GiveBIG 2020 Fly-In Tech Details
The GiveBIG 2020 livestream was a four-hour flight simulator event, produced in coordination with VATSIM, raising money for the Museum of Flight. The event, which was broadcast on Twitch with live chat, had live guests on Zoom video call, giveaways, and over 100 pilots coordinating with air traffic controllers on the VATSIM virtual flight simulation network in the Boeing Field area near Seattle, Washington.
This event required the integration of multiple software and hardware systems, group organization, community moderation, and overcoming unique flight simulation technical challenges through continuous training and experimentation.
To watch the livestream interviews, see GiveBIG 2020.
Principles of Production
Overall the show was constructed like this:
Click here for a larger technical diagram
In segments of 30 minutes to an hour, the pilot-host (that is, the person flying), controls a live flight simulator and interacts with a guest, who views the flight simulator right along with the audience. The guest and pilot-host discusses a topic while flying, connected by voice and video chat through Zoom.
During the flight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) and other aircraft interacts with the pilot-host and guest in the simulator world over audio, connected through a multiplayer network called VATSIM. The pilot-host gives and receives radio calls to negotiate clearances, approaches and departures in the pattern of aircraft.
The flight sim, the VATSIM interactions, the pilot-host video and guest video are all mixed in real-time and broadcasted to Twitch, a live-streaming video service, where an audience views the stream in real time and interacts with the pilot-host and guest by text chat.
A moderator, who is also on the Zoom call with the pilot-host and guest, interacts with the text chatters on Twitch, ferrying questions to the pilot-host and guest, since the pilot-host cannot see the Twitch text chat. The moderator is also responsible for periodic giveaways, asking for participants and identifying the winner by talking on the Zoom call, which is audible on the Twitch stream.
At intervals, the pilot-host and moderator remind the audience of the connection to the Museum of Flight, and post the link to the official GiveBIG donation site on the Twitch stream text chat and mention it on audio, in order to encourage donations. The moderator periodically checks the current donation amounts on the GiveBIG site and announces milestones to the audience, pilot-host, and guest, to celebrate donations and donors.
Hardware and Software: The Live Flight Sim Pipeline
For this event, a single, very powerful desktop computer was responsible for the flight simulation, video conference, realtime composition and transmission to the Twitch livestreaming network. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, having a second computer and a producer on site to help with livestreaming configuration was not possible.
The person flying, called the pilot-host in this pipeline, was also the interviewer of guests and controlled the switching of scenes in the streaming software, the tuning of audio levels, the hiding and showing of various sources, tasks traditionally controlled by a producer, but without co-locating the producer in the same location as the pilot-host, there is too much signaling difficulty to make the producer duties make sense as a separate role.
You can learn details about the flight sim hardware on the Project Nimitz page. While the computer is powerful, many modern computers, including laptops with modern graphics cards, can handle the combined load of flight simulators and streaming with no problems.
The simulator used was X-Plane 11 Pro, with the X-Vision plugin, XCamera, and a host of other smaller add-ons. The Washington state scenery was enhanced by TrueEarth Washington from OrbX, and Seattle scenery packs from Drzewiecki Design.
The mixing and production software was an all-in-one package called OBS Streamlabs. The graphics including transitions and wipes were a purchased template that made for an easy way to up the production value.
Used sparingly in the event, an additional tool called Foreflight, an Electronic Flight Bag program, ran on an iPad with an X-Plane simulator connection to pipe in simulator GPS data. Foreflight was visually “mirrored” from the iPad using a tool called APowerMirror, where it was captured by OBS Streamlabs and shown on the stream.
Never Fly Alone - Developing with VATSIM
To truly elevate this event, we partnered with VATSIM and the ZSEARTCC region, to imagine an event with multiple aircraft in a single region, where the flight sim experience would feel more “full”, and the pilot-host and guests could contend with live Air Traffic Control operations for a sense of real flight.
The ZSEARTCC organization has had a long history of running live airport events with pilots from all over the world; the organization of the necessary air controllers and managers was completely in their hands - and they delivered a great event where our participation was less about having to nail down the details, and more about being a participant in their ATC network.
VATSIM also gave us access to the VSTARS air traffic controller simulator software, which gave us a real-time view of ATC operations during the event, for a change of scenery. You can see this software in action during the Aaron Schwartz VATSIM interview.
Simming Ain’t Easy - Flight Sim Challenges
Normally, flight simulation is a solo affair, and the pilot has control over everything, from weather to time of day to failures on board.
However, since the VATSIM multiplayer network requires all pilots to share an experience, time and weather are locked to real-world conditions. This turned what would be an easy flight experience to a highly variable one, subject to the real-world weather that occured on the exact day and time of the live show.
In order to prepare for the challenges of live flight with real-world weather and ATC, in the variety of aircraft planned, the pilot-host worked with the moderator crew and VATSIM community managers in a series of eleven “workups” to work out the necessary departures and approaches, standard maneuvers, and all the bugs to work out in the streaming pipeline.
Check out the playlist of these workups to see the evolution of the streaming pipeline and procedures to ready for the final day.