Posts in Category "Video"

World Wide Web… legacy content?

We’re familiar with workstation display screens, and are coming to grips with pocket-sized display screens, and next year we’ll start seeing “digital home” screens.

What types of interactions will we have through The Internet, sitting back a few feet away from a large entertainment screen, remote control in hand?

Take a look the photo in Jessica Hodgson’s WSJ article on upcoming Internet TV models. It shows a future TV with a slide-out tool bar, little application widgets available. The looks don’t matter at this point — think of the function.

You’d want to customize the types of info you can call up. Probably a notification system of some type, IM presence, caller ID, a webcam to the front door, various personal services. You probably wouldn’t want to dig into a big document on that big screen — more like quickly monitoring changing world conditions, connecting to others.

Would you want to use a web browser? to surf the Web? to pull up pages which were designed to fit a certain laptop sized screen? to have the ads and the sidebars and the third-party widgets that today’s WWW pages possess? Take a look again at that photo… would you want browser panes and all up on that screen?

I don’t think so. It would be good to have access to a WWW browsing tool, but the numberless millions of today’s WWW pages were explicitly designed for laptop display screens. The very network effects which led to the fast growth of WWW content over the past decade make the viewing not quite satisfactory with other types of digital display screens.

Your mobile phone has a WWW browser. It’s indeed handy. But if you have the choice of a fullsize screen, this is much handier. Or if the site has a parallel version designed for a small screen, then that’s handier too. It’s useful to be able to Surf the Web on a small screen, but the bulk of the content on today’s WWW is not very friendly to unexpected display devices.

Now, the web tech itself can make the crossover across devices, I think… shouldn’t be any reason why hypertext markup and JavaScript couldn’t drive a good TV display too. But the World Wide Web of content, all those pages, all those sites… it’s hard for me to picture that as being as much fun eight feet away from the screen with a keypad.

Web tech… that’s a different subject than WWW content. That content was tuned for one screen. In a multiscreen world, we have to figure out how to migrate the useful parts of this legacy content.

If you’ve got a work screen, a pocket screen, and a home screen, it would be strange if they all showed the same thing. The World Wide Web’s current content is largely designed to be displayed upon a workstation screen. It’s legacy content.

The third screen approaches

The International Broadcasters Convention in Amsterdam this week produced much news relevant to broadcasters, but a different press release showed a step towards something important for developers… hardware Flash support integrated into a “System on a Chip” which manufacturers can use for different types of televisions.

Implications? Here are two paragraphs from the press release by NXP Semiconductors, a chip manufacturer and an Open Screen Project partner:


“NXP Semiconductors today unveiled a new family of highly integrated system-on-chip products enabling a complete range of high-performance solutions for mainstream HD DVRs and set-top box platforms in global satellite, cable and IPTV networks. Representing the world’s first fully integrated 45nm set-top box SoC platform incorporating multi-channel broadcast receivers, the NXP PNX847x/8x/9x delivers advanced broadcast decoding, media processing and graphics rendering technologies. This comprehensive feature set provides an optimized system that significantly reduces manufacturer bill-of-materials costs and power consumption and also ensures advanced picture quality for an improved home entertainment experience.

“Based on a powerful 1250DMIPS ARM Cortex-A9 Superscalar applications CPU architecture, the PNX847x/8x/9x delivers advanced system level performance for secure, multi-room DVR video streaming on home networks and for fast execution of Java-based STB middleware engines. . Combined with a rich set of hardware and DSP based content decoding resources, the ARM Cortex-A9 CPU’s internet software technology eco-system delivers industry leading performance for user interface environments based on Adobe Flash and web browser technologies. Dedicated hardare for flexible content format decoding along side ARM architecture optimizations for Javascript and Flash components ensures that the PNX847x/8x/9x can deliver the most responsive and robust user experience for on-line VOD and other content delivered via the internet.”

Timeline? They expect to provide device manufacturers with “sample quantities in Q4 2009″, so we’re still a ways off from having a sizable home audience. But groups like Intel, Broadcom, and Sigma Designs are also working on Flash/SoC integration too… seems a strong trend, like how flat screens eventually replaced cathode screens.

It may be too early to plan a business around Social TV, but it’s not too early to think of the social applications they’ll need. Some TV/connectivity contracts may end up being walled gardens, but the sheer diversity of chip manufacturers implies multiple business models, and I’m betting we’ll see open models emerge as well.

Bottom line? We already use workstations, and handhelds, and we’re getting closer to sitback screens too. Three screens, all expected to access those services we need, but all three accessing those services in different manners — work at a workstation, fast facts on the go, and notifications and networking while watching a movie.

(There’s a fourth screen too — ambient display screens accessed by personal mobile, such as interactive wallmaps at a transit station or message-boards at a convention. Flash is already well-established in environmental signage, and the screens themselves are prevalent in many public places these days, but I don’t know when we’ll make the social jump to accessing and interacting with ambient displays in public places.)

The notebook-only world of applications will still be useful. But just as with desktop publishing, or CD-ROM, or World Wide Web, or RIAs, the newer areas will grow faster than the old. You’ll still be able to design for a single screen, but the action will be in serving audiences across the different types of screens they own.

Just one small press release this week, one manufacturer disclosing chip and schedule details for the next generation of TV. But to me it seemed a significant marker. That third screen is finally becoming real.

More on NXP and Flash… more on Open Screen Project.

The Big Web Video Battle that Was

A small point here on the title of this article “Adobe & Microsoft: The Big Web Video Battle to Come”, which has been hanging in the aggregators over the weekend, and which doesn’t offer open comments.

Back in September 2007, the New York Times reported that “Microsoft’s share of total streaming video use is 85 percent… In the United States, video sent using Adobe’s Flash format accounted for 22 percent of all streaming video traffic in 2006.” I’m sure there are other stats to quote, but Windows Media workflow, from encoders to servers to CDNs to runtimes, was clearly the big dog.

And in September 2007 Microsoft released a new browser plugin for Windows Media video, named “Silverlight”, which brought back support for the most modern Apple computers, and which promised to increase video share even further.

Today, the New York Times and others generally agree that about 80% of web video comes from Flash. We’ve seen significant realtime video providers retool their entire backend to use Flash video workflows. And we’re on the brink of new innovations with interactivity, metadata support, cross-device support, and captured/generated integration (“Augmented Reality”, eg).

Just a few years ago, 80% of web video was in WMV. Today, 80% of web video is in SWF. Looks like something happened in the meantime…. ;-)

It’s always possible for changes to be reversed. But to really make a pitch on “The Big Web Video Battle to Come”, it seems like you’d first need to understand “The Big Web Video Battle that Was”. No blood, no gore… just a lot of consumers and publishers shifting their support to something which works better, for them.

A happy “accident”

Andy Plesser and the folks at Beet.tv do a lot of great interviews with people in technology… if they’re not on your reading list, I’d recommend adding them. But today they had an interview with Adobe’s Jen Taylor, which ended up on Techmeme with the title “The Vidoe Revolution Happened by ‘Accident'”. News to me! ;-)

If you watch the interview, at about 1:20, Jen says “It’s funny, I don’t think we ever anticipated the success we see today with online video. I often tell the story of how video got into the Flash Player, and it was a complete accident… I don’t think we ever understood what we had seeded [?] in that.”

True enough — Jen was saying that we hadn’t foreseen the explosion of digital video on the web, where everyone expects parallel over-the-air and over-the-web viewing of all types of realtime experiences, where people routinely upload videos of their own for people the world over to watch. That part was indeed a happy surprise.

But the capability itself wasn’t an accident. Jon Gay and Robert Tatsumi brought FutureSplash to Macromedia, and stayed on the combined Player/Authoring team for a few years. Jon took a sabbatical, and came back with a vision of two-way video communications, all implemented by a single tiny codec inside the Player.

To get an idea on the emphasis on two-way video communication back at that time, check out Tim Anderson’s interview with Jeremy Allaire, back in April 2002, during the introduction of the term “Rich Internet Applications”:

“We’re introducing a new technology for communications applications… The Flash player that was recently released includes within it all the client capabilities needed for these communications applications. It allows you to deliver real-time, peer-to-peer or one-to-many or many-to-many real-time communications applications, with shared data, audio and video. All that is built into the client today. We’ll be introducing a new communications server later this year. It’s codenamed Tin Can, and it allows you to build these communications applications… .. You can do real-time shared audio and video.”

I spoke with Paul Betlem in the kitchen here on Townsend St today, and he said that his big memories from the time were the emphasis on two-way communication, the integration with a webpage instead of being a branded video “player” (like those from Real, Microsoft, Apple), and the concern that the addition of a codec, however small, might slow consumer adoption rates. It was a controversial decision internally — a premeditated gamble — and we all sort of held our breath on how it would turn out.

To get an idea of how advanced Flash developers saw it at the time, check out these notes from Mike Chambers, of a July 2002 session by Danny Mavromatis and Mike Davidson of ESPN.com. While Flash video may not have had all the features and options of existing video architectures, it had some unique, no-hassle, audience-inclusive benefits which helped bring about the situation we see today.

It took a few years for people to understand that video was now much easier to deliver… back in 2006 I noted that Flash video was a “voice in the wilderness” for its first few years. I think it was a few far-sighted Flash-savvy content developers who really proved to the world what could be done.

But I don’t think anyone at Macromedia had a clear vision of how user-generated content would take off, and how there would soon be giant video sites and live-streaming of public events and such — the technology was a very deliberate decision, and it was the global popularity which was the “happy accident”.

Adobe, Time-Warner

Last night Adobe and Time-Warner announced “a strategic alliance to foster collaboration on the development of next generation video and rich media experiences.” There has been much discussion already.

I don’t have any privileged information on the details. Here are some of the points I’ve been left with, after reading coverage and interviews today.

  • There are some big properties involved here… Time-Warner includes Turner Broadcasting System (CNN, Headline News, TBS, Turner Network Television, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang, NBA TV, TruTV, Turner Classic Movies, more), Warner Bros. Entertainment (studios, movie, TV, animation, interactive, thewb.com, more), and Home Box Office. It’s a big deal.
  • There’s not much information yet on which properties will do what. One of the few quotes I read was here: “Of the three properties, the initial one to witness a real benefit will be Home Box Office. Time Warner said that HBO.com would soon be relaunched ‘making extensive use of the Adobe Flash Platform’… The alliance is worth noticing in part because the three Time Warner divisions in question pose three very different technology use cases and possible revenue models.” That’s Time-Warner’s story to tell.
  • There are three particular areas of collaboration noted in the press release: “As part of the alliance, these companies will also collaborate to accelerate the development of digital rights management for the Web and desktop, and metadata and audience measurement solutions to improve the discovery and monetization of content.” Rights-management, analytics, and metadata… improvement is needed in all three areas.
  • Why is metadata important? Here’s an example. One CS4 feature which has been flying under-the-radar so far has been the speech-to-text capabilities in Adobe Premiere Pro CS4, and how this text metadata can then be manipulated by Adobe Flash Player. The result is similar to what Reuters has described for a new project: “The Thomson Reuters service has features that allow especially fast access to specific pieces of video, whether produced in a studio or recorded at a conference or a hearing. Each video is accompanied on screen by a searchable transcript, with a set of key words highlighted at the top. Clicking anywhere on the transcript causes the video to jump to that point.” Video-with-metadata becomes “rich video”, enabling “Rich Video Applications” in a way that cannot be approached by flat, atomistic video files alone.
  • I got some perspective into Time-Warner’s possible priorities from Saul Hansell at New York Times, based on an interview with CEO Jeff Bewkes: “Here’s how ‘TV Everywhere’ would work: an individual, or a member of a household that subscribes to cable, satellite or any of telco’s TV offerings, would be able to have online access to the programming included in their pay-TV package. With broad industry buy-in, it wouldn’t matter if your TV provider is Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable, or DirecTV. You log in, put in some subscriber information for a pay-TV operator, and unlock a host of shows not currently on the web, such as HBO’s ‘The Wire’ or TNT’s ‘The Closer.’ For 85% of U.S. households, the added access would be, essentially, free. Mr. Bewkes said he anticipates there will be a web-only option for those who don’t have pay-TV service.”
  • This is bigger than Flash. As Fritz Nelson mentions: “These three divisions are going to use pretty much every piece of Adobe’s Flash and video platforms (as Adobe touts it: ‘from planning to playback’).” Take a fresh look at CS4 Production Premium… it’s not just video-editing and effects, but goes all the way from pre-production and shooting tools like OnLocation through distribution packaging with Adobe Encore… with XMP metadata accompanying the assets every step of the way. The “Flash video ecology” has a whole back-channel of production support in the world today. (See video primers for more info.) This is about much more than a browser plugin.

What Time-Warner seems to be doing is to make it your subscription to their production, regardless of device, regardless of pipe. They’re trying to find a sustainable way to create big-budget entertainment.

The flashy details of how a webpage looks or the functionality in a cross-OS desktop app are interesting, but it’s really the realworld production pipeline behind it that makes the whole thing possible.

Interesting news. Will be fascinating how it turns out.

“Social TV” in use, and notes on this week’s video

Big video online this week… lots of discussion about how much, and whether congestion was at servers or on “last mile” delivery, and so on. But I’m particularly interested in how people used video in new ways, and the joint project from CNN and Facebook sparked a lot of novel conversation.

(I put “Social TV” in quotes above, because yesterday’s work was really on the “Social PC”… the big home wall screen differs from yesterday’s hunched-over-the-laptop solitary experience, and the focus this week was still on visiting a separate webpage instead of integrating the social layer into video feed. It will be awhile yet until we have the SoCS to make actual Social TV, but that day will come. Bottom line: It ain’t “Social TV” if there ain’t no TV.)

I’ve been reading lots of commentary, and pulled out some quotes where people responded particularly positively to the ability to watch and comment on a live event with remote friends. My own top takeaways:

  • There’s definitely interest in synchronous viewing of live events. And people definitely respond to social viewing too. Don’t bet against this trend.
  • Flash enabled friction-free viewing. Anyone could write to it, distribute it, read it, and costs for each participant were very, very low. If there was ever any question about live Flash streaming, yesterday answered it.
  • The desktop screen, the main home display screen, the personal pocket screen, the shared environmental screen, as well as those temporarily without a screen, or who cannot physically see a screen… all experiences must work together. Your friends should not be segregated into bins depending on what brand of device they prefer, or whether they’re members of a particular website.

There’s a selection of favorite testimonials up top, followed by discussions of some of the business drivers, and some additional interesting ideas towards the bottom.

Disclaimer: Internet-enabled TVs don’t really exist yet. Closest we have is connectivity via settop or console — close, and many of the same dynamics, but the device-dependence is not yet as open as it will become. Sitting alone at the PC is definitely a different experience than sitting back in front of the TV with other people, and the latter experience is not quite here yet. If you’re looking for financial compensation during 2009, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking to be an early mover in what promises to be a high-growth market, it can be worth your while to think through these possibilities now.

Copyright: I’m taking the liberty of republishing others’ words without their knowledge and consent. But unlike other cases, these words are already in the public domain, and I’ve provided links to source citations. Still, if you find your words here unexpectedly, please let me know and I’ll remove them, thanks.

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TESTIMONIALS

“I thought it was awesome ‘watching’ the inauguration with my twitter buddies – it was like having all my friends around to joke around and share comments. LOVED it! Way to go! So, what do we watchnext? Friends?”
http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/inaugurating-social-tv/

“[Facebook’s] deal with CNN to broadcast the big day by having the status updates run alongside the live streaming video from Washington was a game-changer. The ability to see what your ‘friends’ were saying and being able to switch to see what everyone else was saying enabled us all to get beyond the fishbowl. It was an amazing blend of traditional mass media reporting and everyone’s individual point-of-view collected in one location. Opinions, emotions and even contrary perspectives were public, available and accessible. Plus, if you had something more to add (relevant, idiotic or different), all opinions were equal.”
http://www.twistimage.com/blog/archives/open/

“Twitter was huge and held together – was this not Twitter’s Performance Waterloo? – I found it a wonderful adjunct to my TV and my web watching. I limited my stream to those people that I knew and cared for and it was as if I was there side by side with them. This amplified the whole experience. Some were on the ground in Washington – their collective Tweets were like a composite eye – in aggregate they gave me a sense of being there.”
” . . . I was joined by millions who wanted to make their computer the centre of their experience. I wanted this because I could add more layers to what was going on. I cannot do this with TV where all I can do is shift channels. I could use Twitter – I could have several streams open at the same time – I could chat – the list goes on.”
” . . . So if you produce content for TV and you have not made up your mind that the web will be your primary arena you are no longer in the game. Adding conversation with friends and enabling filtering of this group is the icing on the web TV cake.”
http://www.fastforwardblog.com/2009/01/21/post-inaugeration-thoughts-about-social-media/

“For all the digital dollars spent by CNN, the network seemed to score more points with its CNN.com video/Facebook mashup. At least, most of my Facebook friends thought so, and not just the ones who still work at CNN. Clicking on a link gave you a double-window, with live video on one side and a scrolling stream of Facebook status updates on the other. No expensive special imagery and certainly no value-added journalistic insight, just real-time reactions from all over the world to the history being made in Washington. That stream included this piece of layman’s criticism: a person ‘wondering why the anchors on CNN on the TV are so much more interesting and articulate than what I’m seeing on the Facebook streaming’.”
” . . . For all the diversity of content found online, the growth of streaming video consumption and the rise of social networks as news sources, I still thought that this major event was best delivered and consumed via television — and high-definition TV in particular. The sight of all those people on the Mall was certainly awe-inspiring, but switching back and forth from 480p to 1080i on a large-screen TV was like making the jump from impulse power to warp speed.
http://www.technewsworld.com/story/65908.html

“I walked into the Green Wagon just as Barack Obama began his speech. Proprietor Jen Casales smiled and said, “I’m glad I’m not watching this alone.” She was watching the speech on her Mac via CNN Online with Facebook, and her friends’ comments scrolled up the screen, like Twitter. That could actually inspire me to someday do a Facebook page.”
http://blogs.nashvillescene.com/bites/2009/01/inaugural_visit_to_the_green_w.php

“I am so impressed with the CNN Live & Facebook Integration that I had to fire up the video camera and share my thoughts with the world. This changes things. The fact that I don’t HAVE to turn on my television if I don’t want to. The fact that I can share the experience with friends around the globe in real time. The fact that this is another step towards social viewing. I’m impressed and believe this changes the game quite a bit. Where does it go from here?”
http://www.cc-chapman.com/2009/01/20/cnn-facebook-change-the-game/

“I thought the CNN/Facebook integration was great, but I kept wishing it was CNN/Twitter integration. To me that stream of conversation would have made more sense than constantly updating your Facebook status. Now I’m wishing for Twitter integration for every site I can imagine!”
http://www.cc-chapman.com/2009/01/20/cnn-facebook-change-the-game/#comment-47483

“The living room area, where the family congregates to watch tv, is set up around the television. The computer, on the other hand, is usually in a separate room; an office, a den, etc. since our social habits in the living are set up around a tv, it will be difficult getting the cultural consciousness to move from tv to internet. That said, i agree w/you that if there is an integrated functionality on my tv for my computer, it would open more avenues for me to sit on my rump and get fatter.”
http://www.cc-chapman.com/2009/01/20/cnn-facebook-change-the-game/#comment-47519

“I had the same epiphany yesterday. I assumed I’d want to leave my office to go to be with some co-workers in front of a big TV, but once I got onto the CNN.com Live w/ FB integration feed, I was hooked & didn’t leave. I loved watching live TV with my friends all over the country, and saw this ‘non-Twitter crowd’ turn into a Twitter-like experience. I actually shut down TweetDeck and solely followed the FB feed of my friends. It was an awesome experience — game changing is right!”
http://www.cc-chapman.com/2009/01/20/cnn-facebook-change-the-game/#comment-47527

“Great post! I think it’s a very very early evolution of the TV. I suspect the next step will be enabling live chat and Social Networking tools (non-Web) inside the Cable TV system. The current DVR box will be more and more ‘interactive’ as it’s currently passive, but will become active…which makes me wonder if that means yet another “closed” network? I watched on my 53″ TV with surround sound on..I really wanted to absorb the whole thing in a big way..was gonna Tweet but just got swept up!”
http://www.cc-chapman.com/2009/01/20/cnn-facebook-change-the-game/#comment-47529

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BUSINESS ISSUES

  • Many stories in the press emphasized that interactive viewing was a big hit, and that non-interactive viewing satisfies only part of the demand:

    “Online TV Sites Battle for Viewers: Sites like TV.com, Hulu, and Joost that feature much of the same content are hoping that social-networking features will put them ahead of the crowd… On TV, content is king. But on the Web, community may reign supreme.”
    http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2009/tc20090119_442155.htm

  • Some focused on broadcast-style advertising… I suspect that there’s greater value in recommendations from friends:

    “Eventually, video socializing might also benefit advertisers. “As the prevalence of quality on these sites becomes broader, advertisers will be looking to drill down and target individual users,” says Mark Trefgarne, chief executive of LiveRail, a San Francisco-based startup that develops platforms for monetizing online videos. “If you put one commercial across the entire site, you might see an average click-through rate of 1%. If you’re targeting it down to those particular users on the site, you can very easily double that performance,” Trefgarne says.”
    http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2009/tc20090119_442155_page_2.htm

  • Some raised the valid point of wondering how social networks will be acquired. There’s definite sense in outsourcing this to an existing social site, but as comments prove, there’s also a desire to be independent of a particular social network host.

    “As CNN’s implementation of Facebook Connect proved, it’s much more effective to implement integration with an existing community than to build your own community when offering a platform for real-time conversation. I’m sure that open identity evangelists would say that users should be able to login no matter what platform they have a preference for.”
    http://www.allfacebook.com/2009/01/facebook-twitter-competition/

    In comments: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have online conversations without boundaries? Some applications allow us to post simultaneously to Twitter, Facebook, and more, but there must be a way to make online conversation even more seamless….”

  • A wildcard: The recent economic changes have split up old workgroups. Lots of people are starting projects now. They have a big advantage if they can over-step existing video brands. The timing of this technology shift with the timing of the economic shift points towards disruptive garage-band solutions, a Hewlett-Packard, a Google. Count on surprises.
  • A subthread: Suppose all our communications go through the Internet? Can we (or should we) discard cable/sat broadcast or mobile phone networks? I suspect that replacing one distribution channel with another is not as advisable as using them to supplement each other as appropriate. Our communication channels need such diversity to protect from failure during emergencies, and “Social TV” applications will need to accommodate people who play from local DVRs, from DVD or Blu-Ray, and from live sat/cable broadcast, not just Internet video.

    “When it comes to big live events with millions of people watching at the same time, traditional TV broadcasters have nothing to worry about. Right now, the Internet breaks at about one million simultaneous streams. That is nothing when it comes to the audience size for historic events, or even a big football game. The Internet simply does not shine when it is used as a broadcast medium. And yesterday proved it.”
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/01/21/the-day-live-web-video-streaming-failed-us/

  • I like this quote at NYT: “The Akamai Web tracker showed Internet traffic tapering off quickly as people pulled away from streaming news. On election night, the traffic was more sustained as people crisscrossed the Internet for hours.” Each type of “social video” event will have its own dynamics. It’s not just technology, but how people will spontaneously use the technology.
    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/news-sites-struggle-to-stream-obamas-innaguration-speech/?em&apage=2

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OTHER THOUGHTS

  • I don’t think many people have yet noticed the new XMP Library for ActionScript up on Adobe Labs. But when you combine it with the video-to-text generation, Flash and AIR developers will be able to access text alongside the video, do local textsearch to pull up video segments, more.

    “This starts to get really exciting when we take advantage of the speech to text capabilities of the Production Premium CS4. The CS4 apps capture a lot of metadata during the production process and make it available in the final output of the FLV or F4V file. This means that these ‘intelligent’ video files contain rich information that can now be mined/liberated/accessed in AIR and Flex applications with the XMP AS libraries. A great example of this is a demo app we created internally called the karaoke app. It is a simple AIR application that reads the speech to text metadata markers stored in XMP in the video file and displays it automatically in synch with the playback of the video. Here is a screen shot….”
    http://blogs.adobe.com/gunar/2009/01/xmp_library_for_actionscript_on_labs_1.html

    Walkthrough of video metadata generation in CS4 aps:
    http://www.adobe.com/designcenter/cs4/articles/lrvid4104_xp.html

  • There will be great pressure to commercially “own” your conversations. Sites will want to host, to be your hub. I think the next generation of social technology only makes sense when your conversations are yours, and can be with anyone outside of a particular walled-garden. The website model says “you come to our place”; the widget model says “we will deliver our service to you”.
  • We need to adequately advise in the UI when the connectivity is insufficient. This commenter at NewTeeVee blamed the websites. A good video UI, whether desktop or TV or mobile, will give good feedback to the viewer when the pipes are clogged.
    “THEY ALL SUCKED. I tried EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. starting at 10:00 AM and they were all bogged down and laggy.”
    http://newteevee.com/2009/01/20/a-quick-review-of-obamas-inauguration-streams/#comment-252922

  • If one of your friends was in a taxicab, listening to a speech or sporting event on the radio, then they want to join in the fun while texting. We can’t be restricted to a single media feed — good “Social TV” apps will keep the media separate from the convo.

    I stopped in the local Mars Bar Tuesday evening, and they had a flat wall screen showing house specials (looked like Flash), and a few big flat wall-monitors that showed CNN. If the event were live, you’d want to communicate with friends on the mobile, even though they’re watching their home screen or their work screen and you’re watching a shared screen.

  • Finally, one of my favorite quotes of the day, showing despite how far we’ve come in 108 years, there’s still the hazard of dealing with the unpredictable:

    “On March 4, 1901, a lone cameraman in the employ of Thomas A. Edison was dispatched to capture the swearing in of William McKinley. To posterity he delivered a total of 44 seconds of grainy footage showing a white-haired man on the Capitol steps solemnly, if indistinctly, raising his right hand. The snippet lives in the archives of the Library of Congress along with a note apologizing for the Edison Co.’s picayune contribution to American history: ‘The rain began falling in torrents with almost the first words of the President’s speech, which of course prohibited our taking a greater length of film.'”
    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/01/obama-inaugurat.html

Summary: Yesterday, many people proved how desirable it is to have a “social layer” working atop your PC’s web video. Over the next year we’ll start to see actual multi-screen “Social TV” start to appear, and it promises to be a game-changer.

Visualizing Social TV

Ever since last week’s explosion of CES announcements about new chips bringing the Internet and Adobe Flash Player to home televisions, I’ve been trying to see some of the implications, some of the possibilities. It’s exciting, but I don’t have a clear picture yet. Below are some of my early thoughts — can you help clarify them, refine them?

Main question: How would _you_ want to use Internet TV? Not “how would you like to develop for it?” but how would you like to be using your own home video display, a few years from now? Knowing all you know of The Internet, all that you’ve seen of web services and local clients, what types of screens would you like to see, what types of controls would you want to exert, what types of communications would you like to have?

What do you think “Social TV” might turn out to be? How would _you_ like it to evolve?

Or even better… if you know someone in elementary school today, how will they like to use their television during junior high?

(I apologize for how disconnectedly this is written… it’s mostly notes pulled together into five sections after a week of reading, and is definitely not a finished essay. If you’re in a hurry, there’s no real news here! If you’ve got time, though, then I need your help in thinking this through, tia.)

Timeline

I think the trend is towards greater control over what we watch, and that private viewing alone does not suffice. Look how things have changed over the past 120 years:

“The movies” were first, whether shown in a baroque theatre, or on a sheet between trees in the village square. People crowded in to watch, open-mouthed. Thirty years later “talkies” turned the popular industry upside-down. Going to the movies was clearly a social event.

After World War II television offered private viewing. Everyone watched everything at the same time — broadcast — but you could choose who to be sociable with, in a setting you could control.

Videocassettes introduced private on-demand viewing. Sex was a big motivator, but once the equipment was out there, people loved the convenience. You could watch whatever you wanted, when you wanted.

In the 1990s there were many experiments in interactive TV, but none really became popular. Towards the end some could access the World Wide Web, so you could mix pages into your screen. But pressing menus and buttons in itself doesn’t really mean much. Interactivity on isolated machines didn’t take off.

Now, with private viewing screens connected to The Internet, powered by clientside logic engines, we’re getting new options for “going to the movies”. But it’s not like trekking to a movie theatre today, with its sticky floors, bacteria-laden chairs, cellphone talkers and other bobo artifacts. You get to relax in your living room, and invite people on the screen (or in the room) that you like, know, and trust.

How do you think “watching the movies” will change in such a situation? When you’re in a safe and sane environment, and when you can communicate (either synchronously or asynchronously) with anyone you want, switching social situations as easily as you switch channels today. What happens then? How do you think people will want to use this?

And it’s a little bit more than that, too, when you add your pocket-device to this world. Your home social viewing situation will be able to move around with you. When you’re “in the cloud” of connected devices, it’s like a virtual cloud of your video/social life can also follow you around, focusing on business when you’re at your computer, focusing on richer experience when you’re in your living room. A virtual “experience sphere” will always be available, manifesting on your different devices, as appropriate.

“Web TV” vs Social TV

As an aside, that term “Web TV” in the newspapers sort of sets my teeth on edge. The World Wide Web is just one application of the Internet, and is not the entire Internet itself. This Web is woven of hyperlinked documents… pages of paper. Television is not a bunch of pages — it keeps going, it moves, it’s closer to the real world, things keep changing. In multimedia days we used to say “Hypercard was stop-until-move, Director was move-until-stop”… documents are either on or off, while real life keeps on moving.

Today’s video websites are webpages that you visit on your computer. Some of them are featuring native clients via AIR, yet still on a screen held eighteen inches away. But now we’re bringing the Internet into the television. Do “pages” make as much sense, away from the document-oriented computer?

The computer is a video screen, and can host video, but is oriented to documents. The World Wide Web is woven of interlinked documents. Computing workstations like pages. But wall displays like to be, well, “a window to another world”.

The computer display has boxy little document windows, but the television display is itself a window, showing you the real world from many places, many times.

You peer into the desktop windows, privately, alone. But a window on the world begs to be shared. Different feel.

The big wall display is becoming a communications device. It’s not like holding your phone up to your ears or your eyes. It’s not like working on a book at your desk. It’s like sitting back, relaxing, and looking out a window — at interesting and changing scenery — with your friends — and maybe Roger Ebert or Jon Stewart.

Screens from your pocket, desktop, and living room will work together, but will not look the same. How should they _act_?

I wouldn’t want to read email on a TV, probably not even “surf the web” because of the smaller input device and the differences in screen distance… I have other screens that are better for that. But I would like to call up text windows on the TV for information about a movie cast, or to check the history in a story. It’s possible to get that with today’s webpage format, but I have a feeling that a personal choice in widgets would work out better.

The question should not be “How can we bring today’s websites onto home TVs?” I think the more useful question is “Sitting back on the couch, in front of a big screen, maybe with a laptop or mobile at your side, what types of experiences would people find most useful?” We need to clear away automatic assumptions, take off our YouTube blinders.

“Yep, that Model T sure is pretty Mr. Ford, mighty futuristic, yep… but where do I hit it with the buggy whip to make it go faster?”

Scenarios

Lots of varied thoughts in this section, none of them completed…. ;-)

If you wanted to buy a video, would you want to fire up a web browser to surf through an online store? I wouldn’t — besides webpages being bloated and slow to load, being able to visit any page on the web means carrying along the whole patched-over security structure of today’s infectious web. I think I’d rather download sidebar widgets from stores and services I trust, and explore video catalogs that way.

There’s the whole issue of read/write TV. We see a little bit of it today with webcams on computers, and some striking use areas (much of the early interest in Flash Media Server was from adult sites), but when your TV changes from a dumb display receiving broadcasts to a luxury computer on the Internet, why shouldn’t you publish just as easily as consume, whether as text chat, audio, or full video?

Would a family separated by a business trip watch movies together, in synch, with live two-way communication? Adobe Connect is already popular for this, even without high-res movies playing at the same time. My bet’s “yes”.

Synchronized viewing makes sense for live events — say, watching football with old college friends, everyone with their friends’ webcams up. Lots of people watch American Idol or the Oscars too. Such content seems a little strange to me, but I’d bet some groups would take up the habit of watching such events with distant friends.

And I also suspect there’s market for asynchronous viewing of annotated video. There are already some video-commenting systems for browsers, but there the pro and consumer content are locked together, and one comment stream serves every audience — broadcast-style comments. But suppose your teacher’s annotation stream, or your friends’ chat session, was a remote XML feed that time-synch’d to the movie whether you got it from DVD, download, or cable?

Take it further… should dubs and translations be baked into the visual stream, or should there be an expandable variety of subsidiary files which can optionally accompany a video? There should be “opensource translation” of many videos, right?

I’d want sidebar notifications on my large-screen display… a little slideout widget that alerts me if a particular email arrives, or if a travel bargain is available. These would be set on the computer, stored in the cloud, and polled and displayed by the television. Makes sense, right?

There’s another implication of Internet TV, where the big display is always connected to communications from other devices. The price drop in flat-panel displays has increased their use in the ambient environment. You see them in restaurants, shops, transit areas, bank storefronts. Some of these show broadcast video, some of them have live weather conditions and advertising, some are in-house signage. These are digital displays, but ITV adds Internet connectivity. What happens when your pocket device talks with the kiosk map?

Other writings

Here are some of the discussions I’ve been reading the past week, while writing the above scenarios:

  • There was a “bloggers vs vloggers” discussion on Techmeme last week… some of this is about technology and media, but much of it is about personality… one of the easiest ways to garner responses online is to say something wrong, and text is easy to copy and respond to. No direct relevance to Social TV, but it shows how media types differ, satisfy different needs.

  • A press release from a signage company, announcing they’ll be using the Adobe Flash Player engine in their new devices. This isn’t the first such announcement, just timely. I wish I knew what percentage of ambient signage was already in Flash. It’s important to me because it means an interface can be portable across device types, even though it may need to be adjusted for the physical capabilities and social setting of that device.
  • An article oriented to the “web tv” perspective: “Here’s what I do want: The ability to use my TV to watch all the great video the Web makes available–actual TV shows and movies like ‘The Office’ on Hulu, ‘Lost’ on ABC.com, ‘No Country For Old Men’ on Netflix’s on-demand service.” That stuff doesn’t interest me personally, but I know lots of people do watch those shows, so I’m not seeing the whole picture. Still, I think the next generation of video will be something different than last decade’s Web and last century’s Broadcast mixed together.
  • At Slate Farhad Manjoo dissected the problems of adding together “WWW + TV”, instead of multiplying “TV * Internet * Flash”. Some cute lines like this: “Passivity is television’s main feature; we love it precisely because it asks so little of us.” I like background video too. But I think he’s seeing only part of the picture here: “Perhaps there are some ‘Lost’ fans who’d like to connect with other fans through their TVs, but I’m still dubious. It’s much easier to express whatever you want to say with a keyboard rather than a remote control.” I agree that text-on-a-TV alone won’t cut it, but I’m betting that mic/cam communications will be quite compelling.
  • The Washington Post sees the problem as bringing the current desktop “web video” over to the big screen near your couch, in article “TV Over the Web: Still a Fuzzy Picture”. That perspective of “TV over the Web” makes it harder to see the possibilities. I think we’ll end up with something wildly different than the current YouTube experience. A little video square inside an unchanging document was just one more hack along the way.
  • While writing this, I heard from Nigel Pegg and Stefan Richter of their in-browser examples of social video… I know there have been other efforts at “social computing, with video”, but I’m not sure of a link to find all such work…?

Meta observations

One wildcard pointing to potentially rapid evolution is the existing ubiquity of visual tooling. Lots of people already use Photoshop and Premiere, and create visual presentations delivered as a video stream. We don’t have to worry much about learning to create new types of media… the shift will be in the addition of a social layer atop it.

Application developers will face these new opportunities first. But the professional creative community is already comfortable contributing.

Adobe is making a big bet on video. Adobe is also making a big bet on Rich Internet Applications. We’ve already got significant tooling support for bringing these two worlds together. We’re not starting from zero… some significant barriers have already been removed.

We’ll need a neutral social layer, spanning device brands. Apple will have its little walled garden, as will others, but you should be able to watch a show with someone who doesn’t own the same brand of hardware, or even necessarily employ the same user-interface. And you shouldn’t have to adapt to a new interface just because you’re getting videos from different sources… advertisers will try to “own the social layer”, but I think it’s stronger when the user owns the interface. I’m seeing widgets and overlays of specific functionality, not pages and frames of pixel-predictable layouts, or different virtual theatres you may attend.

A lot of what we’ll be able to do will be determined by the depth of device APIs on the new type of television. I have next-to-no idea what will open up when. Customizing the interface to your broadcast schedule may not be possible (your sat/cable provider will likely control its UI), and reskinning the interface to your locally-stored programs could go either way, but I hope these devices expose access to playback details… sending an edit-list to friends so they can skip boring parts of a sporting event, or go directly to a given skit on a comedy recording… mashups are possible if the messaging layer can hold playback instructions.

What are the economic opportunities for developers? Too murky to see clearly here in Jan09. We’ve got to wait for these new Flash/Internet-enabled Systems-on-Chip to ship before manufacturers start adding them to displays sold in local stores. We don’t know what the distribution models for content will be… it could end up like the iPhone, with centralized editorial control, but Intel’s announcement for AIR support implies a freer situation. And even when we see the devices and can deliver atop them, it will take awhile for financially-meaningful audiences to buy in. Independent business opportunities are not yet clearly visible.

But we do have an opportunity now to shape the next generation of innovation. If we make good apps early — useful experiences — these can influence future growth.

So… wow, you read this far!? Thanks! You must be wild on this stuff too. Which angles are particularly exciting your imagination today…?

NBCOlympics.com aftereffects

Some early notes, after reading ‘way too much all week…. ;-)

Biggest takeaway: People like rich video experiences. The big sitback screen is still first choice… broadcast served far more traffic than Web. Pundits who argue “Web vs TV” are missing that it’s “Web *and* TV”. But when people can experience a “Video RIA” they like it. Good validation.

But when people are excluded, they don’t like it. Microsoft was heard as saying “we’re bringing Olympics to the world”, and only later people realized this was a US-only deal. Linux users were cut out, as were Mac/PPC owners. Then 10% of US broadband folks were cut out atop that. Microsoft would have drawn less criticism were they a little more realistic in setting expectations.

What are the numbers for Silverlight? Hard to say… still seem contradictory. Nielsen Online says in an Aug 13 press release that the video section of NBCOlympics.com received 2,030,000 unique visitors on Mon Aug 11. Microsoft is saying they got eight million “downloads” one day. When you combine geo-restriction, platform-restriction, and failed installations, the NBC site may have prompted a million successful installations one day. Looks teeny.

Whatever the actual numbers turn out to be, it doesn’t seem to mean much for making Silverlight deployment to the general public any more practical… a site would still have to eat those support costs. I risk turning RIAstats.com into a gaming target by mentioning it, but Saturday morning still shows less than 2% Silverlight 2 support. The DNC doesn’t seem like it will change this either. The numbers are still fuzzy, but it seems pretty clear Silverlight’s silver bullet shot blanks.

Still unclear to me is the mobile angle. Some US-oriented quotes seem to show this at 25% of the desktop browser video viewing. Considering there are probably device restrictions, atop the OS restrictions and geo-restrictions, this could be a big deal. Needs more detail.

Also unclear so far is the overall global picture, and how people worldwide actually used web video this Olympics. China has a bigger internet audience than the US, and much more interest in the games themselves… news services uniformly use Flash video these days… regional licensees seemed to mostly deliver in non-beta software their audiences could actually view… there was massive peer-to-peer delivery this time as well.

It will take awhile for the world to really understand this worldwide video event. Signs look good that it changed expectations in a positive and useful way. We humans do like smarter video. Good sign.

Two other bits this week, Microsoft-related, but not Olympics:

ECMAScript fell down and went boom. The best numbers I’ve seen show IE6 at 40% marketshare, IE7 at 40%, and Opera/Firefox/Safari/etc at 20%. That’s the real world. For the specification process, ECMAScript has been working on its next version for almost a decade. It’s been clear for a year Microsoft won’t implement it, and so the world won’t support it. End of story. HTML, CSS and JavaScript continue to evolve relatively slowly. Makes the whole VIDEO/RIA/Aurora predictions seem even more unrealistic. [nb: I rewrote this paragraph an hour after initial post.]

ISO fell down and went boom, too. Microsoft pushed through the OOXML proposal. Doesn’t matter that no one can implement it, and perhaps no one might even want to implement it… Microsoft Office is no longer barred from governmental purchase because it’s not a politically-mandated “open standard”. Circus all around on that one.

Put those two items together and it gets really silly… Microsoft saying “ooh ES4 is too hard for us to implement” (despite it being already deployed to over 90% of consumer machines today!), then pushing through “an open standard” that even they can’t implement. Just business, not personal.

Anyway, for in-the-browser delivery, it’s still “Flash Just Works”. I can understand that committed .NET developers might want to believe otherwise, and those heavily invested in cross-browser JavaScript 1.x frameworks might want to believe otherwise, but no amount of bloviation changes the basics. Adobe Flash Player provides universal publishing capability, and truly rapid evolution atop that. The Adobe Integrated Runtime is bringing this beyond-the-browser, to trusted Internet apps. Flash Just Works.

And people do indeed like live video communications. The trend’s our friend.

BBC video move

If you’re ever deciding between On2 VP6 and H.264, then here is info on how the BBC went about it.

I micro-blogged this earlier today on Twitter, but want to call out some main topics in the weblog.

An intro to video delivery choices:

The video you see in BBC iPlayer today is encoded using the On2 VP6 codec, at a bitrate of 500Kbps. The On2 codec (a video compression technology from a company called On2) is pretty much the standard for video delivery over the internet today. It’s optimised for moderately low data rates (300Kbps to 700Kbps, rather than the 2Mbps to 4Mbps needed for HD content), and low CPU usage, allowing it to work reasonably well on older computers. In short, On2 VP6 is the video workhorse of the internet.

… Compared to On2 VP6, H.264 delivers sharper video quality at a lower data rate, but requires more CPU power to decode, particularly on older machines, and the user needs to have the latest version of Flash installed.

Back in December of last year, relatively few people had installed the Flash player needed to play H.264 content; now almost 80% of BBC iPlayer users have it. More machines now have graphics cards with H.264 hardware acceleration. Additionally, Level3, a content distribution network (CDN) is now able to stream H.264 content to ISPs in the UK, and the content encoding workflows that we use (Anystream and Telestream) are now able to support H.264.

… The good news for those looking for video quality improvements in BBC iPlayer is that, starting this week, we’re going to be encoding our content in H.264 format at 800Kbps. Additionally, our media player now supports hardware acceleration in full-screen mode, giving a greatly improved image at lower CPU usage than before.

So they’ve got the clientside runtime technology already installed (Adobe Flash Player), and the production workflow almost migrated (changing to MainConcept encoders), and their content distribution network is about ready to go H.264 too.

Final element? User experience. You can’t yank peoples’ habits, expectations out from under them. That’s why the release will be in stages. First stage is offering parallel VP6 and H264, with VP6 as default, and H264 available via a “Play high quality” button. Once this is realworld-tested, the next stage is to turn on automatic bitrate detection, meaning that H264 will become the default on good connections. The stage after that would be analyzing bandwidth changes and audience desire. They’re getting their feedback a little at a time, not asking the viewing audience to change to too much, too quickly, without recourse.

Also see Erik Huggers, who gives the larger picture about the move.

In comments at Anthony Rose’s technical discussion: “Is this new codec going to be compatable with the Nintendo Wii?” This is a tough question… but it’s a valid question. iPhone and PlayStation owners ask the same thing. Nokia Internet Tablet, iRiver, and many other devices achieve standard capability via Adobe Flash Player. But it did take awhile before office printers standardized on Adobe PostScript… there will always devices which don’t include standard capabilities, especially during the early days.

Innovative file-format types do tend to be commodified over time… bitmap formats work better across devices now, and text is easier than in the early years. Mozilla will be adding the On2 VP3 codec next year, as has Opera. But I imagine it would be expensive for realworld video production workflows to distribute an additional older format of compressed video for a minority audience… desirable, sure, but expensive. See how it goes.

You’ve got to get all four legs of the stool solid: the production workflow, the distribution process, the clientside capability, and then the user experience. The BBC is a good example of how a video production group actually goes about this testing. I’m glad the BBC is so open about how they’re bringing about this work.

Storefront, catalog, or technology platform?

Adobe Media Player had a new release yesterday, with performance, interface, and publishing improvements. Pundits covered the press release. Most of them focused on which shows to watch. Some spoke of “competitors like Apple’s iTunes and Windows Media Player.” Seems to me like they’re only seeing one small part of the picture.

I’m not putting down the pundits… they’re entitled to view anything anyway they see fit, and it’s likely that Adobe hasn’t done the strongest job in insisting on understanding of its goals.

But this isn’t a story like competing cable or satellite providers, and which company secures the rights to a given title in a given region. It’s not one of those earlier zero-sum games about which movie theatre chains can show the fancy MGM films, and which chains shows the quicker RKO titles. It’s more like designing the first cathode-ray tubes, or discovering the business models for the first TV stations. We know we have to achieve something, but still have to figure out its final form.

Off the top of my head, Adobe Media Player 1.0 delivered three significant things: a local Rich Internet Application for viewing video from diverse sources, replacing the page-refresh video experience where your viewing history is stored on some company’s server and then data-mined… a subscription-based, “video comes to you” experience, laying the groundwork for future decentralized social viewing recommendations… and a policy-file system which lets content creators determine where they grant viewing rights, to whom, and when.

There’s a whole lot more technology understructure yet to test and develop. We need better creation, integration, and analysis of video metadata, a coherent pipeline for including information along with the visuals. More work needs to be done on the overall production workflow, from planning to asset tracking to editing to compression to distribution to analytics. We need to analyze and expose video content (speech-to-text, object recognition) and social metadata (recommendations and tagging from friends), so that advertising (the main revenue generator) can be more tuned to the viewing audience’s current needs. We need to make the video experience more customizable to the content producer’s experiential design, and more responsive to the enduser’s desires. AMP 1.x did accomplish a lot, but there’s much more work yet to done.

Within Adobe I don’t hear people talk of competing with particular video sites and distributors… such initiatives are uniformly seen as partners, or as potential partners, who have technology needs which are not yet met, perhaps not yet even recognized.

Everything I see points towards Adobe Media Player as being a technology platform, where new publishing capabilities can be explored and refined. “How will the viewing public want to experience video in 2010, 2015, 2020?” seems more the spirit than “What’s the marketshare for the catalog this month?” That’s the reality I see within Adobe, from the product team to the Dynamic Media organization to the top executive level. We need to bring about the next generation of internet video publishing.

Back when Adobe PostScript first provided a more predictable digital printing capability than the maze of competing printer drivers and application exporters, Adobe Systems did not open a publishing house or try to monopolize book distribution. Adobe achieved its financial goals by opening up the publishing process to universal access, earning money on sales of enabling technology.

To confirm this cultural DNA, see this recent interview with Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe. He was a math professor who found computers personally interesting, found great satisfaction in making the written word more accessible to more people than anyone since Gutenberg, and now stresses the importance of the new integrated runtime for networked application development. It’s a longterm view, not about controlling content, but about profiting by helping others sustainably create and use content. This cultural orientation was one of the most striking things I learned about Adobe, coming in from the cowboy/interactivity/shrinkwrap culture at Macromedia.

Other companies have different business models, whether it’s to sell a range of consumer electronic devices, or to develop an advertising network, or to increase the range of proprietary personalization databases. But Adobe makes its money selling neutral publishing technology. The more people who find video useful, the better. These core orientations determine the different paths each group will take.

The AMP marketing materials do emphasize significant partners, but there seem to be two main reasons for that: (a) we need a goodsized audience to provide reliable feedback on how people will really want things to work; and (b) creators are actively seeking ways to maintain a connection with their big-budget work, beyond just letting an .MPG run wild throughout the Web in hope that money will somehow flow in. Sony, CBS, Showtime, MTV and all the rest are validating that they find potential within AMP, and those big titles help draw useful audiences during development.

(There’s an interesting angle on big-budget video… YouTube became famous during the Web 2.0 age for “User Generated Content” (UGC). That’s great, I love it, it’s valuable, we need it. But audiences tend to obsess on professional, big-budget entertainment… that’s they stuff they hunt for. And to afford those professional budgets, creators need a real return-on-investment. Finding ways to support video-creation businesses is the real way to support video-viewing audiences.)

Anyway, when I see the daily commentary focus on Ghostbusters or The Love Boat, I can understand how someone fresh to it may just see what’s personally relevant for them. But I see bigger goals within Adobe, focused far more on new technology than commercial properties.

The Adobe video pipeline is undergoing startling rapid evolution. I’m betting the Techmeme stories from Summer 2009 will likely be quite a bit different…. ;-)