and ordered it.  Only to discover that it wasn’t actually compatible with the version of the software that I needed. It had some direct feed live stream capability but the feed was not capturable by the computer for my needs.  I did a lot more reading before I made the exchange for a Hero 8. With a bit more fiddling, troubleshooting, frantic messages with friends who are more tech savvy than I, and a few tears of frustration, we finally got the Hero 8 to talk to the computer!  

           I brought everything with me to the lot, set up the dragon, and went live for the first time March 25th. I thought we finally had it figured out.  Both cameras were working, despite being on wifi with upload speeds less than 1Mbps, the stream seemed to hold without disconnecting.  As is the way with streaming, it was not figured out.  It was a new set of problems to address.  Fortunately, I like problem solving–turns out this is as key a trait for streaming as it is for glass blowing: as it is Always Something.

           Now that my video feed was sorted, I found that the wifi was strong enough to hold, but caused such incessant buffering that I ended up time traveling! By the time I ended my first stream, I was able to “watch myself live” doing something I had finished half an hour previously.  Unfortunately this meant that other viewers were equally far behind in the video feed, but not the chat function, so it felt to them like it took me a really long time to address their questions. After that stream, I ordered a mobile hotspot and set up an unlimited data plan–it provides upload speeds of more than 10Mbps provided it can get a signal from AT&T.  My hope is that one day, when travel is a thing again, this will mean that I can take road trips with the dragon and stream from some exciting locations–one day I could be blowing glass by the ocean, or in a national park, or in a vineyard, and I could bring my stream with me!

           Video, check! Internet, Check! Audio? We have audio, right? Well, technically, yes. Was it working properly? Not initially.  My sound checks with the wireless mic setup had gone fine at home, making sure it connected well to the computer. But again, on sight was a different story. Turns out, using a radio based wireless mic system at a location that is a block away from a major police station, fights constant signal interference. No amount of channel switching seemed to be enough to keep the signal clear, and viewers were tormented by a combination of what sounded like loud background noises and my voice clipping badly.  So I invested in another equipment upgrade: a bluetooth headset by BlueParrot, designed for use in warehouses it claims to reduce background noise by 94%! My first stream using it was amazing, the audio was crystal clear.  

           Again, it seemed like I had things figured out.  Now all I had to do was figure out how to read the stream chat from a laptop screen in full daylight, from ten feet away… New problem, two solutions: one, have one of my amazing mods read chat to me via a discord voice channel; two, mount my ipad much closer to the bench and set it to large print.  Sounded simple enough, but when I tried to use the bluetooth headset as a two way device, the clipping was back–it interferes with itself somehow! So I tried adding a different bluetooth device on my other ear and connecting it to discord on my phone.  Apparently there is a reason it isn’t “BlueTeeth” devices–if you use more than one per head at a time they can interfere with each other, even if they are communicating with different secondary devices, and I only have one head. The large print chat on my ipad seems to be working, now that I have the settings properly enabled, but it’s still hard to keep up with a quickly moving chat while twirling 1500* molten glass on a steel pipe. So, I will have a mod in my ear, by way of wired earphones, so she can make sure I don’t miss any questions or the opportunity to acknowledge new folks in chat.

           What’s that you say, it’s supposed to be 95*F tomorrow? Computers don’t like to run hot. Cameras don’t love it either. Knowing that the shop adds about 20* to the ambient temperature, despite being outside, I was at least prepared for this one.  In those months when I wasn’t working, I built a mini swamp cooler to chill the air around my tech set up. A five gallon bucket of water with evaporative cooling pads, and a fan blowing the upwards into a 5” diameter piece of ductwork that drops the air into a 5 sided shade box (open on the front so I can see).  According to my readings, it dropped the air temperature 10* below ambient, while also protecting it from the radiant heat on a 90* day. I may have cooked at 110* at the bench, but the computer ran happily at 80* sitting on a gel ice pack.  If necessary, I am prepared to make smaller sponge versions to cool the GoPros… Yesterday, the secondary camera shut itself off, presumably from overheating, and when it came back on the picture was upside down.  Fortunately it was the camera that focuses on my hands, so it wasn’t critical that it get righted.  My instincts for glass blowing on-the-fly-adjustments took over and rather than stopping in the middle of a piece to try to mess with the settings, I just figured out how to present things to the camera the way it was.  

           I am excited to be moving forward, to be streaming my studio while I work, and sharing the magic that is hot glass with anyone who stops by. Have you ever wondered how something glass was made? Or had a question about tools or methods of glass blowing? I would love to see you in chat! At least for now, I will generally be streaming Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:15AM- around 12:30PM PDT.  Join me at: https://www.twitch.tv/Zootilo

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