It can easy to carp about other people when you have a blog but I try to be constructive. I have been thinking about other ways of delivering simple video-based instruction. Simple for the presenter but also fully utilizing the technology available. As I noted in a recent post, you can’t just wing it. But where to start? I decided I would walk through how to use OBS Studio to create more flexible information delivery in a Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet session.

I am using a Windows 10 PC and I have a camera. I didn’t always have access to a web camera but, fortunately, Canon has created a utility to enable DSLRs to be used as web cams. If you have a webcam, you may have more options.

My experience in the pandemic so far has been that most video-based activities are happening on Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Skype. I decided to see what I could send to each of those in a meeting mode. The hope was that I could do more than a simple screen share.

Start with OBS Studio

Although I sometimes speak wistfully – around my teenagers, who dread the idea – that I am starting a Twitch channel, I am not a streamer. But during some slack time during the pandemic, I started to play around with the free, open source Open Broadcaster Software Studio. It has a ton of features but the basic idea is this: OBS is where you aggregate all of your inputs, and then you use it as the output for them.

Once you’ve downloaded OBS Studio, you may be overwhelmed. I was. It helps to have something that you want to do in mind. I decided that I would try to use it to allow me to toggle between more than one presentation mode. One mode would be my face, full screen, in a typical lecture/speaker mode. The second would shift my face to picture-in-picture, and include some actual information.

You can do information sharing with a screen share but you don’t need to. It’s the beauty of OBS. You can pre-configure your scenes (they appear in the bottom left corner of OBS Studio) and then transmit them. In most cases, the meeting applications (Zoom, Google Meet, Skype) will display whatever you transmit.

The OBS documentation is very good so I won’t repeat it here. Essentially, you need to create two scenes. You add your video camera input to both as a source. Then you add your additional content, like PowerPoint. You can add something like “Left Monitor” but if you are using an application, it needs to be open.

I used PowerPoint Presenter mode on a dual monitor setup. It will not work on a single monitor; it needs a projector or dual screen. You can still just display your slides to the audience but the presenter view helps you stay in context. I found that Skype and Zoom were not updating as I clicked through the slides. I had to go into the properties of my PowerPoint source in OBS Studio and change Capture Method to Windows Graphics Capture

As you can see below, I called mine Full Video and PinP. Under Full Video, there is just my camera input. Under PinP, I have a camera input and PowerPoint. You can see the Full Video view under Preview (left). You can see your live output under Program (right). This is my PinP, with a resized talking head and slides. Click the Transition button to send your Preview view to the live Program view.

This is the Open Broadcaster Software Studio (OBS) interface. You can create multiple scenes in the bottom left corner. You can add multiple inputs to each scene. You can then transmit (using the transition button) any preset scene out to your audience.

Once I was ready to go, I could click the Start Virtual Camera button and switch to my meeting client. All three meeting clients handled the output without any difficulty.

The Output: the Talking Head

You may want to think about removing your background with a green screen. All of the major meeting clients now use background removal or blur. This will not work if you send multiple inputs from OBS Studio to your meeting application.

That’s a deal breaker for me. I have work-from-home and school-from-home people in my space. There is activity and also, frankly, I prefer to maintain my privacy.

Fortunately, you have options. You can build a green screen like I did. If you have a green screen or green wall, you can use the Chroma Key removal inside OBS Studio. Right click on your video input and add a filter. Add a Chroma Key filter and fiddle with the settings until your background drops out.

A screenshot of the OBS Studio interface in the back and a filter window in the front right. I have added a Chroma Key filter and tuned it to remove the green from behind me.

There is also software that will remove your background. The two that seem to work the best are ChromaCam and XSplit VCam. I could not use ChromaCam because it would not find my Canon camera. But it worked fine with my kid’s webcam. Here’s what the XSplit interface looks like.

The XSplit VCam interface with background removed.

I tried it both with a green screen behind me and without one. It works well in both situations. You can just see a watermark on the screen above. I didn’t mind it and, for a periodic use, would just live with it. Both ChromaCam and XSplit Vcam have a free version and a paid version. If you are doing this regularly – like a professor or litigator – I’d pay the $50 lifetime license for Xsplit or the $30 lifetime for Chromacam.

If you use XSplit or ChomaCam, it becomes your video camera input instead of your video camera. You do not need both a video camera input and XSplit/ChromaCam sources in a scene.

Well, actually. You can create both as sources and then use the visible (little eye) feature to make them available or not in the source. But that’s more complicated than I intended.

The Output: the Meeting

Once I had my OBS layout set up, I was ready to start meetings. In this case, I met with myself to see what the end user would see. All three of the meeting services I tested allow anonymous web participants. This enabled me to use my personal account to start the meeting and then open the link in a browser to see the output.

For each of these meeting applications, you start up OBS Studio first. Click the Start Virtual Camera button at the bottom right. Then switch over to your meeting app and change your video source to OBS Virtual Camera.

At first, Zoom wasn’t working for me. It would only display a black screen. I couldn’t figure out what had happened until, a day or so later, I realized it was because I was using a virtual background in Zoom. In real meetings. This is consistent across all clients: turn off your virtual background – set it to none – or OBS Studio output will be distorted or invisible. This is what the Zoom meeting in a browser looks like.

A Zoom web meeting with the PinP scene view. One thing I noticed is that the web view is much less cluttered than the app view. It may be better for online instruction as well as being easier to deliver than requiring app installation..

Also, if you are not doing a screen share, then Zoom assumes everyone is a head. This leads to the issue I mentioned in my earlier post, which is that a bunch of little video heads will eat up your screen. This is the same result if you do a screen share.

You can use all of the tools in this post for free. The one investment you might want to make is a second monitor. Or a first, if you have a laptop. A dual monitor setup just gives you more space to spread out the information you want to share.

Skype is my go-to meeting tool. Ironically, it’s not what we use at work but I have used it a lot for family tech support and for media interviews. You can see below in the video what it looks like. I start in Full Video and then toggle to the PinP scene.

I added a third scene – a web browser window with an interactive survey. I think it shows that switching between multiple, prepared scenes can be less visibly disruptive than ALT-TAB’ing on a screen share. The audio sounds funny but I think that’s because I was both presenter and participant and a normal call wouldn’t have that strange latency.

A video using OBS Studio as the output. The first part of the video is a full size talking head. The latter is a picture in picture. I have subtitles turned on, but I needed to pause more, to allow the subtitles to aggregate.

The video was created using the Windows 10 Xbox Game Bar app, which is free on Windows 10 and, while designed for gamers, is pretty decent at screen recording. It would be useful for recording lectures if your meeting app doesn’t record them. I would learn the hot-keys for recording, pausing, and stopping if I was using it more regularly.

Google Meet was like Skype. I have not actually used it for work but it’s used a lot in education. It’s entirely browser-based and I was able to open a meeting as me and view a meeting anonymously. The interface is really clear and the transition between OBS Studio scenes seemed pretty smooth.

When you send OBS to Skype or Google Meet, the presenter’s video is reversed. At first I thought something was broken. It’s not. It’s how Meet and Skype apps work. Here is what I saw on Google Meet when I started the meeting.

Google Meet Presenter mode. The video is reversed.

And here is what the participant saw. I expect this would be a bit off putting at the start but, like anything, it just takes some practice.

All in all, I think there are good options for people who need to give online lectures, online presentations, or any sort of multimedia virtual interaction. I am going to start using the Zoom web client to see if the experience is better in real-world meetings than the app. I would like to spend more time with Google Meet, in part because I think it’s entirely web-based approach is really nice. As soon as you introduce an app, you may be limiting your audience.

I was most surprised at how simple it was to create a more outwardly complex delivery setup. If I was to give a virtual conference presentation, I would absolutely use OBS if I could. It would be great to be able to toggle between:

  • talking head
  • presentation slide deck
  • interactive live polling
  • pre-selected web site source
  • example video source

You wouldn’t need to screen share a bunch of browser windows or tab amongst them. You wouldn’t need to accidentally show your inbox. You wouldn’t need to embed video in your PowerPoint. The scene controls in OBS Studio make the shifting from one information source to another more fluid. The ability to send the output to a meeting client as video – rather than screen share – means you can maximize the information view for the participants.