K Space Academy
Video Views: 1,034,915
Channel Type: Games
User Created: Sep 12th, 2014
When you log on to Twitch, you expect to find people playing and narrating their latest video game experiences. You don’t expect to find someone interviewing an astronaut live from a museum or a feed from the launch of a Saturn V Rocket. Das Valdez is one unique Twitch host who is creating something revolutionary and educational.
Kerbal Space Academy is the name of Das’ Twitch channel, and it is linked to an educational game called Kerbal Space Program. He tells us that the game is pretty technical. “You actually have to learn a little bit of physics and a little bit of aerodynamics. You have to learn a little rocket science in order to do anything in the game.”
However, there is so much more going on at Das’ stream. No longer does his feed revolve around the game alone. He loves to take viewers outside his home studio by hosting virtual field trips. You’ll often see live rocket launches and recently he was invited to the D-Day 75th Anniversary in France. We caught up with this busy video entrepreneur as he was driving home from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The academy’s start
Das’ background is not, as you would expect, that of a physicist or a rocket scientist. “I’m none of those things. I was actually a computer programmer,” he says. During the dot-com boom of the early 2000s he was in college and found work teaching coding at a computer camp. The company liked what they saw and hired Das to set up other camps around the country. He left college and jumped at the new opportunity.
Unfortunately, the dot-com boom turned into a bust, and Das swapped titles to become a Solutions Architect. “Which is not as exciting as it sounds,” he says with a laugh. This kept him traveling around the country and gave him a great background in teaching complex subjects. But Das wanted something else that could keep him closer to home and his daughter.
“I wanted something that was flexible. I wanted something where I work from home.” He thought streaming video might just be the answer. He could instruct people from the comforts of home. As Das was researching video education, he came across Twitch. “I realize that Twitch is a gaming site, but I thought, well, there are games that I can teach people to play. That sounds like a fun thing for me to do in my spare time and I can also get resume material.”
He enjoyed playing Kerbal Space Program and knew a lot about the game’s complexities. He connected his computer to his Logitech camera and started his stream. “I went to Walmart and got yellow fabric that I hung from a curtain rod behind me. I got a little desk lamp that I pointed at myself and I just started doing these online courses.”
At first, Kerbal was not a big draw. Das would see 10-15 viewers on each stream. His computer crashed and he was prepared to stop the feed altogether. “The next morning, I wake up to a stack of messages. ‘Where are you!’ ‘Oh my gosh when are you getting back online?’ ‘We need you to help us with Kerbal.’”
The lightbulb moments
Das explained the situation to his audience and people actually started to donate money through the Twitch system for him to buy a new computer. This came as a complete surprise to the computer programmer. “Wait a second,” he thought, “you can actually make money doing this!?!”
“Wait a second,” Das thought, “you can actually make money doing this!?!”
There was enough money from the donations to get a better computer, and Das found out that people were actually making a living with Twitch. He threw himself into the Kerbal Space Academy and the audience began to grow. “We got up in the 50 people, 100 people, 200 people, 500 people. Eventually, got up to 800 to 1000 people tuning in on a nightly basis.” That was about five years ago, and Twitch has lots more users.
“I’m full of bright ideas,” Das tells us about the next big shift for Kerbal Space Academy. “One day I thought, ‘Okay, this is really cool, playing this video game at home. But what if I go to a museum and I play this game in a museum?’” A local museum was hosting a space event with an astronaut and he thought it was a great tie in.
The museum agreed to the live stream but Das didn’t want to go out in public with that tiny Logitech camera taped to a computer monitor. “I go out, get an actual video camera and sort of ‘fake it till we make it’. We sit down with this astronaut and do the live stream and everybody loves it!” The virtual field trip is born. Other museums loved it and started contacting Das. Now he is regularly streaming remotely.
Additionally, because of his remote success, Twitch has partnered with the Academy and they often feature ads for the field trips. They even selected Das to host a DJI drone competition live from Japan.
Taking the Academy on the road
So, what does it take to take a Twitch feed on the road? Das says they’ve moved well beyond that original computer and camera. “Back in the beginning it was a micro ITX computer with a battery pack plugged into the side of it. We used a regular monitor and cameras plugged into a capture card. We would tote that thing around in a massive Pelican case.” It was hardly a simple set up.
They stepped up to a laptop connected to a camera tripod and then went to cell phones. The phones weren’t powerful enough to handle everything they wanted to do, so now the Academy rolls out with a piece of broadcast equipment. “I’ve been using a unit that sort of revolutionized everything I do. Its called a LiveU Solo,” Das says of the unit that fits in a backpack. “It takes four 4G cellular modem connections and binds them together. You give it a video signal off an HDMI cable.”
The pack has enabled Das to live stream even from underwater. “We did a live virtual field trip, walking through a submarine. The expert from the museum was with us telling us all his stories. We have this little camera and are dragging 400 feet of cable behind.”
Primarily the “little camera” Das uses is a Sony HDR- AS300. “We love that camera because the image stabilization is fantastic. It’s also got a great microphone, so you can go without body packs or a separate shotgun.” If they are doing a separate interview, they will use a Canon Vixia HF-G30. “That line of Canon cameras is stupid good, though, because I’ve done everything from an interview with an astronaut to paradrops going over us at Normandy. We were able to resolve the five moons of Jupiter, just with that camera.”
Das also uses a Nikon P1000 that he calls a telescope with a camera body on the back of it. “We use that for the rocket launches because it can track the Falcon 9 all the way from launch to the booster separation. We can keep that thing in the frame of the camera for the entire launch.”
The super portable and lightweight set up has been a real asset at times. “There was a launch for Parker Solar Probe last year,” Das tells us. They were set up and ready in minutes to cover the launch. The other news crews were still unpacking, when NASA representative said to them, “You look like you’re set up to do an interview. Do you want to do an interview with somebody? We said ‘sure, bring somebody over.’ The person who walks up to us is the chief scientist of NASA! He gives us a 15-minute interview, and we weren’t even we’re looking for it.”
The person who walks up to us is the chief scientist of NASA! He gives us a 15-minute interview, and we weren’t even we’re looking for it.
Taking the Academy into the future
Looking ahead, Das says they will continue to have more virtual field trips and more rocket launches. In fact, he tells us that his next purchase will give a new dimension to those launches. “We want to add an infrared camera for rocket launches. If you see the launch with visible light, it looks really cool, but if you put an infrared camera on a rocket is going downrange, it’s a show that you can’t see with the naked eye!”
He also tells us that they are looking to get more from their YouTube channel. “With Twitch, you get paid, but you gotta be live streaming twenty-four seven. Then you have to get online and stream again. Don’t miss a day. But on YouTube, you spend time creating this video and then it goes up and sort of earns money for you. You can go off working on other things like setting up an expert. I think it’s going to be important for me in the future to really start to tap that revenue source.”