Dealing with the void during MiniDebConf Online #1
Between 28 and 31 May this year, we set out to create our first ever online MiniDebConf for Debian. Many people have been meaning to do something similar for a long time, but it just didn t work out yet. With many of us being in lock down due to COVID-19, and with the strong possibility looming that DebConf20 might have had to become an online event, we rushed towards organising the first ever Online MiniDebConf and put together some form of usable video stack for it.
I could go into all kinds of details on the above, but this post is about a bug that lead to a pretty nifty feature for DebConf20. The tool that we use to capture Jitsi calls is called Jibri (Jitsi Broadcasting Infrustructure). It had a bug (well, bug for us, but it s an upstream feature) where Jibri would hang up after 30s of complete silence, because it would assume that the call has ended and that the worker can be freed up again. This would result in the stream being ended at the end of every talk, so before the next talk, someone would have to remember to press play again in their media player or on the video player on the stream page. Hrmph.
Easy solution on the morning that the conference starts? I was testing a Debian Live image the night before in a KVM and thought that I might as well just start a Jitsi call from there and keep a steady stream of silence so that Jibri doesn t hang up.
It worked! But the black screen and silence on stream was a bit eery. Because this event was so experimental in nature, and because we were on such an incredibly tight timeline, we opted not to seek sponsors for this event, so there was no sponsors loop that we d usually stream during a DebConf event. Then I thought Ah! I could just show the schedule! .
The stream looked bright and colourful (and was even useful!) and Jitsi/Jibri didn t die. I thought my work was done. As usual, little did I know how untrue that was.
The silence was slightly disturbing after the talks, and people asked for some music. Playing music on my VM and capturing the desktop audio in to Jitsi was just a few pulseaudio settings away, so I spent two minutes finding some freely licensed tracks that sounded ok enough to just start playing on the stream. I came across mini-albums by Captive Portal and Cinema Noir, During the course of the MiniDebConf Online I even started enjoying those. Someone also pointed out that it would be really nice to have a UTC clock on the stream. I couldn t find a nice clock in a hurry so I just added a tmux clock in the meantime while we deal with the real-time torrent of issues that usually happens when organising events like this.
Speaking of issues, during our very first talk of the last day, our speaker had a power cut during the talk and abruptly dropped off. Oops! So, since I had a screenshare open from the VM to the stream, I thought I d just pop in a quick message in a text editor to let people know that we re aware of it and trying to figure out what s going on.
In the end, MiniDebConf Online worked out all right. Besides the power cut for our one speaker, and another who had a laptop that was way too under-powered to deal with video, everything worked out very well. Even the issues we had weren t show-stoppers and we managed to work around them.
DebConf20 Moves Online
For DebConf, we usually show a sponsors loop in between sessions. It s great that we give our sponsors visibility here, but in reality people see the sponsors loop and think Talk over! and then they look away. It s also completely silent and doesn t provide any additional useful information. I was wondering how I could take our lessons from MDCO#1 and integrate our new tricks with the sponsors loop. That is, add the schedule, time, some space to type announcements on the screen and also add some loopable music to it.
I used OBS before in making my videos, and like the flexibility it provides when working with scenes and sources. A scene is what you would think of as a screen or a document with its own collection of sources or elements. For example, a scene might contain sources such as a logo, clock, video, image, etc. A scene can also contain another scene. This is useful if you want to contain a banner or play some background music that is shared between scenes.
The above screenshots illustrate some basics of scenes and sources. First with just the DC20 banner, and then that used embedded in another scene.
For MDCO#1, I copied and pasted the schedule into a LibreOffice Impress slide that was displayed on the stream. Having to do this for all 7 days of DebConf, plus dealing with scheduling changes would be daunting. So, I started to look in to generating some schedule slides programmatically. Stefano then pointed me to the Happening Now page on the DebConf website, where the current schedule block is displayed. So all I would need to do in OBS was to display a web page. Nice!
Unfortunately the OBS in Debian doesn t have the ability to display web pages out of the box (we need to figure out CEF in Debian), but fortunately someone provides a pre-compiled version of the plugin called Linux Browser that works just fine. This allowed me to easily add the schedule page in its own scene.
Being able to display a web page solved another problem. I wasn t fond of having to type / manage the announcements in OBS. It would either be a bit prone to user error, and if you want to edit the text while the loop is running, you d have to disrupt the loop, go to the foreground scene, and edit the text before resuming the loop. That s a bit icky. Then I thought that we could probably just get that from a web page instead. We could host some nice html snippet in a repository in salsa, and then anyone could easily commit an MR to update the announcement.
But then I went a step further, use an etherpad! Then anyone in the orga team can quickly update the announcement and it would be instantly changed on the stream. Nice! So that small section of announcement text on the screen is actually a whole web browser with an added OBS filter to crop away all the pieces we don t want. Overkill? Sure, but it gave us a decent enough solution that worked in time for the start of DebConf. Also, being able to type directly on to the loop screen works out great especially in an emergency. Oh, and uhm the clock is also a website rendered in its own web browser :-P
So, I had the ability to make scenes, add elements and add all the minimal elements I wanted in there. Great! But now I had to figure out how to switch scenes automatically. It s probably worth mentioning that I only found some time to really dig into this right before DebConf started, so with all of this I was scrambling to find things that would work without too many bugs while also still being practical.
Now I needed the ability to switch between the scenes automatically / programmatically. I had never done this in OBS before. I know it has some API because there are Android apps that you can use to control OBS with from your phone. I discovered that it had an automatic scene switcher, but it s very basic. It can only switch based on active window, which can be useful in some cases, but since we won t have any windows open other than OBS, this tool was basically pointless.
After some quick searches, I found a plugin called Advanced Scene Switcher. This plugin can do a lot more, but has some weird UI choices, and is really meant for gamers and other types of professional streamers to help them automate their work flow and doesn t seem at all meant to be used for a continuous loop, but, it worked, and I could make it do something that will work for us during the DebConf.
I had a chicken and egg problem because I had to figure out a programming flow, but didn t really have any content to work with, or an idea of all the content that we would eventually have. I ve been toying with the idea in my mind and had some idea that we could add fun facts, postcards (an image with some text), time now in different timezones, Debian news (maybe procured by the press team), cards that contain the longer announcements that was sent to debconf-announce, perhaps a shout out or two and some photos from previous DebConfs like the group photos. I knew that I wouldn t be able to build anything substantial by the time DebConf starts, but adding content to OBS in between talks is relatively easy, so we could keep on building on it during DebConf.
Nattie provided the first shout out, and I made 2 video loops with the DC18/19 pictures and also two Did you know cards. So the flow I ended up with was: Sponsors -> Happening Now -> Random video (which would be any of those clips) -> Back to sponsors. This ended up working pretty well for quite a while. With the first batch of videos the sponsor loop would come up on average about every 2 minutes, but as much shorter clips like shout outs started to come in faster and faster, it made sense to play a few 2-3 shout-outs before going back to sponsors.
So here is a very brief guide on how I set up the sequencing in Advanced Scene Switcher.
If no condition was met, a video would play from the Random tab.
Then in the Random tab, I added the scenes that were part of the random mix. Annoyingly, you have to specify how long it should play for. If you don t, the no condition thingy is triggered and another video is selected. The time is also the length of the video minus one second, because
You can t just say that a random video should return back to a certain scene, you have to specify that in the sequence tab for each video. Why after 1 second? Because, at least in my early tests, and I didn t circle back to this, it seems like 0s can randomly either mean instantly, or never. Yes, this ended up being a bit confusing and tedious, and considering the late hours I worked on this, I m surprised that I didn t manage to screw it up completely at any point.
I also suspected that threads would eventually happen. That is, when people create video replies to other videos. We had 3 threads in total. There was a backups thread, beverage thread and an impersonation thread. The arrow in the screenshot above points to the backups thread. I know it doesn t look that complicated, but it was initially somewhat confusing to set up and make sense out of it.
For the next event, the Advanced Scene Switcher might just get some more taming, or even be replaced entirely. There are ways to drive OBS by API, and even the Advanced Scene Switcher tool can be driven externally to some degree, but I think we definitely want to replace it by the next full DebConf. We had the problem that when a talk ended, we would return to the loop in the middle of a clip, which felt very unnatural and sometimes even confusing. So Stefano helped me with a helper script that could read the socket from Vocto, which I used to write either Loop or Standby to a file, and then the scene switcher would watch that file and keep the sponsors loop ready for start while the talks play. Why not just switch to sponsors when the talk ends? Well, the little bit of delay in switching would mean that you would see a tiny bit of loop every time before switching to sponsors. This is also why we didn t have any loop for the ad-hoc track (that would have probably needed another OBS instance, we ll look more into solutions for this for the future).
Then for all the clips. There were over 50 of them. All of them edited by hand in kdenlive. I removed any hard clicks, tried to improve audibility, remove some sections at the beginning and the end that seemed extra and added some music that would reduce in volume when someone speaks. In the beginning, I had lots of fun with choosing music for the clips. Towards the end, I had to rush them through and just chose the same tune whether it made sense or not. For comparison of what a difference the music can make, compare the original and adapted version for Valhalla s clip above, or this original and adapted video from urbec. This part was a lot more fun than dealing with the video sequencer, but I also want to automate it a bit. When I can fully drive OBS from Python I ll likely instead want to show those cards and control music volume from Python (what could possibly go wrong ).
The loopy name happened when I requested an @debconf.org alias for this. I was initially just thinking about email@example.com but since I wanted to make it clear that the purpose of this loop is also to have some fun, I opted for loopy instead:
I was really surprised by how people took to loopy. I hoped it would be good and that it would have somewhat positive feedback, but the positive feedback was just immense. The idea was that people typically saw it in between talks. But a few people told me they kept it playing after the last talk of the day to watch it in the background. Some asked for the music because they want to keep listening to it while working (and even for jogging!?). Some people also asked for recordings of the loop because they want to keep it for after DebConf. The shoutouts idea proved to be very popular. Overall, I m very glad that people enjoyed it and I think it s safe to say that loopy will be back for the next event.
Also throughout this experiment Loopy Loop turned into yet another DebConf mascot. We gain one about every DebConf, some by accident and some on purpose. This one was not quite on purpose. I meant to make an image for it for salsa, and started with an infinite loop symbol. That s a loop, but by just adding two more solid circles to it, it looks like googly eyes, now it s a proper loopy loop!
I like the progress we ve made on this, but there s still a long way to go, and the ideas keep heaping up. The next event is quite soon (MDCO#2 at the end of November, and it seems that 3 other MiniDebConf events may also be planned), but over the next few events there will likely be significantly better graphics/artwork, better sequencing, better flow and more layout options. I hope to gain some additional members in the team to deal with incoming requests during DebConf. It was quite hectic this time! The new OBS also has a scripting host that supports Python, so I should be able to do some nice things even within OBS without having to drive it externally (like, display a clock without starting a web browser).
The Loopy Loop Music
The two mini albums that mostly played during the first few days were just a copy and paste from the MDCO#1 music, which was:
I have much more things to say about DebConf20, but I ll keep that for another post, and hopefully we can get all the other video stuff in a post from the video team, because I think there s been some real good work done for this DebConf. Also thanks to Infomaniak who was not only a platinum sponsor for this DebConf, but they also provided us with plenty of computing power to run all the video stuff on. Thanks again!