Unity Intercom: Low-Budget, High-Quality Talkback for Webcasts

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Over the past 18 years I have produced many thousands of live webcasts online, ranging from small closed business to business, secure health care, sports, music, government and educational.

For the past 5 years or so i have been more focused on helping larger broadcasters and enterprises develop scalable end-to-end workflows for their own webcast production teams to use. But it's still important to get my hands dirty regularly, and while my weekly hobby radio show does indeed help me hone my audio production skills, I occasionally pull together an informal group of freelancers to produce coverage for interesting events and demonstrate streaming media and webcast technology even if today there is little or no budget or cost justification. It is like planting seeds, and some take root and become the next generation of major webcasters.

To that end, I have annually produced the webcasts for The Parliament & Internet Conference, organised by a good friend of mine. When he first told me about the event, I felt it would be great content for a webcast, and since there was little or no budget I offered to put together a webcast rig from kit I could "beg, borrow, or steal" and thus keep the costs to a bare minimum. In return, those who have contributed resources are credited in the stream itself and in any write up I make.

Livestream.com has provided one of its unbranded channels for me to use for these events, and as you will see if you check in on the video link on the Parliament & Internet Conference site, it does a great job of making a day of webcasting easy to navigate and present.

I used my trusty and beloved Roland VR3 to produce the video and audio mix, which was superbly overseen by Matt Dempsey.

With myself on camera 1 and Michael O’Rourke (of CellMux.com) helping out on camera 3 (each of the cameras was a simple SD Sony handycam which we each owned) and Matt operating a wide on Camera 2 from the mixing desk, we were good to in terms of the basic setup.

Since we only had photographic tripods, however, there was no real option to pan and zoom while any camera was live (without judder and shake), and so in previous years we have had to use simple hand gestures to facilitate our own communications and make sure cameras were only adjusted when they were not live-to-air. Obviously that is compromising, and often led to mistakes.

In the weeks approaching the event, Michael, Matt, and I had discussed how we could improve the communications between us without having a talkback system. With no budget to invest, we were contemplating using some PMR radios, but their PTT design was not ideal.

It was only a couple of days before the event that it occurred that there may be an app on the iTunes app store that might do the trick.We were delighted to quickly discover not only an app that would work, but one that was designed for the job: Unity Intercom by Audivero.

The premise of Unity is exactly what we were looking for: A low-cost, flexible event communications and intercom solution, designed to run on iPhones and using a Mac as the base station/server.

The system could not have been simpler: Michael and I both installed the app on our iPhones and then installed the server application on the Mac that we were using to key in slides. It runs as a background task and so had no effect on the other workflow requirements for managing the slides.

A quick configuration on the UI allowed each of our phones to log onto the server. Also, because of the complex Wi-Fi environment in Parliament, we also created a private hotspot on the Mac for the two iPhones to connect to directly. That way, the Wi-Fi was private to us and not shared with the email and general web access of others in the room).

From that point on we each plugged in our iPhone headsets, and with a press of the "Talk" buttons we could all talk to eachother. A double tap on the talk button latched it open, and Matt was setup as the admin user and so he could unlatch Michael and I when he needed to control the channel for direction reasons.

The system was amazingly stable. In fact, the only complexity we faced was when the bluetooth headset used on the Mac ran low on batteries, requiring us to restart the app briefly since the Mac’s USB drivers got a little confused.

The sensitivity was amazing, allowing whisper-level chat among us. There were a few moments here and there where interference clearly caused some signficant jitter, but these were transitory issues that came and went without significantly effecting the function of the talkback.

In this small event we didn't make much use of the multichannel paths, but it is worth noting that up to 58 stations could be connected and grouped into channels. For example, cameras could be in a different group than event security or catering.

Also important to note is that while we recharged our phones at coffee and lunch breaks, in my estimate the system used about 10% of my iPhone 5c’s battery in an hour—so for our 8-hour shoot power was in no way a limitation.

We didn’t get a chance to play with the program feed option, but it was clearly possible to take the audio mix of the webcast and play that into the Unity system as a program feed for the camera operators to follow. There was a small amount of latency on the line, and so it may actually have been more trouble than it was worth for our event, but for events spanning multiple rooms, this could have been very useful.

The great thing about small, simple, and elegant solutions like this is that they tend to solve a problem and simply work, leaving little more to say other than if you are webcasting on a budget, and yet would like the "pro" solution of talkback to your production crew, Unity has an absolutely awesome solution that is designed for our world.

I strongly recommend you play with the 14-day free trial and consider a licensing option from them (the basic package supports three users for $499.99; in contrast, a single belt pack for a wireless clearcom system will run about $250). Until now, budget webcaster would normally have been looking at many hundreds if not a few thousands of dollars for even a simple wireless talkback system.

If you already have a Mac and iPhones, then Unity is a killer app for event communications on a low budget.

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