Future Tools: OBS Studio

Free and open source software for video recording and live streaming.

The pandemic has changed our relationship with media. Although this shift has been subtle, and obviously overshadowed by everything else going on. Yet we shouldn’t take for granted how our consumption of media content has dramatically expanded, and our expectations of media have evolved tremendously.

Specifically we’ve seen a kind of leveling of the playing field as initially almost all media production was either shut down or forced to operate remotely. Even now as studios open up and production resumes (albeit both using strict health protocols) many shows continue to employ a high level of remote coordination and production.

As a result amateur and small media operators have seized the moment, producing a growing amount of content, whether live or recorded. This opportunity is reinforced by the combination of binge viewing and production slowdowns. Even if production resumes, which it is slowly doing, it will take time for content to be produced and then air.

In today’s issue of Future Tools, let’s take a look at an essential piece of free and open source software, OBS Studio, which has become a key utility in the growing genre or industry of streaming content producers.

Although let’s begin with a bit of contemplation or reflection on the concept of streaming. It kind of feels to me that the word streamer serves to marginalize or delegitimize this kind of media production.

For example, OBS stands for Open Broadcaster Software, and that’s exactly what it does. It’s open software that makes it really easy for anyone to be a broadcaster.

As an aging broadcaster who remembers just how expensive and prohibitive broadcasting has historically been, this software blows my mind. It’s relatively easy to use, super easy to install, and it makes it easy for anyone to produce video content for a global audience.

That people take this power for granted does make me feel old, but it also reflects the extent to which media production and media distribution have benefitted from automation.

Streaming as a genre, usually involves video games, but that’s obviously not a necessity. However it is an aspect that is featured in OBS Studio, as the software is designed to treat your screen or apps running on your computer as another camera. This makes it really easy to use OBS Studio to create educational videos, or videos that mix or utilize other content.

Although OBS Studio can be used to mimic any broadcast studio, and take feeds from multiple cameras, whether local or even remote.

Similarly OBS can work as a production tool for an online meeting or event. This is partly my interest in the software. While I do intend to produce more online (live) content (once and if my Internet connection is upgraded) I’m also interested in OBS as a tool to use for virtual events or meetings.

In this context consider it a client that you can use to produce video that is then fed into Zoom, or MS Teams or any other software. It provides extra features and control that many of these online meeting platforms do not, in particular the ability to use multiple cameras, media, and share the screen easier.

That this software is designed for streamers, or even more specifically gaming streamers, should not be intimidating, but rather a sign that this software has been tested thoroughly. While their needs are specific, so too are their demands, and as a result this software can and should be used for a much wider range of purposes and applications.

Obvious examples might be videos that involve a lot of screen sharing or walking through software or web sites. Similarly reaction videos or commentary videos in which you’re talking about media or an event. Or videos that feature multiple cameras, which OBS enabling a live to tape or straight up live editing of the footage. I may use this for our farm chores video experiments.

In particular I want to see if I can get OBS to use the security cameras we have installed throughout our farm using RTSP.

OBS Studio version 26 was just released, here’s a video that highlights some of the new features which for those of us new to OBS is just about everything. ;)

Part of my purpose in writing this issue is to shift our perception of OBS Studio so that it can be regarded as the powerful tool that it is, above and beyond its use in the streaming industry. However that’s not a dis of the streaming industry, far from it, I just assume most of my readership is largely unfamiliar with it. Yet that may be a mistake on my part, and who knows, maybe as you read this you’re getting ideas about content you could stream to the masses?

LIVE STREAMING IS booming. People spent 1.2 billion hours watching Twitch in the first quarter of 2020, according to analytics company StreamHatchet and streaming software company Streamlabs. Time spent viewing the live-streaming service, a unit of Amazon, jumped 23 percent from February to March, and the number of unique Twitch channels increased 33 percent over the previous quarter. Other livestreaming platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Microsoft's Mixer also saw more use.
It's not just videogames. People host live cooking shows. Musicians are livestreaming concerts. Programmers use Twitch streams as a way to swap tips.
"I think it's a great time to try streaming," says Justin Turner, a digital marketer in Portland, Oregon, who just started a new livestreaming talk show about Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games. "It's a great way to interact with people. Just knowing some of my friends are watching and chatting really helps with social distancing."
Like many other streamers, Turner uses a videostreaming and recording application called Open Broadcaster Software Studio, which, unlike commercial options like Camtasia, is free and open source.
Twitch offers its own free streaming software that’s easier for beginners, but OBS Studio users say they prefer the app for its advanced features and how much it can be customized. "It's still relatively easy to use, but there's a lot of tinkering you can do if you're into that sort of thing," says Turner.

OBS is currently enjoying or riding the paradox of network effects. On the one hand OBS is helping to fuel the growth of streaming, and on the other hand the growth of streaming is helping to fuel the growth of OBS.

As free and open source software OBS doesn’t charge for usage, but depends upon sponsorship and voluntary contributions. Since streaming is exploding in popularity, OBS is benefiting from a wide range of support, and can now pay a full time maintainer to help develop the software and coordinate contributions from volunteer programmers and bug hunters.

However quite like other free and open source software OBS is not the easiest tool for beginners to learn. Thankfully that’s where community support distinguishes the open source world as there’s always a wide range of pedagogic approaches to helping people get started.

For example, here’s a good yet relatively thorough overview:

Like all of our Future Tools, OBS Studio is a great example of a tool that is relevant today and will increase in value as we move forward into the future.

While not everyone regards themselves as a streamer or a broadcaster, such distinctions have sort of dissolved thanks to the pandemic, as most people, at least most of my subscribers, are the types to participate in a virtual event or online meeting. At the very least OBS might be the kind of tool you can use to ensure your participation is as effective as possible.

Finally here’s some advanced features that illustrate some of what is possible with OBS Studio:

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh