What do media-playout programs need

I have noticed a gap concerning computer-based audio-visual setups especially as far as small business and non-profit organisations are concerned. It is to supply computer software affordable to these organisations that can manage audio and video playout duties that is a key part of their public-facing activities.

The current situation

Some of these organisations may push PowerPoint or similar programs to this task but they don’t really do the job well when it just comes to playing out video content. Typically, with most common presentation software, you have to embed the video file into the presentation on its own slide, in the case of Microsoft Powerpoint; or create a “virtual slide” for the video content in the case of EasiiSlides, a song-lyrics / text-display program that the churches love. This works well for short video clips that are held as files but may not do so for full-length content. These programs don’t even provide proper access to content held on DVDs or Blu-Ray Discs, which is still considered a cost-effective idiot-proof way of distributing video content.

On the other hand, programs like Windows Media Player and VLC exhibit their control surface on to the projection screen or require a very awkward kludge to permit proper dual-screen playback.

What is needed

Proper dual-screen operation

One issue I have noticed is that affordable laptops don’t readily provide separate and individual access to screen and sound outputs, including the integrated screen. Typically this kind of setup, if it works, tends to yield more problems than it is worth. This can be of concern if one of the screens is a different resolution or aspect ratio to the other, such as an economy data projector hooked up to a recent-issue laptop computer.

Audience screen vs operator screen

The goal behind these separately-addressable audio and video outputs is to create at least two separate views for the content – a “front-of-house” view which the audience sees and an “operator” or “control” view which the operator or presenter sees.

The audience feed would only show the video and audio that is related to the currently-playing content while the operator feed provides the video / audio content, content-runtime information, and any prompts and messages that the operator needs to know.

Some setups such as larger churches may necessitate a third feed for the presenter, with access to content timing as well as the content itself. Here, an operator can still control the flow of the presentation without the presenter “crooking his neck” to see the screen.

Universality with common video formats

This setup should be applicable for the consumer-optical-disc formats (DVD, Blu-Ray) as well as file or stream-delivered content. The latter situation should cater for content held on network resources as well as on local resources.

The solution offered by the presentation software typically doesn’t allow for playback off a DVD or Blu-Ray disc and a lot of users either connect a regular DVD player to the projector or mess around with DVD-playback programs to play out DVD content.

Cue mode

The dual-screen setup could allow for “cue” operation. This is where  the operator views content on the operator screen in order to preview or “cue-up” that material. Then, when it is time to show the content,  the operator then redirects it to the “front-of-house” screen and speakers.

Playlist and controlled-playback support

These should support stored playlists or active queue lists especially if they are to be used to play shorter content like music videos, video lyrics or “shorts”. Here, this could be augmented with support for “stop” entries which cause the equipment to stop playback when these files are reached.

The “stop” entries could work in a similar way to what I have noticed with some consumer MiniDisc decks where these units could be placed in to “auto-pause” where they wait at the start of the next item after they play the current item. This made these units, especially the Sony MDS-JE520, earn their keep as cost-effective audio-playout machines for community radio, churches (as I have seen), theatre groups and the like.

The playlist functionality could also support slideshows of still pictures with or without sound. This could include support for sound peculiar to each slide with or without a background-music track that runs through the playlist in a similar vein to those “theatre slides” shown before a movie session at the cinema.

Conclusion

The media-playout function is another example of software and hardware product designers missing out on a user group, namely small-business and non-profit organisations, due to a perceived low value in that group. But it is a group that should be observed and catered for with the right-priced hardware and software.

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