This week on ConferenceCast we interviewed Dan Slider of XKeys. Whether you need buttons for your live stream, podcast, or any production XKeys has a solution for you. Check out the interview below.
Dan, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I work for PI Engineering, that's the parent company. XKeys is our major brand. And I've been with the company since 2000. Kind of grown up with them and launched a lot of their marketing campaigns and websites and whatnot.
I just wanted to say while perusing your website, I was really entertained by the little bits of humor on there. Especially the mugshots. (Laughter) I just thought that was great.
I'm glad you enjoy that. Yeah, that's part of our - what we want to project is that we do like to have fun here. We take our business seriously, but we don't take ourselves so seriously.
XKeys is a product of PI Engineering brand as you said. Could you give us a little bit of history about the company?
We are a small business, family-owned business, in mid-Michigan. We're just down the road from Michigan State University and we have a lot of connections to MSU. Close to half of our staff are either an alum or has some affiliation with the state. We were founded in 1993 with something called a mouse adapter, a serial mouse adapter if you remember at that time it was pre-USB and there was no good way to get more than one pointing device into the computer, so our founder and his father developed this device that would let you use two pointing devices on the same PC and that kind of got things rolling.
XKeys has quite a few products. Could you tell us about some of your top products?
Our most popular one is we call it the XKey 24. It's a small keypad about the size of a USB Numpad with 24 keys on it, hence the 24. That's probably the most popular one with live streamers, especially the guys that are doing their own shows so that they only need a few commands to switch between a few cameras, maybe bring a few titles in, play some videos, that kind of thing. So, 24 keys are enough for them. And then we go up or down from there. We can do one button on our switch interface. So, if you just want a big red button to play a sound effect or launch something, we can easily do that.
Our biggest unit is the 128 which is an 8x16 layout of keys that you can setup for whatever you're doing. In live streaming the XKey 80 is probably the most popular one because when you get into a church situation or an auditorium where you - or like a remote sports production where you’re going to have more inputs it's a good size for that. And then the 128 is quite popular because it's bigger and it's rugged and you have plenty of room to lay keys out and make groups of them and make them easy to find. And then we have one with a T-bar on it that's also very popular because it looks like a video switcher and you have the T-bar to control fades and split screens and that sort of thing.
Something that we saw at Infocom this year, you were showing off and were excited about a new NDI Joystick. Can you tell us about that?
As you know, you're following streaming, the NDI is the new big thing and having played with it a little bit I can see why because it makes it so easy to connect a camera or a video source over the internet as opposed to before when I had to go - I'm sure you had to do it too Emily - you had to go through all those steps of finding an IP address and sometimes setting an IP address. And NDI gets rid of all of that. And we were actually getting requests from new tech users who said they had these NDI cameras but had no way to control them from a TriCaster and were wondering if they could use an XKeys to do that.
So, we said sure, why not. And we developed this little app, it's a free app that makes a connection between XKeys and NDI cameras and you can control up to four cameras with it. You can manipulate them, you can set up your presets, all those things that you would normally do with a PTZ controller and then switch between these four cameras and it's all working over NDI. We were able to do that when Andrew Cross introduced PTZ commands into the NDI stream. And I think that he's got a basic set in there now and from what I hear they'll probably be introducing more of them. So, right now, our app is supporting the basic set. We're technically in beta, though it's very stable and we have a lot of people using it. It's a free download if anybody would like to test it or download and use it they just need to contact us at email@example.com is the email address for that.
Do your keys work with PTZ Optics and HuddleCamHD brands?
Yeah, any camera that supports NDI and supports the NDI PTZ commands will work with it. Today, we've only tested it with PTZ Optics and NewTech but there are some other brands out there that I know our users are using it on. And again, that's part of the NDI allure is that it's across platforms. So, any camera that supports NDI and PTZ, our app will see it and send it commands.
Who is using your XKeys products and how?
You'd think that would be a simple question. Here's the thing, XKeys control computers, and computers control everything. So, we have such a broad base and range of usage. We have transcriptionists using our foot pedals to start and stop media files as they are transcribing them. We have medical technicians who are going through thousands and thousands of mammograms or x-ray images and processing each one and tagging it. We have them use their XKeys to help them categorize and quickly move through all those.
Photoshop users, wedding photographers and portrait photographers are another big group for us because, again, they are processing thousands and thousands of images. And in Photoshop, I have one where I have all my keys set up with my Photoshop tools on it because I'm too lazy to take my mouse up to the menu and click and click when I can just tap a key and have the tool I want right in front of me. And broadcast is quite big for us. Would you like to hear a couple of my favorite stories from broadcast?
That wasn't even a question on my part. I think one of the coolest ones is, you may remember a few years back, the Simpsons did this big historic event where they were doing live animation where Homer was taking questions from the audience at the end of the show and answering them live. And the animator doing that was using an XKeys to make Homer move, tilt his head, gesture with his hands, that kind of thing. He was using an XKeys for Homer on that production. So that was fun.
We have XKeys in Pixar and DreamWorks. Colorists use them, Latex use them. I think my other favorite story, or one of them anyway, comes from CBS Sports and this was three or four years ago, just before March Madness, we got this order in from CBS for our switch interface and a big red button. And I don't know, three or four versions of this with just one button and a switch interface and I happened to be corresponding with the engineer at the time and I asked him what was up. And he said they were having trouble with their playout system and it keeps crashing and I don't have time to fix it. So, I'm going to program "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" on your XKeys and put this big red button in front of the producer, when the system goes down he can smash it as hard as he wants, it'll read with the system and after March Madness is over, I'll have more time to get into it and fix the system. But this is my stop-gap measure.
How would you go about choosing the correct XKeys for your, let's say, live stream system?
Well, I think the principle consideration is how many buttons do you need. And as I said, we range from 1 up to 128. We're actually - we have a client putting together a system right now with two of our 128 units plus our 24 T-bar unit plus an XKey 68 with a jog and shuttle in it for replay. I can't do that math in my head. It's a lot. But we made a key set for him that was over 400 keys. But he's doing live high school sports and running advertising and all kinds of things in the system at the same time. If you're just doing your own show where you only have one or two cameras and maybe opening and closing video, maybe a microphone or two, the XKey 24 - I think that's why it's so popular for that. And then, it's just more of a consideration of how much control do you need and how much space do you have.
What is the advantage of using hard keys over maybe the ability to do things in a software platform?
Well there are some things that software is really good for and touch screens are really good for, but if you've ever operated a system in a live environment where you need to have your finger on a key and are ready to fire it when something happens, touch screens are really not very good for that. You want that physical feedback. With an XKeys, without looking at it, you can reach over, find the edge of it, feel where the key is that you need, maybe a quick glance down to confirm that's the right key, and then you can hold your finger on it until what you want to happen is going to happen and then fire it. I think that's the biggest advantage.
Ergonomics is another one. Again, touch screens are great, but if you can imagine sitting at a desk or a control station constantly reaching up and touching something on the monitor, that's going to put some strain on your back if you have to do it a lot. And I think the other thing is reliability and that tactile feedback. You know when you've got your finger on a key and when it goes down you feel it bottom out and you know you have triggered it.
Where I think we've all had that experience on our smartphone's touch screen where it's "Did I hit that?" or "Why isn't it working? I know I tapped that." This at least take part of that out of the equation.
What's in store for the future of XKeys?
We are going to continue making USB controllers in various forms. We have been planned a little bit with Android, a little bit with ethernet connectivity because almost everything we do right now is USB. The NDI thing actually has some possibilities to it. We're looking into can we make an XKeys NDI device and send it out over the network that way. So, that could be kind of cool. And we also have, in design right now, some modular systems where you would be able to assemble your own control surface out of our components. Say you need a qwerty keyboard to be able to enter things in but you also want to jog and shuttle on it, or you want a T-bar on it. And so, we're trying to make - we like that Lego idea where you can plug things in. At the same time, you want that reliability of knowing that when you plug them in, they are hardwired together, and a connector isn't going to fail on you. So, that's kind of where we're headed.