Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Multimedia on the Internet: Streaming Media West '99
Most Internet users are familiar with Real's player (also known to users as "RealAudio" or "RealVideo" player). Recent versions of Windows have included Microsoft's Windows Media Player; Mac and PC users have been using Apple's QuickTime for years. Common knowledge of video and audio delivery end with the client player. The mass of computer and information management professionals would be hard-pressed to explain what "streaming media" is nor do most know about the enormous industry that is being built around it. Internet multimedia is thought of by many as a niche field, but it is evolving into an essential electronic information component. Though currently only expected of news and entertainment Web sites, streaming media is a field that has enormous ramifications for online learning, specifically electronic reserves.
Streaming Media West '99, held in San Jose, California from 7-9 December, was billed as "The World's Largest Internet Audio and Video Event". A quick glance at the program validated that there was considerable computer industry interest. Bill Gates, chair and CEO of Microsoft, gave the opening keynote speech. Though the conference was probably two thirds of the size of EDUCAUSE '99 (see Library Hi Tech News January-February 2000, special EDUCAUSE issue), the interest Bill Gates' presence generated was enough to curb the availability of nearly all rental cars in the area for the week. Other notable keynote speakers included Robert Burgess, chair and CEO of Macromedia (software publishers of Director, Flash, and other popular titles), and Thomas Frank, CEO of RealNetworks. First Conferences and StreamingMedia.com hosted a highly stylized symposium at the San Jose Convention Center. Each presentation room contained elaborate theatrical lighting, sweeping two-storey black curtains and metal monolith backgrounds. These lent as much to the "in-person" experience as to the streamed broadcasts of the conference. The evening festivities were equally exciting: a reception at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation (featuring an IMAX theatre) and parties at The Agenda nightclub and the Fairmont Hotel.
A diverse set of groups are interested in streaming media. The participant list included professionals from the computer industry, the education sector, government (such as the US Air Force), entertainment companies (such as Sony), consulting firms (such as Ernst & Young), investment firms and banks (as many domestic as international banks were represented), TV stations, news networks (CNN and smaller, local stations), and the sports industry (such as the PGA Tour). Though most are well-funded industries, those that are not, such as the education sector, will greatly benefit from the monetary interest in streaming media. This trend is excellent for educational information professionals, as students are embracing Web reserves and even Web-delivered resources in library labs.
What is "Streaming Media"?
Simply put, streaming media is making video, audio, and/or text available over a network (in most cases the Internet). Everyday examples include watching news clips on CNN.com, or watching live coverage of Panda Bears (the Panda Cam, www.sandiegozoo.org). Streamed media events are often live, as with the first woman to give birth live on the Internet last year. Streaming Media West '99 brought together all of the industry components in one venue. The conference helped step up technical considerations and the business of streaming media knowledge dramatically; the sort of impact that will save many lost weeks or months of mistakes and misinformed purchases. It also exposed hidden but important components of the Internet multimedia technology puzzle.
As discussed in RealNetworks' "Primer on Streaming Media", the three steps in streaming media are creating, broadcasting, and playing. Content is created by filming an event (live or to be viewed later) or by capturing existing content (movie or music clips, library reserves). A host then broadcasts content. Companies such as Akimai and Intervu can be contracted to host your content or content can be hosted on your own Web server. RealNetworks has the largest installed server base, though Microsoft's Windows Media hopes to catch up. There was a small undercurrent at the conference, reminiscent of the Netscape/Internet Explorer browser war. RealNetworks is widely used and liked, but they charge money for their server licenses; their free option is not large enough for most installations. Microsoft's Windows Media Services is a free add-on to Windows NT Server (at any license level). The other Microsoft advantage is that Microsoft's Media Player is installed with the full Microsoft Internet Explorer installation, whereas a client has to download and install RealPlayer. Though Apple's QuickTime player has a large install base of clients, QuickTime is fairly new to the streaming media arena. Apple kept a low profile at Streaming Media West '99. However, they were well represented by Ron Peters, QuickTime's Technical Marketing Manager. He reported that QuickTime's Streaming Server may be ported to Windows NT. It is already running on Mac OS X and RedHat Linux versions 5 and 6. Though streaming content off your own servers costs much less, the advantage of contracting an outside host, such as Intervu, is that the streamed media travels over their network. The large media files do not place a great load on your local network segment. In addition to the relaying of content, several companies exist to enhance the broadcast with interactive elements, captions or coordinated text, audio and images. The big difference between Internet multimedia (streaming media) and CD-ROM-based multimedia is that the client can watch the clip without obtaining the file for later viewing or unauthorized distribution. This is of great use as a copyright protection feature.
Finally, streamed media is played by a client. The client install base is similar to the server market share ratios with RealPlayer as the most widely installed streaming client. There is no need to wait for all of the content to download. Media can be watched as it is received, much like television. In fact, The Drew Carey Show made Internet history by simulcasting the show's 17 November 1999 episode via the Internet to two million viewers (Brown, 1999).
Tips and Tricks
Creating content seems easy at first. Many of the popular software applications make creating video clips as simple as using VCR-like buttons: record, pause, stop. However, creating good content can be tricky. There is a science to keeping Internet multimedia free of visual and audio defects, such as aliasing and noise, and to keeping download/streaming times fast. Though Streaming Media West '99 was not meant as a technical boot camp for content creators, the conference's technical track had several seminars on improving streaming content from knowledgeable industry experts.
Garbage in Equals Garbage out
"Garbage in equals garbage out" could have been the epitaph of the Technical Track. Bad quality video makes poor streamed content. Many of the event speakers had television and entertainment backgrounds. All of them echoed the value in staging your presentation and that the streaming media process begins with careful content producing. The more movement and visual complexity in your content, the larger the file size and the greater the chance of your subject producing jagged movements. (Music videos with dancing are particularly problematic.) The solution is to keep backgrounds simple, black or another solid color that can be removed through the use of chroma keying (more commonly known in film as "blue screening"). Motion should be kept to a minimum and subjects and backgrounds should have high contrast. Steve Hartford, Vice President of Internet Strategy for Play Inc. (www.playtv.com), imparted a particularly helpful list of tips. As with any filming, only a camera with a good lens and high-quality microphone should be used. It is often assumed that an inexpensive digital video camera is better than older format cameras because it uses newer technology. Filming in digital format has its advantages, but cheap digital video cameras don't handle low light situations well. As reflected in the conference staging itself, experts agree that good lighting is important. One panelist suggested that hiring a professional lighting designer for even a few hours could dramatically improve low budget productions. The easiest technical considerations can make a big difference. For example, uncorrectable noise and interference can be eliminated before production, by ensuring that (unshielded) cables are not crossed.
Processing Content Really Does Make a Difference
Tom Gerstel, Senior Web Developer for CNN, moderated two excellent "TechDemos," the first and especially useful one of which was titled "Cleaning and optimizing your audio and video content for Web delivery tools, tips, techniques and processes." Panelists reiterated tips given at the previous two discussions moderated by the Fez Guys. It was recommended that S-Video always be used over composite video. Lending again from panelists' video backgrounds, it was recommended that audio be pre-conditioned with an audio compressor and audio compression should be or not exceed 20:1. Likewise a true color corrector should be used to color correct video prior to digitizing. Especially important is to ensure that your video's black is true black. Before encoding deinterlace video and inverse telecine. Choose an aspect ratio that is divisible by 16. If your aspect ratio creates black bars at the top and bottom of the screen (as seen in widescreen movies), crop the black bars out. Even though nothing is happening visually in the bars, they require more bandwidth without adding to your content. As for audio, cut out the lows and highs (below 80-100 Hz and any sound above 12,000 Hz). Using software, normalize your sound to 75-80 per cent. Terran Interactive's Media Cleaner Pro was a favorite software package among content producers. Adobe's Premiere is another excellent software package for manipulating and enhancing video. Premier's Product Manager remarked that the gap between what can only be done with hardware versus what software can achieve is becoming narrower. As for hardware, most agreed that generally there was little reason to purchase anything but inexpensive capture cards and that the Osprey 100 was an excellent capture card choice. (The Osprey 100 is included with many of the RealNetworks streaming server packages. It accepts both composite and S-Video sources.) The name "capture" is also slightly misleading. A capture card does capture analog sources (clips from a VHS, S-VHS, or Hi8 tape, for example). However, when using a firewire capture card to import digital video, it merely transfers digital video (no "capturing" is taking place).
Delivery (Streaming) Considerations
RealNetworks recently added SureStream to its streaming server software. SureStream "enables a RealServer to communicate with each RealPlayer client and dynamically shift individual assigned bandwidth up or down depending on network conditions". However, numerous panelists said that in practice it is better to not rely on the SureStream configuration manager. They recommend offering different speed options, such as 56K, 100K, and 300K, much the way MSNBC News and CNN currently present choices (http://www.msnbc.com/m/v/ video_news. asp and http://cnn.com/ videoselect/). Speed options are often presented as types of connections rather than speeds, such as Modem, T1, T3. The size of the video for the modem option might be one inch high by one inch wide, whereas some of the higher speed options might approach half or full-screen. Just as Quality Assurance is an integral part of software development, so should your content be tested with different computing scenarios. Test for the worst case (slowest) and most typical situations. Establish an AOL account and watch your content over a 28.8 modem. Alternatively, have a DSL connection installed, so that content streaming can be tested by looking from a different location on the Internet. (It is likely that the DSL from your local phone company will be connected to the Internet via a different part of the Internet backbone than your university or company network.)
Dressing up Your Content and Its Organization
Though users are pleased with watching video and listening to audio clips, many software packages and new emerging technologies can make your content look dramatically better and in many cases enhance the experience of the viewer or student. One of the most visible new technologies is SMIL (pronounced "smile"). Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) was developed by the W3C consortium (www.w3c.org), the same standards body that is active in HTML and XML (the programming/scripting languages in which Web pages are written). SMIL is an XML-based language that can be used to synchronize media elements, such as video, audio, text, and animation. The only client requirement is a SMIL-compliant viewer (such as RealPlayer). An excellent example of SMIL in action is Real's Take5. Take5 is a portal to streamed media in Real format. Take5 begins with a Macromedia Flash animation and then has coordinated images, text and audio. SMIL can also be used to create customized on-demand video. For example, it is possible to create a Web page that allows a student to play a customized list of the electronic reserves associated with particular assignments or courses.
Other exciting advancements include software that can catalog and index your video and audio clips. www.FasTV.com is using closed captioning and voice recognition to make video searchable. Virage offers a popular package called "VideoLogger" that "uses advanced image and audio analysis technology to "watch, listen to and read" an analog or digital video signal. Looking for changes in visual content, such as pans and zooms, VideoLogger generates a storyboard of browsable keyframe images. Simultaneously, it extracts any text in the videosignal, such as closed captions". Such utilities will revolutionize students' ability to search television, especially news archives, as a research medium.
Streaming multimedia is a relatively new medium. Thankfully users currently tolerate a modicum of slow connectivity, blurry and sometimes jagged images. Steve Hartford, Vice President of Internet Strategy for Play Inc., recently canceled his cable television. He felt that, if he offered Internet entertainment programming, he should try relying solely on his computer for television. What he found is that Internet "TV" as one's sole means of entertainment was frustrating. Our current users see streaming media as a novelty. For streaming media to be a viable alternative to television, the technical and programming aspects need to improve. He quickly pinpointed several areas for improvement and believed that PlayTV's programming was better because of his experience. Educators face the same dilemma. Although streaming media is a powerful tool, it needs to be used properly to be effective, especially if we plan to include such materials in courseware.
StreamingMedia.com: Conferences, excellent weekly newsletter www.streamingmedia.com
RealNetworks' Primer on Streaming Media http://www.realnetworks.com/getstarted/
RealNetworks: Real's streaming server software and client player. www. real.com
Microsoft's Windows Media: Microsoft's streaming server and clientplayer. www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia
Apple's QuickTime: Information on Apple's client player www.quicktime.com
Apple's QuickTime Streaming Server www.apple.com/quicktime/servers/
The Fez Guys, Internet Audio experts www.fezguys.com
For complete descriptions of these concepts, see "How to Produce High-Quality QuickTime," http://www.terran-int.com/QuickTime/Article/Welcome.html This article also discusses many of the terms discussed in this article ("interlace, inverse telecine").
Terran Interactive's Media Cleaner Pro: An industry favorite for improving video and audio quality of content. www.terran-int.com/
Adobe Premiere: Adobe's popular video content producing software www.adobe.com/premiere
RealNetworks (1999). www.realnetworks.com
For a script that generates a SMIL script for stacking clips on top of each other without editing, see "Strategic Applications Engineer for RealNetworks," authored by Chris Dawson; http://moothra.prognet.com/ perlysmil/
Virage's VideoLogger an application that indexes video clips by scene changes, closed captioning www.virage.com
Brown, J. (1999), "Log-on logjam", Electronic Media, December 6, p. 36.
Christine Bagwell is Manager of Academic Computing Services' Instructional WWW Development Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). firstname.lastname@example.org