Internet commentary

Microelectronics International

ISSN: 1356-5362

Article publication date: 1 April 2003




Ellis, B. (2003), "Internet commentary", Microelectronics International, Vol. 20 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

Internet commentary

Video meliora [1]

Keywords: Internet, Video

We are seeing more and more Web sites which are using the video as a means of media for communicating their message and I am going to devote the whole of this article to this subject, including some examples from within our industry. Unfortunately, it would appear that many Webmasters are totally incapable of designing their Web site to use it in the most effective manner. The essential thing to remember is that, no matter how the video is implemented, the file involved is necessarily quite large or even very large. As far as this article is concerned, I include animation as being a part of the video. Ovid wrote “I see the better things” after he was relegated to what is now Romania for his part in arranging for the adultery of the daughter of the Roman Emperor. Let us, 2000 years later, see the better things on Web sites, relegating the worse to where they belong.

Let us start by looking at those who insist upon using video, often in the form of Shockwave, as part of their opening homepage. Sometimes, there is a link that allows the viewer to short-circuit the time necessary to run this video. This is a step in the right direction, although it would be far better not to have a video at all! Worse, many of them do not even allow you to short-circuit this blight. This means that if we really need to access the Web site, we have to sit through this meaningless introduction which sometimes takes a minute or more. When this happens, I usually do not waste time and I skip looking at the site (unless it is something absolutely essential). If this is not a demonstration of being too clever by half, then I do not know how to describe it!

Having disposed of the inessential, let us move on to the essential and assume that you need to put a video on your Web site for whatever reason. The first thing that you need to do is to create the video (or, better, have it created for you by a professional!). Let us assume that you wish to do everything yourself. The first couple of hours will be spent with paper and pencil working out exactly what you wish to show, how you wish to show it and the accompanying script. The next job is to trim this down to the absolute bare minimum, because the shorter an Internet video is, the more effective it becomes: some of the best are only 10 or 15 s long. Of course, this will depend to some extent on the message that you wish to convey.

The next stage is the actual shooting. For this you will need a decent camera and I would suggest at least a consumer Mini-DV camcorder. Depending on the subject matter, you may also need lights, reflectors, and most important, a good tripod (a shaky image looks even worse on the Internet than on a TV screen!). If possible, take three or four shots of each scene, maybe from different angles. It is not always possible to see in a viewfinder or on a small LCD screen which will be the best. Do not bother much about the sound at this stage, unless you have a “talking head”, which I do not recommend, in any case, because it will be a waste of file size for the amount of message that it can convey. It would be much better to have a commentator speaking, while showing, for example, a machine working, to convey the spoken word.

After this, comes the capturing and editing. If the camcorder is a DV model, capturing is easy by simply downloading the tape to a computer via an IEEE-1394 interface. Editing involves essentially to put in the clips in order, trimming them to the right length, putting in any titles and transitions and adding the commentary. I recommend the latter to be spoken by a professional actor, otherwise it may sound stilted. At this stage, the file size is still enormous, up to about 35 Mb/s, so that 30 s of video will take over one Gb of hard disk! It is therefore, necessary to render the file into a format more suited for Internet applications. The choice is not easy, because compromises are necessary. In Europe, the base image size is usually 720 or 704×576 pixels at 25 frames per seconds. In North America, it is 720 or 704×480 at 29.96 frames per second. Generally speaking, it is usual to post on the Internet images of one- quarter to one- eighth this size and, perhaps, half the frame rate, with much higher compression than that of the DV specification. Obviously, the visual image is much deteriorated and the sound may be compressed as well.

There are three ways in which a compressed video can be transmitted via the Internet: streaming, embedded and downloaded. With streamed video, the browser uses a plug-in to start showing the video as it downloads. Embedded video does the same, except that it does not start until the whole file has been downloaded. This has the advantage that the playback is guaranteed to be continuous, whereas with streaming, there may be interruptions if the bandwidth of the connection is insufficient. On the other hand, it takes much longer before you start seeing the image. Downloaded video means that you create a file which you may later play, independently of the Internet and your browser, say Windows Media Player when and as often as you like. The latter is useful if you would like a somewhat higher definition than with the other methods, because there is no real limit to the file size, other than the time necessary to download it.

So, we must decide which of these three methods we are going to use, the compression method (little choice with streaming!), the file size and definition and a sampling rate for the audio. No one can advice you as to the best choice; this is a matter of compromise based on trial and error, combined with the speed of the modem which you can expect your viewers to use. Sometimes, the same video is offered for more than one modem speed.

Finally–and this is probably one of the most important points–when you upload your video file to your server, you must make sure that this has the necessary bandwidth into the Internet for the video to be downloaded by the anticipated number of persons simultaneously. If you don’t, then nobody will have the patience to wait. Most ordinary Internet service providers do not offer sufficient bandwidth for video applications, especially streamed and embedded. Some ISPs do offer, at a price supplement, a system whereby the video part of your page may be placed on a fast server, while the rest of the page and Web site is placed on a normal server.

This may all sound very daunting to a beginner but, provided you know the snags, everything fits into place quite easily. However, please, please, please, do not add any video to your Web site unless you are reasonably sure of what you are doing. The most important thing is to check out how the results look, using the slowest Internet connection you can lay your hands on. If it looks good on this, then you are probably OK. This may require specialised hardware and software but many standard computers with a reasonable specification and sufficient hard disk capacity are capable of doing sterling work in this field. Suitable software of a professional standard can be obtained for the equivalent of $300 or $400. Add a DVD burner and you will have the bonus of being able to make custom DVD discs at full resolution and of the same standard as commercial DVDs, for an extra $250. If anyone requires advice on this matter of hardware or software, send me an E-mail and I will give you a choice of what is available on the market, and which can be bought in most countries.

For the first site, I am taking you to Brazil. It is in Portuguese but that does not matter, because there is nothing worth reading on it. It is an excellent example of how not to use animation on a Web site which seems linked to our industry. In this case, Macromedia ShockWave is used on the Home Page, and as the link to the server is slow, you wait for the best part of a minute for the SWF ShockWave file to download, only after which does the link to enter the site appear. You then see an animation lasting another 10 s, accompanied by a boring sound loop, ending up with an enormous company logo, all in the highest quality. I emphasise that this provides you with no information about the company, so is a sheer waste of time. Of course, most visitors will have already left the site by this time, but let us persevere. Press the “Entrar” button and what happens? Not just one ShockWave file is downloaded, but two (albeit they are somewhat smaller), before you can see the contents of any other page! Again they convey no message. Out of curiosity, I then pressed the “Produtos” button, hoping to see what these guys actually made. If my ultra-limited knowledge of Portuguese serves me right, I think this page is under construction (at least, I learnt nothing). Utter madness! technologies/micromachines/ movies.html

I reviewed this site in detail just a few months ago (MI 19-2), so it would be superfluous to do so again. However, I do bring it up as a good example of how video can be used for technical applications. This page is quite whimsical, although others are more serious. It offers a handful of short video clips with file sizes mostly in few hundred kilobytes. These are embedded into the browser with plug-ins housing the codecs but can also be downloaded for playback at any time. Each clip is offered in two formats, QuickTime and AVI. The former, with the smaller file sizes, can be played in both the MAC and PC environments, while the AVI file is destined essentially for Windows and Linux. The codec used for the latter is Cinepak, which is not the most economical (MPEG-1 would have given a smaller file, but would be less universally accepted) but is one of the original types used within Windows Media Player, so is playable on quite old software. The fact that Sandia did not choose a streaming format is to their credit as the traffic to their server is heavy and many would not be able to view it well.

Before anyone criticises me for trying to abuse my position, as author of this column, to obtain free and unfair publicity, let me state here and now that the machines shown in the 7½ min video are no longer available. In fact, I am winding up the last of the Protonique group and this video is a residue of the past with no significance today. However, that does not stop me using it as an example of what is possible, using the RealMedia technology. In fact, there are four versions of the same video here, two streaming and two downloadable. If you wish to see it at its best, remembering it was filmed about 7 years ago and the technology has advanced since then, then download the 8 Mb high definition version to your hard disk and play it from there. For such a highly compressed video, the quality is astonishing (the original captured RGB file was over 2,000 time bigger, nearly 17 Gb!). Of course, there are some artifacts visible, but I don’t think they are too obtrusive. At the other extreme, there is the low definition streaming version. Do not be surprised if this hesitates during playback or even pauses: when this was put on the “Net’, the latter was a lot faster and it generally streamed quite well. Today, the traffic has increased to such an extent that a good connection is less likely, especially in busy times of the day, and modern streaming compression is even more effective, so that the loading of this example, if it were produced now, would be far easier. By the way, I admit that this video is too long for useful Internet viewing; it would have been better if some of the salient points had been used to make some shorter clips, but we all learn from experience. It was my first attempt to do this and I used a demonstration video for TV viewing as the base.

This is a neat page, showing a number of embedded QuickTime videos. The download speed that I experienced was poor, one of them taking nearly 5 min and I think that this may have been due to the server, or the connection to it, being slow. Certainly, it would not have worked with streamed video. I like this example, because, if you are patient enough to wait for the downloading, you can see in a few seconds exactly what the machines are designed to do and how they do it. This is what it is all about: useful and informative. If a picture is traditionally worth a thousand words, how many is a moving picture worth?

This publicity is to entice students to go to a Canadian college teaching microelectronics. I played a single 29 s downloaded AVI clip, using Windows Media Player, from a choice of several. You are warned that it takes 7-10 min to download, but it took me exactly 4 min, 29 s. The visual quality was not brilliant but could be described as adequate. I feel the use of video was perhaps not essential, in this case, because it was not conveying any real information and probably a dozen or so captioned still photographs may have been better at preaching the message. This is something that must be weighed up before embarking on video: ask yourself, “What is it that this video message can say that cannot be said by other means?”.

Please allow me to declare another interest here. I have used Vutrax for nearly two decades and actually have a mirror site for it, on my own Web site, although I no longer have any commercial interest in the system. I introduce this site uniquely as an example of how animation can be profitably used for a technical application, with a relatively small file showing successively all the phases of designing a printed circuit.

There are no screen shots for this article, because I have not found a way of transferring a video clip to the printed page!

Finally, you may be asking how much it would cost to add a video clip or two to your site. I cannot answer this question for you. There are too many variables. Put it this way, if you were to ask professionals to do it for you, as I recommend, count a minimum of $5,000 for a single clip, provided that it is a simple on-location shooting with no special effects and counting a day’s editing (this is roughly what it cost me for the Protonique video). If you wish to do it yourself, assuming you have all the equipment, knowledge and experience, it will cost you next-to-nothing, other than a couple of days of your time. I will leave you to judge whether you will be satisfied with the quality! Remember that an Internet video is a showcase for your company and a bad one may cause you more damage than no video at all. On the other hand, these are moving times.


Note1  Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor.[tr. I see the better things, and approve; I follow the worse.] vid, Metamorphoses bk. 7, l. 20

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