Zoom as a video production platform shows it knows that online events aren't going away

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko January 5, 2022
Summary:
A recent Zoom acquisition leads me to speculate on a bigger push into the market for hosting and producing virtual events - an interesting idea and one ripe for technology development and integration.

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When we last heard from Zoom, the company was reeling from a botched attempt to acquire Five9 and aggressively expand into the customer support business. I speculated that the company might address the CCaaS-CPaaS (Cloud Communications-Communications Platform-as-a-Service) strategy either boldly via another merger target or perhaps incrementally through internal technology development.

However, after licking its wounds and seeing the fleeting mirage that is a return to pre-pandemic norms of office work and mass in-person events, the company appears committed to turning Zoom into a distribution and production platform for both unrehearsed meetings and highly produced online events. Evidence of this is a financially negligible but technically significant acquisition Zoom made during the holiday interregnum while most people were still recovering from eggnog-induced crapulence.

Zoom as a video production platform

Embedded in a longer December 27 blog post about the "future of events" was the news that Zoom acquired a small software company, Liminal, that few (it was unknown to me) outside the world of video production have heard of. Indeed, Liminal is so small, with only five employees, Zoom didn't disclose financial terms other than noting that Liminal's co-founders have joined the company. Zoom characterized the deal this way (emphasis added):

With virtual and hybrid events here to stay, users will need best-in-class tools to professionally produce their programs and performances online from anywhere in the world. As part of our ongoing efforts to offer these solutions, we are pleased to announce that we recently acquired certain assets from Liminal, a startup company that offers event production solutions built largely on Zoom’s SDK. … Liminal’s solutions, including their ZoomOSC and ZoomISO apps, will help bridge Zoom with traditional and emerging event control applications and hardware to help theaters, broadcast studios, and other creative organizations address complex technical production needs, and collaborate and create online effectively.

Here's how Liminal's founders expressed their goals for the Zoom platform (emphasis added):

ZoomOSC and ZoomISO have transformed the way that producers manage their Zoom meetings and incorporate advanced HD video contribution into their workflows. ​Now, we’re joining the Zoom team to pursue a greater vision -- to elevate virtual and hybrid events to new levels, directly serving the needs of the events and broadcast industries. …By bringing our production solutions and services under Zoom’s ownership, Liminal’s technology will significantly enhance Zoom’s events management and production offerings.

Born out of the pandemic, Liminal turned Zoom into a media server for video producers using specialized mixing, switching and editing applications. After investigating its products and viewing many of CEO Andy Carluccio's instruction videos, I'm convinced that Liminal punches above its weight by filling a niche between video conferencing and production software. Thus, the acquisition is likely a signal of broader strategic moves by Zoom in 2022.

Zoom Events now and in the future

As I detailed here, Zoom is exploiting the financial and customer acquisition windfall it reaped from the stampede as organizations emptied offices to WFH, which caused an accompanying replacement of in-person meetings and events with online video conferences and webinars. Indeed, the question in my February 2020 column seems quaintly innocent in retrospect, since yes, online events are now the norm and by conveniently mixing mass live streams with asynchronous recordings have become an extremely efficient format for information dissemination. As the austerity and limitations of first-generation video meetings have given way to highly produced presentations with interactive chats, live Q&As and downloadable annotations, fewer people outside the schmooze-masters in corporate sales and marketing see cause to endure the pain, cost and wasted time of massive corporate events.

Zoom expanded into this market last May by introducing Zoom Events which it says "combines the reliability and scalability of Zoom Meetings, Chat, and Video Webinars in one comprehensive solution." The product, which starts at $890 per year for 500 attendees, augments the core Zoom platform with features designed for organizers like an event hub, registration and ticketing system, statistical reports of attendance, revenue and other metrics, multiple sessions with per-session social networking and a public event directory. Events also includes backstage, a virtual green room for speakers, panelists, and production staff for private chats, public Q&As and conversations before going live.

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Zoom Events got its first big test by hosting 34,000 attendees and almost 300 speakers for its Zoomtopia conference in September. Zoom doesn't yet break out revenue by business segment or product category, but its most recent Q3 2002 earnings (see Derek du Preez's coverage here) did report strong growth in enterprise business. Revenue from large enterprises spending more than $100,000 per year — precisely the target customer for Zoom Events — grew 94 percent while the share of revenue from small customers with less than 11 employees shrank 4 points to 34%.

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Liminal - merging the Zoom platform with video production systems

Some principle limitations when using Zoom in video production is the inability to remotely control attendee's video and audio feeds and patch these into a programmable control panel like the Elgato Stream Deck, video switcher like the ATEM or MIDI controller. Here's where Liminal's products come in.

  • ZoomOSC adds Open Sound Control (OSC, a MIDI-like replacement that transmits over USB or UDP/IP (Ethernet, wireless) to allow connecting Zoom to OSC-compliant hardware controllers, production software and media servers (including cloud instances). ZoomOSC is programmable to allow automating sequences of events that can be pinned to external controllers to allow for actions like pinning selected meeting participants to spots on a multi-source gallery, triggering video switching effects on production software or fading audio inputs in our out.
  • ZoomISO turns Zoom into a virtual input source for video production software by generating individual video outputs for each meeting participant. These are exposed using the Syphon (frame sharing protocol between Mac applications) or NDI (IP video streaming protocol) and can be sent to a virtual mixer, switcher or media server. When used with ZoomOSC, video producers can assign Zoom participants to individual ISO outputs, providing great flexibility in editing, gallery composition and video effects.
  • Streamweaver can transport standard control protocols such as OSC over IP networks to enable remote control of lighting, sound and video effects on a Zoom event.

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These products can turn a pedestrian Zoom meeting into a highly-polished event. For example, a video producer at UNH streamlines the workflow for Zoom webinar management by using ZoomOSC with QLab software and a Stream Deck controller. Before the event, participants see a slide show with a countdown clock and music. Qlab sends a chat message to alert participants 30-seconds before the start and participants also get messages reminding them to turn on their camera and microphone. The meeting operator controls video feeds, slides and music via programmed Stream Deck buttons, which allow for quickly switching between the main video spotlight between speakers. To see a similar example, watch this Liminal instructional video.

My take

Between the Liminal acquisition and previous investments in Cvent, an event consultant and service provider, and American Express Global Business Travel, a corporate travel management company, Zoom is poised to significantly expand its online event portfolio and capabilities. These position Zoom to capture what will likely be a sizeable amount of event spending from its existing Zoom Meeting customers as it becomes a one-stop-shop for online business video production and delivery.

Although Liminal's products will be available "the foreseeable future," expect that to change as they are absorbed into Zoom Events, as a mix of baseline features and purchasable add-ons. Much like Zoom's abortive attempt to enter the customer support market, enhancing its Events platform differentiates Zoom from its larger, horizontally integrated rivals in enterprise video conferencing like Microsoft, Google and Cisco (Webex). However, Zoom still faces significant challenges from well-capitalized competitors like Adobe (Connect), Verizon (BlueJeans), LogMeIn (GoToWebinar) and smaller niche players.

Despite its delay for many organizations, in-person work isn't going away, thus I expect Zoom to address hybrid meetings and events via new features and by augmenting its Zoom Rooms hardware partnerships to include products, such as those mentioned above, used in video production and management. In sum, expect to see further improvements in video meeting production quality in 2022 as organizations continue adapting to a virtual-first world.