://FRESH - THE WORLD OF WEB VIDEO

08 November 2006
Bryan Leung, IdN Magazine
Bryan Leung, IdN Magazine

The temptation to employ web video has never been greater.
- First, DV has rendered the cost of video editing low enough to be eminently feasible.
- Second, free evaluation-class streaming video servers are now available.
- Third, corporate PR and viewers alike are tired of seeing just flying graphics, what they want are moving, realistic people talking to the camera.
- Fourth, the Internet is becoming faster and faster.

There are basically two types of web video: multicast and on-demand. The former is the broadcast model, with the web server replying to as many requests as it can handle until it becomes overloaded. The more people who watch it, the more bandwidth and server performance are tested.

The crucial element for multicast video is a real-time (or close to real-time) encoding system that feeds the server with material - such as keynote speeches, interviews or actual events, such as swimsuit shows, that are happening at that precise moment.

This broadcasting method is similar to that of a TV station, except with a bigger time lapse. Internet Content Providers such as iChannel are already broadcasting live shows.

On-demand video is the same as multicast video except that there is no real-time encoding system. Materials are put in the server in much the same way as other web material would be. Anyone who wants to watch it simply hits the URL and watches it.

Of course, the importance of bandwidth and server performance remains vital. Web video material can now be seen on many websites, but sites such as the QuickTime movie trailers and some automobile promotional sites use video extensively.

Some users, especially those still using slower modems, are probably not sharing the same excitement in watching video, since video does require a relatively fast connection - 57K or v.90 is truly a minimum. But the advent of broadband video has meant that some lengthy web video material can now be delivered at VCD quality or higher. Many web publishers are aware of this and have realised that the technology will very soon be commonplace, so they are taking the view that the sooner they start demonstrating their prowess in this field, the better position they will be in when everybody is watching TV/VCR on an Internet connection.

IdN talked to some experienced Internet video publishers to find out how they see the web video marketplace right now, as well as in the near future. Some people are riding on web video, some are finding the waves too rough to ride on. We sent out a series of questions to a few surfers and they tell us how the tide is.
 

Andy Ho, managing director, iChannel
iChannel is one of the earliest portals in Hong Kong. Today iChannel is a Chinese-only web site with a wide spectrum of information. Ho comes from a publishing background and before joining iChannel tried various Internet business ventures. One reason why iChannel is vigorously investing in web video solutions is because one of the sister companies is a broadband ISP.

IdN: How do you use web video in your site?
AH: Multicast:
1) We have web cams from time to time capturing live scenes from vairous locations. At the moment, we are broadcasting a street view from Lan Kwai Fong. Plans are afoot to feed animal scenes from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals;
2) We have a live chat from 9 to 10pm on weekdays;
3) Under some of our subchannels, such as iCute, iCity and i02, we have been producing our own video materials to illustrate our feature stories. These include interviews with celebrities, short documentaries etc. We are about to launch a news service. News video footage will be used.
On demand web video:
4) We have produced some 3-minute short love stories;
5) We carry clips of seminars, fashion shows, product demos, etc;
6) Some of our paid ads are also in video format.

IdN: How do you perceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
AH: The biggest problem for us is even if we are prepared to produce better quality video files, users using normal real player or media player can hardly tell the difference. so it may not be worthwhile to put too much resources into upgrading visual quality. At the moment, I think people don t mind watching short video clips, but it won t be realistic to expect them to watch anything longer than say 2 to 3 minutes.

IdN: Did you juggle between the various file formats, do the competing file formats present a problem?
AH: At the moment, most of our video clips are available in three different formats: 28.8k, 56k and broadband. We have decided to drop the 28k format in the near future. We believe most of the users in HK are at least 56k ready, and of course, we also want to drive more people to convert to broadband. There is some reservation though, because we believe many of the overseas users, those in China for instance, are not yet ready for it. In fact, many people in the US, I was told, are still using slower than 28k modems.

IdN: How do you view your relationship with customers?
AH: Typically, broadcasting organisations, using industry standard tools, never had to worry about customers because they know customers use a standard TV. In the computing world, there is no standard hardware or browser.
We ve even encoutered problems with various versions of the explorer in this regard. With the advance of wireless FTNS, the use of IP/TV is now a real possibility. iChannel is in fact looking at this option. However, technical issues like whether it will conflict with some software have yet to be ironed out. So, the short answer is yes. the lack of an industry standard has presented some real problems for ICP s like us.

Louise Goodrich - web art director of www.apple.com
My idea of design is to make interactivity that is user-centric and not technology-centric. The message has to be presented concretely and clearly. Information must be easily accessible and understandable by the audience, and it needs to add value to the their experience on the site and, most especially, with the product/brand - which will offer reasons for them to return.

IdN: How do you see the future of web video?
LG: In the future, web video should look no different than broadcast-standard video. This is a few years away, but within reach as more and more people are able to connect at 1.5Mbps to 8Mbps. At these connection rates, some video can look close to content from a DVD. Apple already provides movie trailers that are full-screen resolution that look as good as a television signal you would get from a local broadcast.

IdN: How do you use web video in your sites?
LG: Apple works with major movie studios to provide them with the best QuickTime video possible for movie trailers and video previews that are delivered on the Internet (www.apple.com/trailers). Apple also has its own TV commercials and promotional videos that are delivered in QT from our site (www.apple.com/imac/theater.html).

IdN: How do you perceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
LG: Well, who doesn t want to watch high-quality video content on their Mac/PC? Although to make this a reality, low-cost/high-bandwidth services must become available. It's only a matter of time. But while the overall audience for broadband will continue to grow, the majority will be at slower speeds for years - which is why we offer most things in so many sizes.

IdN: Do you juggle between the various file formats, and do the competing file formats present a problem?
LG: Not really, but our website reaches an audience of millions of people, and for this reason, we need to make sure that the content can be viewed by all of those people - with the maximum benefit and the least amount of trouble. Apple's video delivery is all in QuickTime, the standard for digital media, which makes it easy to deliver the best quality as well as the best user experience, without having to worry about other file formats. We do offer different options for the many types of users we may have visiting (i.e. several qualities/file sizes of QuickTime movies).

David Bartel - creative director of agency.com
David has worked previously as a developer and producer for CondeNet and Oxygen Media. He has been developing video content for broadband and Internet narrowband and producing a short documentary for French television. David also has a career as a "serious" composer with compositions performed in the US, Europe and Japan and appearing in compilations from the Californian electronica label Abstraktreality Records. David first solo album is to be released in the fall.

IdN: How do you use web video in your sites?
DB: Archive (Quicktime and Real), some live webcast (Oxygen Media, Real).

IdN: How do you preceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
DB: The public is ready for the most part. There was no perceived negative response to the fact that we offered video content using plug-ins. However, whenever the technology gliched, then the reaction was very adverse!

IdN: Do you juggle between the various file formats, and do the competing file formats present a problem?
DB: Not really. They present extra production work if you decide to go multiformat, but that is mostly a moot point these days (Quicktime the default, Windows Media Player and Real rather ubiquitous). I'd say what is more of an issue is the difficulty of detecting plug-ins, especially in Mac.

Mason Hale, Charlie Wan - Frog Design
frogdesign is a global industrial-design company that started in Germany and is helmed by the charismatic Harmut Esslinger. In 1996, it took over the Texas firm Virtual Studio (see story in this issue). Among its many high-profile design projects have been the Apple and Mac computer series.

Hong Kong-born Charlie Wan is a digital media and e-motion graphic designer for frog Texas and led the recent Ford Th!nk car video production team, while Mason Hale is the firm's chief technologist.

IdN: How do you see the future of web video?
MH: This isn't an original thought, but I believe that cable television will become more and more interwined and merged with the Internet. I think this merger will go much deeper than video over IP. Cable has the attraction that its user base is already used to paying for premium content, and for buying content on demand. Cable companies also provide a billing and collection infrastructure for the premium content, and because they share in the revenue, they co-promote the premium content as well.

This vision is (more or less) the same vision as interactive television, which has been around for more than a decade. Some may argue that computers and televisions will never converge because the interaction models (passive versus active) are completely different. To some extent I agree with that argument, but I think the result will be fragmentation - where some significant portion of Internet content is designed expressly for a television-based, passive audience. Other content will be designed for active, task-oriented, computer-based audiences, but it will all still be swimming around in the same soup we call the Internet.

I agree that televisions are horrible for reading news or composing e-mail messages. (This will get better when HDTV and progressive scan become accessible.) But television is great for playing games, watching news and general entertainment. Different activities favor different media, but it is all delivered via the same conduit.
In the end, I think surfing through hundreds of television channels is a very similar activity to surfing through millions of potential websites. Further, I think the fragmentation will enable, or at least support the transition to premium sites, and pay-per-view or pay-per-page-view or pay-per-game revenue models.

Even though I think DSL is a better technology and a more customer-friendly model, I think the lure of control provided by the cable infrastructure will attract exclusive content arrangements - and that exclusive content will ultimately attract the lion s share of the audience.

IdN: How do you use web video in your sites?
CW: We only use video to show our reel on our site. Since we want to embed the video in our browser and most of the clips are quite short in length, we chose Quicktime as a format of choice for people to download instead of streaming.

IdN: How do you perceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
CW: I think it is getting better. The majority are still living on their 56K modem at home. But a lot of offices and schools as well as home users are upgrading to T1, DSL and cable modem. So watching video online becomes easier and less painstaking. I think the quality of web video is getting much higher. But I don t think it will be a replacement for our TV sets. It s just that the feeling of laying on the couch, munching chips and watching The Simpsons is not replaceable by any sort of rich media!

IdN: Do you juggle between the various file formats, and do the competing file formats present a problem?
CW: It depends on the final deliverables - most of our web-ready videos are all in Quicktime! It s just an easy format to deal with. Most of us are Mac-based at frog. Quicktime is the logical path. I know the whole world is PC-based, but it s just a solid technology. Every now and then a client might ask for mpeg or avi. We can easily cook that out with no sweat. But we love Quicktime. Sorenson codec is the best!

C. Chris O Hanlon - Spike Networks
Chris O Hanlon, the founder of Spike Networks, is one of Australia s best-known and most controversial Internet entrepreneurs. He came to interactive media from a background in film, photography and graphic design. Spike websites have won prestigious design awards in Australia, Asia, the US and Europe.

Although recently retired as CEO of Spike, O Hanlon remains an outspoken and sometimes outrageous commentator on the Asia-Pacific region's New Media business. His first book on the subject is to be published in Australia by HarperCollins at the end of this year.

IdN: How did you see the future of web video?
CH: Web video still has a long way to go in delivering the immersive entertainment that the audience expects of any video medium, so the future is limited by the high costs of bandwidth and its reasonably limited distribution. However, I'am excited by the possibilities opened up by AtomFilms' recent deal to distribute short films to palmtop devices - it opens up some very interesting ideas.

IdN: How do you use web video in your sites?
CH: On entertainment sites, we use it either to enable an audience to access an event that they might not normally be able to a webcast from a club, or a fashion show - or to supplement text-based content, such as a celebrity profile or interview. We have also used it to deliver interactive advertising, but, for all the reasons I ve just given, it isn t really a satisfying or effective user experience.

IdN: How do you perceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
CH: It can be summed up in one word: anticipation. Everyone is aware of what is possible. If anything, they re frustrated that it isn t being delivered faster, cheaper - and everywhere. Interactivty everywhere, that's the ideal.

IdN: Do you juggle between the various file formats, and do the competing file formats present a problem?
CH: It can be frustrating, and technically challenging, even just to deliver to the most common PC and Mac applications. We attempted to deliver to Quicktime, Real and Windows Media Player with SpikeRadio and it presented a technical nightmare that was very intimidating and not at all intuitive for our early audiences.

Drew Trujillo New Media Director of Gr8
Drew Trujillo, New Media Director, leads the strategic direction and implementation of cutting-edge technologies to the new media, design and technology departments at Gr8. He ensures that these technologies embrace life and movement, as well as improve the way Gr8 communicates and shares knowledge.

IdN: How do you see the future of web video?
DT: Regardless of what industry (commercial, entertainment, etc.), video in the future will be reactive and updateable, available anytime and anywhere. As a member of the mpeg consortium, there are some primary principals we are working on in relation to these objectives, which are: reactive media, ubiquitous content, modular design.

Reactive media in the sense that video and all other media objects will be able to establish two-way communication directly with databases. Scripts attached to the media objects will react intelligently to changes in the data. Ubiquitous content in the sense that access to content will be available anytime, anywhere. Whether you are strapped down to a specific location or free to roam around, content will need to adapt itself on-the-fly to the playback device(s) (desktop computer, PDA, mobile phone, wearable computers, etc.) of your choice.

So the question is how will video and the other media objects adjust their spatial, temporal and experiential parameters to fit within a wide variety of playback devices with a wider degree of variables (screen size, color depth, connection speeds, etc.) there are enormous amounts of interdependent issues that we are working on to make sure content can adapt itself to fit the appropriate devices.

And by modular design, we mean that whereas before we would create single, flat and static video movies/sequences/shots, we will now begin to design multilayered, dynamic video sequences. One of the objectives of mpeg-4 is to include multiple-media objects within an event environment on multiple layers defined by the four dimensions.

Eventually, the evolution of this approach will lead to truly dynamic experiences where all variables (file name, location, etc.) associated with the media objects will be driven by events such as the interactions of the end-user (cursor, voice, profiles, preferences, etc.), changes in databases and more. Designers in the near future will have to embrace the same modular principles that are revolutionizing how programmers write their code - designing not only for the known objectives, but also for uncertainty to the point where the video objects can evolve over time, based upon what they have learned.

IdN: How do you use web video in your sites?
DT: As an interactive agency, our objective is to improve the way people communicate, handle e-commerce, and share knowledge. Let's focus on communication and sharing of knowledge: ideally, the media objects we use, whether it be video, audio, animations or graphics, are chosen according to the most appropriate learning styles that are compatible with the variables defined by the client, marketing, technology and design.

Ideally, for information that we want the end-users to thoroughly understand, remember and recall at later points in time, we like to use a variety of media objects in harmony with the central message. The idea is simple: there are multiple styles of learning, and any individual may prefer one or more.
An important aspect of learning styles has to do with what media objects are the most suitable for an individual to comprehend, store and retrieve information from. In other words, some people may learn better watching a video, while others may grasp an idea better listening to a voice-over while reading the text. Currently, we select a fixed amount of media objects, hoping to cover as much of the spectrum as possible.
Eventually, the selection of media objects will be dynamic based upon user preferences in relation to what learning style(s) are better for them.

IdN: How do you perceive the readiness of the web-surfing public?
DT: I believe the public is ready, willing and able - as long as it s easy. According to Claude Shannon's information theory, there are two major obstacles to overcome: bandwidth and compression/decompression (codec) schemes. With a decent computer and a cable/DSL Internet connection, bandwidth constraints are easing up. With bigger pipelines, as in Internet2, and prioritization of media objects, an example of which is expressed in IPv6, in addition to an incredible amount of other solutions, bandwidth limitations will continue to be overcome. In relation to the codecs, an incredible amount of work is being done in mpeg-4 to achieve high levels of compression, that is loss-less, meaning that the end quality will be amazing.

IdN: Do you juggle between the various file formats, and do the competing file formats present a problem?
DT: Yes, we do juggle file formats based on client requests and features and functions of each file format. Competing file formats present both problems and solutions. Comparing and resolving all of the variables, including client requests, with marketing, technology and design objectives in relation to the variables of each file format, is a tricky process. The level of difficulty is increased when the media object must be seamlessly ported to different mediums, whether it be CD-ROM, DVD, and/or broadcast video. In the end, there will always be competing formats, enabling the developers of content to basically play with digital silly putty , reshaping the media objects into new entities based upon all of the variables.




About this article
The above article by the IdN editorial team appears here with permission. (C) 2000 IdN.

About IdN
IdN magazine is a digital design magazine published bimonthly, primarily catering to content creators and aesthetes throughout the world. It is currently available in four editions in two languages, English and Chinese. It is the only publication of its type in the Asia-Pacific region and has become a rendezvous and showcase for digital artists worldwide to share their experience and experiments and to publicize their latest endeavors. IdN's highly respected and trusted printed media will continue to play a crucial role in the content-creation community, and our growth will accelerate through our continued diversification into the Internet and electronic media.