BBC, MLB

Two significant projects hit the web this week. Both were played pretty low-key, but I suspect their longterm significance will be greater.

Earlier this week the United Kingdom’s BBC service launched the next generation of their web-based audio/video services. The BBC is a regional service, and so most of us in the world can’t see the content directly. But consider the evidence….

The first paragraph from the press release summarizes the change: “The BBC today unveils a new-look BBC iPlayer which fully integrates radio and TV in one interface, as the service records over 100 million requests to view programmes in the six months since its launch.”

And here’s how The Register starts off: “The BBC has launched a raft of updates to its iPlayer on demand service, including the long-awaited ability to rewind music radio stations online. The new version is set to go live in beta on Thursday and will run alongside the current site for a few weeks. The most significant structural change is the full integration of the BBC’s popular on-demand radio player, which until now had merely been superficially rebranded to fit in with iPlayer’s video site. The new on-demand radio streams will be 128Kbit/s MP3s, replacing the current Real and Windows Media ‘Listen Again’ offerings. Integration of live radio streaming into the iPlayer site is in the pipeline.”

There’s a longer description at The Guardian… the BBC Internet Blog is very lively, almost a firehose, but Anthony Rose has a dramatic behind-the-scenes perspective:

The existing iPlayer website works really well, and has proven hugely successful. However, in Internet Land nothing stays still for long and the iPlayer site that you see now is based on a somewhat inflexible static-page-rendering platform that’s now over a year old.

That technology platform has proven robust and reliable, but we’ve pushed it to the limit in terms of features that we can add using the existing site architecture. It’s now time to move onto an all-new dynamic-page-rendering architecture which will give us with a platform that can provide a personalised TV and radio experience, can adapt itself to different display sizes – and a whole lot more.

Matthew James Poole, from the BBC team, mentions use of Flash Media Server and: “Interestingly the source for the EMP is all one highly comfigurable SWF of around 200k that configures and scales itself for all TV and Radio format possiblilties (which is a lot, take it from me). Its currently still implemented in AS2 mainly so we can support the WII in Flash Player 7. However starting development soon will be a FP9 AS3 version that will be maintained along side the AS2 one until further notice. Watch this space.”

More: Erik Huggers of BBC describes future work and has the public video presentation… a press release last October describes some of the relationship with Adobe… comments at The Reg get pretty dire towards the end… info from last March on the staggering technical demands of their video workflow.

My takeaways: They’re integrating audio, video, and web. They’re doing so with near-realtime streams, in multiple formats, to a wide range of devices and services. They’re mandated to be accessible to their audience. They’re moving away from a page-refresh model, to more of an application model. Their traffic has gone up dramatically since removing installation barriers for computers.

They’re making it work, offering fully integrated audio and video to their entire audience. It’s an important project.

Another high-profile project this week: Major League Baseball’s Gameday has added realtime data collection and visualization. The Gameday development blog has background info:

“Rather than seeing each pitch from a fixed viewpoint, you can use the controls in the 3D interface to zoom in or out, rotate around the action, or tilt up and down. There are a set of pre-defined positions (behind the pitcher, behind the batter or ‘high home’) available if you choose to stick to those, or you can take over the controls at any time for a better look at the pitches from any point in the game: Use the multi-directional arrow button to rotate the camera around the field, or tilt it up or down; Use the white slide bar to zoom the view in or out; Click the View button to move between pre-selected positions, which auto-adjust based on the batter’s side and/or pitcher’s throwing hand; Mouseover the circle at the end of any pitch trail to highlight that specific pitch.”

The cool thing? They’re doing realtime capture of the actual path of the ball, and sending that to each browser so that you can choose your own view of the pitch. The information is fully abstracted from its presentation: a ball is thrown in some ballpark, cameras and computers turn the ball path to data, numbers are sent across the internet, and your local client reconstructs that data, on demand, from any angle, any inning of the game, any archived game on any day.

We’ve seen realtime data represented on a screen before… Nasdaq’s AIR app lets you visualize realtime data in various ways… but the MLB Gameday project also turns analog capture into digital data at runtime too. It turns the real world into bits, and back again.

Beyond that, there are additional implications. Take a look at the early comments at the development blog… people are asking “How come I can’t see the batter’s stance? How come I can’t see the fielders’ positioning, the runner’s lead?” People already accept the usefulness of realtime visualization, and already desire more. From a developmental perspective it makes sense to start with the hard problem of pitch visualization… if this is successfully solved, then adding additional datastreams for other players’ position would be easier to resolve. People not only accept and understand the new ability, but they demand more. That’s a great indicator for any project.

There’s a deeper implication. Consider how MLB.com is building a database of every pitch’s location, every game. Players and coaches already study such records, whether through a scout’s scorecard or a park’s video archive. Having live searchable data available will likely change how players prepare for a game. There are multiple pressures to continue in this vein of work.

Even if you don’t like American baseball, please do check out an archived game at mlb.com/gameday. What they’re doing in realtime data-collection and interactive data-representation is really very innovative.

Two projects, both very high-profile, both reaching new beachheads in digital interactivity. Neither really plays up the details of their publishing process… the Adobe Flash Player is sort of a taken-for-granted background capability on the web today. But both show why the general public supports such rich-media publishing capability, contributing to the success of all other Flash-based work.

This week’s releases from the BBC and MLB internet teams may not have produced a furor, but I believe they’ll produce a change. Significant projects.