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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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August 25, 2008 10:41 AM

My Hyperconnected Fantasy Football Draft

On Friday night I had one of most fun (and frustrating) experiences using broadband in my life.

It's that time of year again when a group of long-time friends get together for the annual male bonding ritual known as fantasy football, and Friday night was draft night.

Unfortunately, with airfare on the uptick, I couldn't justify spending more to fly back to Minnesota to attend the draft in person than I'd get even if I won the league, so I had to draft from the comfort of my living room in DC.

Now this isn't the first time I've done this, but in years past I simply called in to a friend at the draft to run my bids through him. But this has never been an ideal setup as we use the auction format for our draft and it's a lot more fun to be able to shout in your own bids.

So this year we decided to do things a little differently. Our vision was to setup a webcam in the draft room with a mic and speakers, and project my face up onto the screen in the conference room where the draft is held. That way I could see everyone, they could see me, and I could participate by putting in my own bids.

In the end, it worked, but not without some frustration.

On the positive side, we used Skype to make the call and the audio was great. When I spoke, people could hear me. And since they actually setup the webcam on a water bottle, draped a coat around its shoulders, and put my name across its chest at the end of the table, it was incredibly cool to have everyone turning their heads to look at me when I spoke as if I were actually sitting there.

While the video was extremely poor quality, I can not overstate how much it added to the overall experience. Previously I was left with little audio other than what my friend told me when drafting remotely, but now I had something entertaining to watch throughout the three-hour drafting process.

Also noteworthy was that despite a couple of brief pops, the call held strong throughout the entire draft. There was a definite delay that almost cost me a couple of players, but it was a good enough experience that we never had to abandon it to go back to using cell phones to call in despite the draft lasting over 4 hours.

So overall, using broadband enhanced the fun I had while drafting tremendously. The use of video and the way they set up the audio made me feel like I was there, and it's definitely one of, if not the, longest single thing I've done using broadband before.

But then there were the negatives.

First off, setup was a bit of a bear. To frame this note that the two guys helping get things setup in the draft room are techies; they program and build applications for a living. So you'd think setting up a simple camera to stream video and use audio would be easy. You would think.

To start with the only webcam anyone had ready access to was old and at least partially responsible for the low quality video. Then when they went to set it up it was discovered that the computer it was plugged in to didn't have the proper drivers so time had to be spent finding, downloading, and installing those.

We thought we had it working, only to have the video disappear when the call expanded from two parties to four as Skype doesn't support multi-party video. If I would've been thinking before the draft I would've had everyone get set up with SightSpeed, but at this point it was too late to get people to download and install an app as the beginning of the draft was nearing quickly.

At one point we started thinking we were going to have to find an option other than Skype to either get the multi-party video to work or to allow the camera at the draft to be webcast out so I could at least watch it even if they couldn't see me. But then we ran into the problem that one of the computers they were using was a work computer that didn't have the latest version of Flash and was locked out from being upgraded. So we couldn't use MeBeam, a site I found that allows Skype to do multi-party video, and we couldn't use UStream.tv, which allows for easy webcasting from your Internet browser, because both are based on Flash.

We finally figured out that instead of doing one big call that included the other guy who had to dial in remotely, it'd be better to set up two separate calls on two different machines, at which point everything started working well. But we'd gotten so close to the draft that we weren't able to get things ready so that my head could be displayed giant-sized on the projector looking down on everyone, which was disappointing from an intimidation point of view, but not the end of the world.

Also challenging during setup were some significant feedback issues caused by the webcam having built-in speakers. After a fair amount of tweaking, turning speakers up and down, off and on, it finally got figured out and the audio was rock solid throughout the draft.

But think about this: fundamentally all we were really trying to do is turn a camera on in a room that I could watch, and setup a conference call where I could hear and speak through. It's not like we were trying to do anything crazy with brand new apps using tons of bandwidth. And despite the fact we had two techies in the room to help figure things it still took a good hour before things were ready to go.

So the moral of this story is that we still have a helluva long ways to go before the Internet is more user-friendly and before all the different pieces that make it work play nice together.

I'm not saying that simple-to-use apps don't exist. In fact, while they were trying to get things working, I went ahead and turned on my first webcast using UStream.tv just to see how easy it is, and I came away extremely impressed. Within a couple of minutes I was webcasting live to the Internet for the world to see using my built-in webcam and mike on my Macbook. But at the same time, I know that if I didn't have a couple of dedicated techies at the other end helping figure this out on draft night, I would've been stuck with audio only and maybe even relegated to a cellphone.

There were a few other observations I had during the draft that were interesting:

- For most of the draft we had everyone in the room and two people Skyped in, but at one point an owner who wasn't able to be there but had a friend drafting for him called in and was put on speakerphone on a cellphone, helping add another leg to this hyperconnected fantasy football draft.

- Yet the draft also wasn't as hyperconnected as I would've liked it to be. While I was able to chat via instant messaging through Skype with the two techies, I had no way of communicating with my friend in the room who I used to talk through in draft's past. I could see him, and talk to him publicly, but had no way of contacting him privately, even though he had his laptop open and presumably on the Internet. We didn't discuss ahead of time to make sure we could chat during the draft, so we ended up unable to communicate until the end, at which point he mentioned missing not having me in his ear to provide running commentary throughout the draft. So no matter how connected we may have been, it still wasn't enough.

- It was kind of neat that at one point I noticed one of the techies typing me a message before I received it through Skype. A small thing but still pretty cool.

All in all it was a tremendous experience, one that I definitely plan on repeating next year assuming I can't get back to Minnesota to participate in person. As while nothing beats being there, I can also now firmly state that nothing beats using broadband when you can't be there.

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