Thursday, August 16, 2012

Virtual Skeptics

There is a new podcast  vodcast in skepdom 

Let's hope VS does better than
this network
Virtual Skeptics  is the name of a new panel-style skeptical video cast which is hosted on Google+ Hangouts.  The members of the panel were: Brian Gregory - host, Bob Blaskiewicz of CSI of the blog Skeptical Humanities, Eve Siebert - an instructor at the University of Wisconsin and also of the blog Skeptical Humanities, Sharon Hill of Doubtful News, and Tim Farley of JREF fellow and What's the Harm.  It is not a shabby panel.  I missed the live feed, but watched it shortly after it initially aired on YouTube.  

Hangouts as the platform for the video feed has many advantages, but the best one is likely that it is free.  The disadvantage is that it is limiting in that there is not a lot of native control to what the camera focuses upon.  I believe Hangouts is programmed to place the speaker in the upper part of the screen and everyone else on the row below.  There may be an override to this by the host, but I am not sure about it.  The problem is that unlike a directed traditional television show where someone is thinking ahead a few steps as to who should be in the focus shot, the focus just ships a beat off what one is used to when the person starts speaking.  This is not the end of the world, but it does remind me of the early days of This Week in Tech's videofeeds, when Leo Laporte was doing it all manually while hosting the show. On the other hand, it's free, so I can readily understand why anyone with a start up vodcast would make use of it.  It is pretty cool.  

screen shot from the episode
The episode experienced some uneven audio quality, and the lighting and camera quality between six panelists could be tweaked.   As I believe this was the inaugural, rough edges are to be expected, and overall it was pulled off rather well.  There was no intro or exit music.  I can understand this for the live feed, but for the Youtube version a small delay and a bit of editing might be worth the spit and polish such things would give the program.  

If my blog's focus does not make it obvious, my prejudice is that I enjoy podcasts in all their audio glory over video.  Podcasts are convenient and packed full of information which one can enjoy while walking the dog, doing chores, driving the car, or listening to next to your spouse who is yet again watching "Pride and Prejudice."  One can choose to listen to a podcast at 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 speed to consume more audio goodness in less time. (Ok.  I might be a head case.) Video can be glorious, but it demands concentrated attention to sit in a spot and watch the TV, iPad, or monitor.  Sometimes I wonder what the benefits are for those on a tight budget to move to a video format over a traditional podcast.  Although with the large number of podcasts competing for a limited number of ears, if one wishes to reach a new audience, the vodcast makes sense.

With the above disclaimer out of the way, if one is going to do a vodcast, then the medium must be embraced.  I did a small experiment with a ten-minute section of the VS episode where I listened to it, but did not view it.  I then repeated the same section of the episode and watched it.  I did not gain anything by watching it.  I will say the best use of visuals was a bit on pareidolia where a slice of toast had an image of Bernadette Peters on it. Overall, the show could have been an audio show and it would have been just as interesting.  

My initial thought would be to release an audio only version of the show.  However, after some reflection on this issue, it might be a mistake.  To butcher a quote from Napoleon, "if you set out to do a vodcast, then do a vodcast.*  If you water down the video knowing there is going to be an audio version released, then compromises for both must be made and one is likely to make neither audience happy.  (An issue that the TWiT network has at the moment, but the up and coming 5by5 network does not suffer.) The Google technology to do this type of show is in its infancy, and it is likely to become more flexible.  I hope as the show matures it embraces and exploits its visual aspects.  

Just spit balling some ideas, but even as the live aspect of the show is nice, the saved version could be edited to take advantage of adding in segments, or visuals explaining what the panel is discussing.  In the background of each panelist, place something interesting but not overly distracting for the viewer.  Andy Ihnatko of MacBreak Weekly is famous for tweaking his background for each episode.  Also, perhaps placing a break in at some point in the episode, such as public announcement or such would help break things up.  I am sure the folks at VS have a bunch of ideas too, and probably better ones.

I have not commented on the content, but the content of the episode was quite good.  Farley gave some advice on the changes at Google both legally and in their search algorithm.  Siebert discussed pareidolia.  Blaskiewicz discussed how some on the far, far wackadoo right just want to make up history out of whole cloth to suit their world view, which I found to be the most interesting topic of the show.  Hill discussed some bad parenting choices such as water boarding one's own kids to research near death experiences.   If this was a new podcast, I would say the panel was smart, intelligent, and discussed interesting topics.  There is chemistry between the panelists which bodes well for keeping viewer interested as the show matures.   So, things such as audio quality, lighting, camera consistency, and learning how to act in front of the camera will likely improve with experience.  The show has a great deal of potential, but I do think the participants must keep in mind ‘why are we doing a video and how to exploit its potential.’  All in all, I enjoyed VS.  I will try and keep up with it, and hope to comment upon it again in few months to see how things have altered with time.  

Virtual Skeptics airs live Wednesdays at 8pm EST, and apparently is close to immediately available on YouTube.  

As a side note: Tim Farley was celebrating his 50th birthday party.  The guy looks at least a couple years younger than me, and I'm 40.  Happy Birthday to Mr. Farley.  

*"When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna." -Napoleon Bonaparte 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Nigel! Thanks for your comments. I think that they will help us improve quite a bit! We did a run-through the previous week that nobody shall ever see, and consciously took the old(?) adage to heart that one should do a couple of podcasts before recording one. As I was driving to work this morning, I was thinking about stripping the audio and seeing what that was like. It might be a nice ancillary broadcast medium. Have you seen/heard the Fraser Cain's Weekly Space Roundup? We took inspiration from that and decided to give it a whirl.


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