If the hype of a few years ago had come true, we’d all have chucked out the telly in favour of online video by now. Digit checked out when streaming video really will change our lives.

TV was supposed to be outmoded by now. Three years ago, when the hype surrounding streaming video was at its pinnacle, self-proclaimed “Web-video gurus” were predicting that we’d soon be ditching our tellys for online video precisely tailored to our tastes and fancies. Throwing around buzzwords such as ‘narrowcasting’ and ‘convergence’ like they were going out of fashion – and they soon did – their assumptions of the future proved to be drastically wrong.

Both mainstream consumers and content owners (such as TV and production companies) mostly found streaming video unappealing. The poor user-experience caused by low-bandwidth connections, and the lack of a viable payment system put off both consumers and producers. The resulting lack of popular content meant that the supposed ‘streaming revolution’ passed most people by.

Things may change soon, though. According to a recent report by the DTI, there are over three million broadband users in the UK, and 80 per cent of the UK population has access to broadband from a major supplier if they wish it.

“There’s a seachange happening in the market at the moment,” says Alison Pugh, head of Internet solutions at BBC Technology. Owned by the BBC – though soon to be sold to Accenture, CSC or Siemens – BBC Technology produces and streams content for companies including its parent and RealNetworks, as well as providing video content for the Three 3G phone network.

“We’ve seen a huge upsurge in the last six months,” says Pugh, “caused by a growth in broadband that makes it viable for content owners to provide entertainment. They’re proving that the business model for streaming video exists.”

Eddie Robins, technical director at Groovy Gecko, is less convinced about the immediate future. Groovy Gecko creates and hosts streaming video for clients including The Science Museum, KPMG, Churchill Insurance, and the Disability Rights Commission.

“The take-off of streaming entertainment is still two to three years away,” says Robins. “Even though many people have broadband, you need a 650Kbps connection at a minimum for full-stream video. There just aren’t that many people with that.”

Many users entry-level broadband services are not providing what most people in the streaming-media industry consider a broad-enough broadband. Unofficial statistics suggest that around a quarter of what the government and ISPs call ‘broadband users’ are using 150Kbps connections. Both of the major cable suppliers, NTL and Telewest, plan to upgrade their services over the summer. As true broadband becomes more affordable, entertainment-based streaming video will be more feasible.

Corporate communications is one area where the majority of viewers are on high-bandwidth connections. Here, micropayments systems are not an issue, and the content is both wanted by the viewer and readily available from the owner. Streaming providers tend to agree that currently the majority of the market is focused on corporate presentations such as live conferences.

“Streaming meets a demand from business to find better ways of communicating internally or externally,” says Paul Tarpee, chief technology officer of corporate production company twofourtv. “In the entertainment sector to date, streaming has been a bolt-on with little hard benefits attached to the projects.”

“There’s lots of business in corporate streaming,” agrees Robins, “especially executive events. There’s a US push to this, as company annual results have to be made public, due to recent legislation, but it’s filtering through to the rest of the world.”

Robins notes that while many events are streamed live, they are often watched later. Even in the field of live events, video-on-demand is often more important.
“We had one event that only received 80 live hits, but in the next week over 6,500 people watched it on demand,” he says.

Keeping it Real

As bandwidth improves, the main three online video technology developers – Apple, Microsoft, and RealNetworks – are squeezing more out of each kbps. Apple plumped for the MPEG-4 open standard in February 2002, which was designed by the same group that created the MPEG-2 standard for DVD-Video and the ubiquitous MP3 audio format. Windows Media 9 from Microsoft made its first appearance in September 2002, while RealNetworks is currently in the process of rolling out its latest platform, Real 10.

Real 10 adds a new video codec, RealVideo 10, that the company claims reduces output file sizes by 30 per cent. RealProducer 10, RealNetwork’s encoding tool, can output multiple files with different sizes, bitrates and codecs – and it supports dynamic encoding complexity controls. This is designed to improved real-time encoding – for live events, for example. It adds audio enhancements, including the use of a main audio format based upon AAC – the MPEG-designed audio codec also found inside MPEG-4. The tool features 5.1 surround sound, and a new lossless audio codec that approximately halves audio file sizes.

The Real 10 platform builds upon the Helix Universal Server. Launched last year, this allows content producers to stream any of the three major formats from a single server platform. As you’d expect, lawsuits ensued, but it all seems to have been cleared up – for now at least.

The consensus within the industry is that Windows Media 9 and RealVideo 9 are the output formats of choice, with Windows Media having the slight edge due to the ubiquitous nature of its player across the vast majority of broadband-connected computers. The claimed 30 per cent compression boost by the new RealVideo 10 has raised interest among companies, but few have had the chance to test it yet.

QuickTime’s reliance on the open-format but slow-developing MPEG-4 standard is blamed for its lack of appeal. “Open standards are great in principle but fail because they take too long to ratify,” says Robins. Commercial pressures mean that proprietary systems like Windows and Real are developed at a faster rate.

QuickTime running out

Though out of favour as a streaming format, QuickTime is the standard for downloaded and progressively-downloaded video. Progressive download is popular with companies delivering short pieces of video where quality is more important than speed of transmission, and where users may want to save the clips for future watching – such as movie trailers.

The existence of three competing standards means that content owners and consumers are easily confused by the developers’ marketing onslaught.

“It places a responsibility on content producers and streaming companies to offer clear advice on the benefits of the respective formats,” says Tarplee. “We must continue to develop user interfaces that conceal the complexity of multiple player formats, versions and codecs from the consumer.”

The issue of accessibility is increasingly affecting the way online streaming media is presented. This does not just apply to the disabled, but to any viewer who cannot view your stream in the way it was intended.

For example, subtitles on a corporate live event can be used by the deaf, and by viewers on computers without speakers, or by viewers who don’t want to annoy the whole office with it.

Providing accessible content for the disabled is not just morally right, it’s the law. “According to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act,” says Julie Howell, digital policy development officer at the RNIB, “it’s the legal duty of the content provider to ensure that disabled people can enjoy reasonable access to the content.”

The RNIB provides guidelines on how to direct and create video on its Web site. One of the most common mistakes is to assume that an audio stream is enough to provide for those with seeing difficulties.

“If the visual content is important,” says Howell, “if it contains a substantial amount of meaning in the form of facial expressions, action or dialog, then content providers need to consider how to convey this visual content audibly.”

Simple tools to enable accessibility are not built into any of the major streaming platforms. However, it is relatively easy to create multiple streams featuring different levels of accessibility. The same applies for adding support outside of the stream using technologies such as SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language).

See here

A recent example of how accessible streaming can work was the Disability Rights Commission’s Webcast of its press conference about the findings of its report on Web-site accessibility. Created by Groovy Gecko and the design-house Reading Room, the Webcast was one of the first to feature live subtitles and signing.

However, adding accessibility is not just about providing for the registered disabled, notes Robins.

“The ability to zoom in on video, or to make controls larger, makes viewing the video easier to use for people with minor disabilities, such as many elderly people.”

One other way to add accessibility to streaming systems with a minimum of fuss is to use Flash. Macromedia added a wealth of streaming video tools to the Professional version of Flash MX 2004 last year, including the ability to control video streams. It has allowed video producers to do things that we’re possible using streaming video alone.

“Flash was the only mainstream technology that allowed for calling and switching video clips in real-time,” says Jeff Benjamin, interactive creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. CPB recently used Flash to drive the incredibly popular subservientchicken.com Web site for Burger King, where different video clips had to flow seamlessly based on user commands.

“We feel like this is a natural progression for video. As weird as this project is and as low-tech as it may seem, it’s the progression of the video experience.”

As you’d expect, streaming video is set to get better. Both Microsoft and RealNetworks are currently promoting high-definition (HD) streaming in the US and SE Asia – allowing viewers with broadband connections of 2Mbps to watch content of a higher resolution than conventional television broadcasts. With take-up of that level of connection speed much higher than in the UK – and with prices much lower – this is appealing to consumers as well as businesses.

While impossible on a consumer level, HD streaming in the UK is feasible for the corporate market, according to Tarplee, who recently produced a series of HD Windows Media programmes for a corporate client.

“The key issue is clearly bandwidth, but internally this is much less of a problem with switched networks, or multicast support,” he says. “When you look at HD-encoded content at data rates much lower than MPEG-2 for DVD – but with massively better quality – you can appreciate how these could become the next generation of standards for video delivery.”

However, the time when 2Mbps broadband will be the standard for UK consumers is far enough away that there’s no guarantee that computers will be the main source of watching this content.

“HD is interesting to a point,” says Martin Farrimond, head of content solutions at BBC Technology, “but whether it will catch on is unknown. What device we’ll watch content on in the future is unsure.”

Whatever the device the end user watches on though, creatives will still be necessary to invent and build what the viewer wants to watch. Perhaps the video revolution isn’t that far off.

Codec choices

Finding the right codec and output format to fit your viewer’s needs and technological restrictions can be tricky. Here are sample outputs from each of the major Web streaming codecs. They have been encoded using the player developer’s own compression tools using their preset settings – Apple Compressor (as shipped with the company’s Final Cut Pro HD) for QuickTime, RealNetworks RealProducer Plus for RealVideo 10, and Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9.

The video used is a 10-second clip taken from Artbeat’s (www.artbeats.com) Monster Waves HD collection. It’s a 1,920-x-1,080 QuickTime movie using Photo-JPEG compression, showing rolling waves mixed with sand and featuring very high detail and strong blues, greens, and yellows.

QuickTime is a special case, as it is used more for progressive download – as seen with many movie trailers – than for traditional streaming. The HD shot is the original HD QuickTime movie (for comparison), as Apple has not as yet announced technologies specifically aimed at high-resolution streaming.

Watching the future

The devices we use to consume video will play a part in the success of streaming technology. It’s been the dream of Microsoft and PC manufacturers for years to do away with TVs, VCRs, DVD players and stereos and replace them with a single PC-based device that does it all.

These devices, based around Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Edition, were supposed to bring the worlds of broadcast and the Web closer together. Refined, easy-to-use devices from manufacturers such as Elonex have proved ideal for students and occupants of trendy lofts in Hoxton, the wider public still prefer to keep the PC and TV separate.

Microsoft and HP have recently fought back with the Windows Home Concept, shown off at the start of May at the WinHEC conference. Rather than attempting to replicate every device, combines the devices found in your front room – including your phone.
The hub of the Windows Home Concept is the Home Center PC, which looks more like a fancy video recorder than a PC. There’s no need for a mouse or keyboard; the only controller is an intelligent remote control that features a colour screen, fingerprint reader, microphone, and speaker.

Through the fingerprint reader on the remote, the Home Center PC will automatically show an individual user’s favourite TV shows and computer games and the screen on the remote will allow a user to select shows for recording, even while the PC is running a game, for example.

When connected to a phone line, the Home Center PC displays caller information on the TV when a call comes in. TV can be paused while a call is answered. The HP concept Home Center PC boasts a DVD burner, and high-capacity hard disk drive.

Microsoft is pushing for the market outside the home, too. Later this year will see the launch of devices such as Creative Labs’s Creative Zen Portable Media Center, which run a variant of Windows XP Media Edition. Sporting a four-inch screen, the Creative Zen PMC will support Microsoft’s Windows Media format. These ‘Video iPods’ are already available from manufacturers such as Archos, but none have been given the prominence that the backing of Microsoft will convey. Whether PMC devices succeed like the iPod or fall flat like Microsoft’s recently interred Smart Display initiative remains to be seen.

BBC Technology, www.bbctechnology.com
Crispin Porter + Bogusky, www.cpbgroup.com
Groovy Gecko, www.groovygecko.com
twofourtv, www.twofourtv.com

Disability Rights Commission, www.drc.org.uk
Royal National Institute for the Blind, www.rnib.org.uk