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Complications and Frustrations

Victoria/Sidney NestThis was originally posted to the Discussion Forum's Sidney BC Bald Eagle Nest section yesterday.

The cameras at Sidney are not yet available to the public for a number of reasons, some of them technical, some of them contractual, and some of them just plain bad luck.

The cameras are in - and have been seen to be working to the encoders at the Epicure offices, but the ADSL lines were not in to start with. Then they were finally in, and one of the cameras doesn't want to show up at the distribution point, and we have no audio.
So I have to make a trip over to the Island to do some trouble shooting - but have been tied up with other customer issues (moving servers and dealing with new networks, etc.) which have meant that I could not go this past week. I'm scheduled to go either Monday or Tuesday, depending upon how long it takes me to fix one last problem at anther customer's site first thing Monday morning.

In the mean time, I've been working on getting our "free" video up in a way that allows us to deal with more than just the Windows Media people "out there" - via a video server system that runs on Linux. Of course anything you pay nothing for is worth what you pay for it - and in this case the documentation does not come up to the needs of one who has lots of technical background but did not know all that much about the internals of digital video. I don't know if I've made the statement in public before, but the tools I'm using are something like Swiss Army Knives with 1000 blades - expecting the user to be knowlegeable enough to know which blade to use. Lots of different combinations and permutations. I've ended up actually looking through the source-code for the various programs to see if there are hints in there - and there were.

So... on the technical side, I've been beating my head against the wall (for about a month or so) learning as I go how to make video stream from a video capture board under Linux. I finally had a break-through yesterday afternoon (just as the sun was going down, so I lost my picture) where I finally got the incantations right and actually got things to work for a brief instant. Knowing I didn't have any more video to see, I put off doing anything else until this morning.

On the bad luck side - About an hour into the session this morning and the computer in Sidney stopped doing what it was supposed to do (no video), so I re-booted it. Unfortunately, it did not come back up - and there is nobody at the Epicure office over the weekend so I'm stuck until Monday.

So I've been putting together a similar system to the one we have in Sidney but here in my office. It is slower than the new one there - so has taken me something like 5 hours just to get to the point where I can start installing the specialized software I need.

Computers are not as easy as some make them out to be - and especially not when you are trying to make them do things that are not common.

We could have simply decided to go with completely tested and debugged commercial packages to do what we're doing - but that would have meant delaying a long time and limiting ourselves to one or two cameras because we'd spent all our money on the (very) expensive hardware and software that this would have entailed. In fact, this is what we're doing with the pay for view at this point - using someone else's 10 years of sweat at getting things working and tested. But even they have their own problems - and doing things still takes a long time. It also means that for now the pay for view will be limited to Microsoft Media Player equipped systems.

What I'm doing includes modules for Apple Quicktime and Real Player as well as a host of other viewers and methods, right down to individual frames if somebody does not want video. It's just that getting it all to work while doing a myriad of other things for many customers as well as the foundation is just taking a lot of elapsed time. Fortunately the eagles are not quite ready to take up full time residence in the nest. I've only seen them occaisionally in the past few days while I've been watching the video from the one camera that I've been working with.

And on the other front - just getting the video out to you with Media Player, we're caught with scheduling conflicts with the people who put the systems together and administer them. They're going to be running their software on our hardware remotely, and just getting to the point where we can all be in the same room at the same time to get them accessing it (remote access is not the same as reaching out and touching the hardware - and there are security issues on both sides of the fence we have to deal with too) has been time consuming. Again, Monday should be a good day as we'll get that all started finally too. This is mostly because we're dealing with so much video that keeping the cost to an absolute minimum is crucial. Sending out our streams via a Canadian pipe for months at a time is simply not cost effective - so we have to do it from our remote site in New York (or somewhere else in the US) so it is a bit of a learning experience for all.

Again, let me remind people that we're dealing with complications caused by: the number of cameras/streams, the length of time each is on for (months, not hours), and the sheer number of people who want to watch our video in real time, all at once, for extended lengths of time. This means we have to keep our costs as low as possible and make things work with as few people nurse-maiding the equipment as possible. It is not like your typical hockey game where there is someone near the camera all the time, someone in the room with the encoder in case there is a problem, someone at the control center in case there is a problem, and all this for only a few hours - we have to make sure stuff runs for weeks/months at a time with nobody around to reboot it or even at the end of a phone line to take your trouble calls when the camera goes blank - we simply can't afford to have the people on hand - things have to run on their own. And of course we can't go back into a nest once the eagles are there.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

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