One of the biggest changes that the Internet and World Wide Web brought to the world is the enabling of participation. Today, everybody can publish content, and everybody can access that content. But leaving aside cat videos and Instagram food pics for a moment, a closer look reveals that what is published is mostly textual content. Now, take a look at the events that take place in your city this week. There is a talk about Lean Startups, here is one presentation about urban farming, and there is another event on building your own robots. Wouldn’t it be so valuable if all these presentations were available online so that you could take part without having to go there?

That is the vision that the Shanghai start-up VastCast is working on. As Carsten Ullrich, one of the co-founders of VastCast explains, VastCast enables online access to presentations and lectures. Conference and event organizers as well as educational organizations can use VastCast to live-stream and record speakers and teachers, together with their presentations. The online audience views the presentations and the speakers using any browser and their mobile device (iPhone/iPad/Android).

VastCast was founded by Carsten Ullrich, Jiajun Wang and Weikai Xie, three scientists at the e-learning lab of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). The software has been used for several years at the School of Continuing Education of SJTU (SOCE), SJTU’s online college. Carsten explains that the 35,000 students of SOCE use the system to attend classes remotely whenever they cannot come to the classroom. “The students are part-time students, namely adults who have a job and family. They can not come to the classroom in person each and every time. Therefore, we use VastCast to live-stream the lectures while they are ongoing, and also to make them available as recordings afterward for rehearsal.” The college produces 4 GB of content every single day.

Since beginning of this year, the teams has worked on making available VastCast as a stand-alone system, available to customers other than SOCE. “We realized that VastCast offers amazing opportunities for all kind of educational institutions and also for event organizers. So many interesting events are going on in just Shanghai every week, but most of the time most of those people who are interested in it are unable to attend. Imagine you as an event organizer can make your event available to this audience, by simply starting a software. VastCast makes that possible. All you need is our software, a web cam and microphone”. Compared to other solutions such as Adobe Connect, VastCast is very simple to install and use, and does not require complex configuration. It offers a very high visual quality of the presentation, while requiring only limited bandwidth. Carsten says “we wanted to make VastCast foolproof. Live-streaming your event should be an opportunity, not an additional burden.”

From the audience side, VastCast offers a very elegant user interface, which combines two video streams. The left-hand side shows a very high quality video of the screen content, and the right hand side contains the video of the presenter. Tapping or clicking on each of the videos increases them to full-screen. According to Carsten, “the development of VastCast is driven by three factors: simplicity, quality and mobile. We wanted to create a tool that is easy to use, offers a high visual quality, while requiring little bandwidth. It had to be a mobile app, as we want the audience to participate as conveniently as possible. In fact, we first developed the iOS and Android apps, and only then the Flash-based browser access”. The very high quality of the screen content is made possibly through VastCast’s proprietary screen compression algorithms, which are the results of extensive research done at the lab from which the VastCast founders come from.

VastCast has been used for several events in Shanghai and world-wide. For instance, for an introduction to Learn Startup, watch this Techyizu talk by Gabriel Paquin. Last month, the European Conference on Technology-Enhanced Learning, one of the most renowned European conferences on technology-enhanced learning, has been using VastCast (log in with username and password “ectel”). VastCast is currently in private beta and the team is now actively inviting and welcoming organizations and individuals to join VastCast.

This weekend, on Saturday, 13th, VastCast will be used to live-stream the TEDx Suzhou event. So, even if you are not physically nearby, participating at the most amazing talks is just a click away.

Dr. Gang Lu - Founder of TechNode. He's a Blogger, a Geek, a PhD and a Speaker, with passion in Tech, Internet and R'N'R.

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