Light & Sound International Article
So grateful to be highlighted in the November issue of Light and Sound International
If nothing else, the pandemic has highlighted the difference between good video and bad. We’ve all seen the broadcast industry struggle to pivot from having the luxury of a full-blown studio environment staffed with experienced professionals to one in which every talking head is on an island, using makeshift technology on the easiest available platform. Meanwhile, video producers of those shows are working hard to stitch together a show that looks consistently professional, and the results are all over the map. They can end up with anything from a poorly lit subject with a grainy picture, to camera angles that offer a great view up the nose of the subject, to a brightly-lit background and a poorly-lit subject sitting in front of a bright window. I saw one segment on a national TV show in which the host was remotely interviewing a subject matter expert about some very weighty topic. I couldn’t concentrate on what was being said because the guest had set up a ring light in such a way that the round reflection in her eyeglasses made her look like a cartoon with the biggest googly eyes I’ve ever seen. I had to laugh. In many situations, a video fail like this is unacceptable.
It’s even more of a problem for corporations that have traditionally relied on live events to educate and motivate their employees and sales organisations, and musicians who rely on live audiences for financial and emotional support. The need for effective communication is greater than ever, but the options for doing so can leave a lot to be desired.
In these pandemic times, you would think there is a market for a solution that ensures a quality videocast using reliable hardware operated remotely by a professional team. That must have been what Joshua Crowe, Andrey Koulikov, and Rob Holland were thinking when they formed ReLink. After suddenly finding themselves out of work due to the pandemic, they saw and seized an opportunity to solve a widespread problem whilst offering employment to many similarly out of work friends at the same time.
GOOGLY EYES BE GONE
ReLink provides both hardware and technical services to enable the virtual production of remote online video presentations, either live or captured. It enables a presenter to get professional results quickly and easily using seasoned, live event professionals in a safe and efficient way. It’s a clever approach to a unique problem that presented itself as soon as large gatherings were banned.
The hardware is a cleverly packaged system that they call a ReLink Suite. It ships to the client in a roadcase with lighting, a microphone, a robotic camera, and a remote-controlled video switcher. The system can be remotely-controlled in realtime by a team of technicians as long as there’s cellular coverage or Internet service. The key is that anyone, even those without any experience whatsoever, can set it up and capture a professional presentation without being left with googly eyes. All they have to do is put the suite on a table, open the lighting wings, and connect it to power. The system will automatically boot and connect via a cellular connection to the team of techs who are standing by ready to direct the session. It’s designed to make it easy for any presenter, regardless of their technical expertise or lack thereof, to get a high-quality recording or present a live session.
The presenter(s) can supply their own graphics to the crew or run them themselves, via an HDMI input and a 3.5mm audio jack that allows ReLink to ingest the feed locally and switch as needed. Meanwhile, an in-ear monitor allows the presenter to listen to the producer and other presenters without introducing background noise or feedback.
The support crew can include a producer, show caller, video switcher, graphics operator, teleprompter operator, lighting director, real time communications, and more. This has enabled them to help event production companies employ their labour force, most of whom are eager to earn income to provide for their families, and the infrastructure they designed for this purpose is extremely flexible. They can produce a live event from initial recording to publishing on YouTube, Facebook, or any other content delivery network. Their goal, they say, is not to scoop up all the work, but to help the industry survive and adapt. They are able to handle all or part of the production process by supplying technology and expertise as required.
With strict COVID compliance in place, it can be challenging to assemble a crew in a studio and still socially distance. And if anyone tests positive, it can shut down an entire production, affecting a lot of people and companies. The remote switching ability allows a full production without the need to share space and risk contagion. The techs can be spread across North America and still do their jobs unimpeded.
The combination of hardware and tech support allows for events to be streamed in 1080p at 60fps or recorded locally. In the event that the local Internet connection is unreliable or too slow to stream high-quality video, the unit can capture 4K content locally that can be later uploaded for post-production. The control of the unit does not require a lot of bandwidth. With a good cellular signal, all of the onboard devices can easily be controlled via the on-board switching system. A fully produced piece can be created, including lower thirds and graphics support, as well as video playback on the device, using a cellular connection. When the unit is able connect to the internet, the content can be downloaded.
HIDING FROM HACKERS
ReLink also created The Studio, which allows for a multi-camera shoot in a single location. The Studio is a suite that has been outfitted with all the networking and control hardware to create a remotely-controlled four-camera shoot. A single tech can be sent to set up the suite, cameras, and any additional remote-controlled lighting, in a short amount of time. The technician will then sanitise everything in the room and leave for the duration of the shoot.
One of the challenges was how to provide a secure connection with low enough latency to allow for a real time presentation. You may have read about or experienced hackers attacking Zoom meetings, and many companies with sensitive information or trade secrets are hyper-sensitive to security issues. ReLink solved it by using point-to-point registered devices that connect automatically to their virtual private network (VPN). That allows them to use all of the video conferencing options for the conversations between the presenters and the crew, and they have also created their own private low-latency video conferencing platform that is not available to the public. And any hacker will tell you that you can’t hack what you can’t find.
Years from now, we’ll look back at the pandemic era as the worst catastrophe the live event production industry has ever experienced. Some of us will remember it as a total loss, while others will be able to say it was the greatest challenge that they ever overcame. The founders and techs at ReLink are fighting hard to land in the second category.