May 30, 2008 (08:05 PM EDT)
Web Video: Make It YourTube
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
There's a clever production trick in City Of God, Fernando Meirelles' hauntingly vivid masterpiece that dares to document the crispy Rio de Janeiro slums using both actors and actual dwellers. The camera sweeps around its soccer-playing protagonist as a boy and finishes with him playing soccer as a teenager come of age ... without your having realized the change until the end. The shot uses a circular, miniature trainlike "track" so the camera moves at a precisely even angle and in a precisely clean circle.
For fun, we recreated this effect in a half hour with a single camera, no track, and no Rio ghetto. Instead, we skipped over to the Orlando Convention Center armed with a copy of the Avid edit suite on a beat-up, 3-year-old HP laptop. We haven't taken it to Sundance or Tribeca or Cannes, but you can find it on our Web site.
And the "we" is relative. I'm a 16-year veteran of the IT media industry, writing and editing and killing trees for years, helping build our company's "magazine" Web sites, and launching face-to-face events.
When I took over the Web video business for our company almost two years ago, all I had was enthusiasm and curiosity. The business did have a couple of longtime video producers with almost 35 years of combined experience. We owned some know-how and very little of our own equipment, and we relied on a video publishing system that comes with Microsoft Windows Server.
In two years, I've introduced a new video publishing platform, bought and operated professional-grade cameras, learned to edit video in Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro, hauled lights and audio equipment on airplanes, directed documentaries, and appeared on camera hundreds of times. I am by no means an expert at any of these things and in fact work with a staff that runs circles around me in each discipline. But now I know, and now I can.
And I know something most of you don't know: You can, too. Sure, it takes money (the proprietary P2 memory cards for our cameras alone run $1,500), but not as much as it used to. It takes know-how, but some of that can be learned and observed, and what can't be is easy to find from the many production studios around the world. Most of all, it takes will and the belief that video is the most effective form of communication on the Internet today. Believe it.
BEYOND THE SKUNKWORKS
We film these productions and send the tapes to professional editors sitting in studios with high-end editing suites. They'll spend an hour getting just right something that you didn't even think was wrong in the first place, and they'll hit keyboard shortcuts that involve finger movements that are illegal in some Southern states.
We'll publish this video using a third-party hosted publishing system for which we have a six-figure contract. The system involves streaming video, serving ads, tracking stats, and working with content delivery networks, or CDNs, to ensure a quality stream. And I haven't even talked about lengthy rendering and encoding times, and understanding bit rates and aspect ratios and color corrections and audio synchronization, or managing multicamera shoots. The gap between that and the shaky, grainy home-porn look you see so often on YouTube is night and day. But make no mistake: Even some of the most hideous claptrap on YouTube, the stuff that makes even me look like a long-lost Coen brother, can often get thousands more page views than even the best stuff I produce. Like anything else, you start with the content.
The "right" approach to video is somewhere in between for most of us, and the Internet, the great equalizer, has made it possible and affordable for anyone. Companies like Sony and Panasonic have made huge strides in crafting three-chip, high-quality cameras for less than $10,000. The Panasonic HVX200 was a game changer. Accoutrements like the (unfortunately) proprietary 16-GB and 32-GB P2 cards and the FireStore (100 GB) hard drives mean that you can simply move files from magnetic storage directly into a cost-effective editing system and publish straightforward video within an hour of recording.
HONEY, YOU SHRUNK MY BANDWIDTH
Let's be clear: Video files are huge; serving them is not trivial. Because content ownership is so important, many companies keep their assets tight, and stream the content rather than let people download the video. But streaming video assumes you have the storage, the processing power, and the bandwidth to do it. And it assumes viewers also have a certain amount of bandwidth to view it and that their companies' Internet usage policy will allow it.
Some of the videos we post are in excess of 100 MB each (and that's compressed).We've published about 250 videos so far this year and served 8 TB in April. Our YouTube channel has about 800,000 views this year, growing at 15,000 per day.
There are several approaches to serving video. You can control and serve your own (this is an impractical option for most companies, especially when the alternatives are so accessible), or serve it from a co-location/host provider (we do this successfully with our Light Reading TV offering). You can work directly with a content distribution network, most of which will transcode and then host your videos and cache them at points of presence around the world. Or you can work with a third-party hosting system, which not only serves as a content publishing engine, but also works with the CDNs on your behalf. We'll come back to that. If you're going to serve thousands of streams a month, working with a CDN is your only real option.
Bandwidth availability is a topic of much debate. A recent New York Times article warned "Video Road Hogs Stir Fear Of Internet Traffic Jam," citing analysts and growth stats that see video usage rapidly increasing and eventually straining capacity. An AT&T exec recently said the Internet's capacity will be overwhelmed by 2010 if more investment isn't made. He claimed that more than eight hours of video is loaded onto the Internet every minute and warned about the trend toward more high-definition video uploads and viewing. In talking about his company's testing of 100-Gbps networks,Verizon's director of network backbone design, Glenn Wellbrock, said that video was one of the major contributors to the need to be testing 100 Gig now.
I talked with several CDN industry execs who, admittedly, have something to gain by claiming the Internet isn't about to collapse, but one thing rang true in all of those conversations: The problem isn't on the edge, where companies like Verizon and AT&T are pulling fiber closer to the home. Nor is there a lack of dark fiber. Instead, they say, the problem will most likely happen in the middle, connecting metro areas together, for example.
This reality has given rise to some interesting players that skip the middle part. (View an overview of 16 CDNs at Contentinople) Akamai, one of the original CDNs, is one; nearly every time you talk about alleviating Internet bandwidth bottlenecks, its name arises. Tim Napoleon, Akamai's digital media chief strategist, claims a large customer base and a high-profile event in March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament, where CBS Interactive worked with Akamai to offer live streaming of every game. I watched several (Product Placement Coming) while drinking a few Bud Lights, and there was a 30- to 60-second lag time and the motion was often jerky, but it was an impressive accomplishment. This kind of streaming is done every day on MLB.com.
What Akamai has managed to do by being early and outlasting others is to put servers in thousands of POPs around the world, where it caches oft-accessed video content closer to the viewer. Some of Akamai's many competitors claim this approach will hurt it in the long run. Maintaining expensive infrastructure in so many POPs will hardly scale, the argument goes. But Akamai continues to provide a compelling array of services, including its recently announced partnerships with transcoding companies like Telestream, Origin Digital, and Multicast Media Technologies, which will give video publishers a one-stop shop for video delivery.
EdgeCast president James Segil says that CDNs being built from scratch take a different approach. Although it might be because rivals don't have the money to match Akamai's years-long POP build-out, Segil and others maintain that today's CDNs must be optimized for video, implying that Akamai's isn't. "We need to put lots of computing power at the edge," he told me (Product Placement Coming) on my LG cell phone. That also means adding storage for images and podcasts and videos (encoded at high bit rates) and other downloadable content.
Akamai's model of shared peering (where companies collude to exchange access to one another's POPs and networks without charge) stems from an era when bandwidth was costly, Segil says. Now you can just buy the bandwidth cheaply. He called Akamai United Airlines, all things for all people, positioning EdgeCast as JetBlue: "very focused; what people want at half the price." His customers include Lionsgate and IMAX.
(click to view video interview with BitGravity CEO Perry Wu)
That's not to say that Akamai can't support any of this ... that's what many of its competitors would have you believe, without calling out the 800-pound gorilla directly. BitGravity received a lot of attention when it released a high-definition service a year ago, and then it recently launched live service. Before, only high-flying sports television networks could afford to stream live high-quality video, but now, Wu says, for $1,000 in up-front costs and a low monthly cost, you can broadcast for yourself.
Mosaic applications are next.These include the ability to offer multiple (and user-controlled) camera views of a sporting event or concert. Wu also sees a big change in the game industry, where developers can build high-quality games with a pay-per-play model.
(Product Placement Coming) While talking on my Cisco VoIP handset, I pressed Wu on the notion that Bit-Gravity is taking an origin approach--essentially the process of putting the entire video library on every server within the system, rather than the caching approach most CDNs take. Although Wu wouldn't use or acknowledge the word "origin," he did say that caching is simply popular, involves too much overhead, and is too slow, and that there's too much content today for that approach. His claim: You can't just buy standard components. BitGravity has written its own OS, for instance. (Product Placement Coming) Wu is definitely now in my T-Mobile myFaves.
Ryan Lawler, senior editor at our sister site Contentinople,puts it this way: "First, there was a highly distributed model from Akamai, which sought to avoid the Internet infrastructure by placing its POPs and servers in edge ISP locations to be closer to the end user. Let's call this CDN 1.0. Then there was the Limelight model, which put content in highly dense, consolidated locations and leveraged the IP backbone to speed up the process. That would be CDN 2.0. Now, CDNs like BitGravity, EdgeCast, and Panther Express are working to customize the storage and data infrastructure itself to provide better performance in reading and delivering the content. This is done by creating, say, a new OS that streamlines the process or reads from RAM rather than disk ... thus, CDN 3.0."
VIDEO PUBLISHING 101
It is possible to publish your own videos. Plenty of tools exist, both simple and complex, both out-of-thebox and deeply customizable. Both Microsoft and Adobe have video publishing platforms. Adobe's Flash Media Server is extremely popular, and the company touts the ability to stream video right out of the box. This doesn't include building more customized components, such as interactive features. If all you want to do is put a few corporate videos up, or run something internally, this will suffice. Adobe will let you upgrade to an Origin/Edge version of FMS, which allows for more scalability. But remember, your hardware and infrastructure must be up to supporting the load.
Microsoft offers similar technology and has been on a Silverlight crusade lately, forming partnerships with everyone, including last fall's interesting tryst with Novell to bring Silverlight applications onto Linux (henceforth referred to as Moonlight) and to offer a Linux SDK for building Silverlight apps. Because Silverlight comes from Microsoft, it's both cursed and blessed. It has been met with huge skepticism because of Microsoft's tendency to want to own any new technology much too late in the game; but many developers have lauded it as a rich application platform because it relies on the powerful Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML), an XML format that can be called (or dynamically created) from a variety of development platforms, like Ruby on Rails, ASP.Net, and Java. (More on building Silverlight apps.)
The problem, as always, is that you have to download a browser plug-in, but there are versions for Firefox and Safari, as well as Internet Explorer, and it runs on the Macintosh OS (with Linux support on its way). Another challenge is that there's little early Silverlight development experience out there, or at least that's what we found building a specialized Silverlight site in December. Certainly that's changing today, and a quick search on Google, (Product Placement Coming) while heating up a can of Chunky Soup, revealed a healthy list of resources.The next problem, of course, is that the Silverlight plug-in installed base won't make you rush out and build on this platform unless you can foresee needing some of its feature benefits and have the patience for the Microsoft Marketing Engine to kick into high gear, which it presently is.
If you're doing a hefty amount of video and development in Flash or Windows Media Server (or Silverlight) there are still many moving pieces, such as transcoding, workflow, ad serving, file upload, and video and ad analytics.
Companies like CBS Interactive, ABC.com, and Fox partner with a multitude of hosted services or deploy sophisticated technology to do everything from encoding massive amounts of video to delivering it to the CDN.
Move Networks has become not only the latest industry darling, but the "it" company for high-profile video providers like (Shameless Name Dropping) ABC and Fox, providing a high-quality media player and delivery system with a muscular architecture behind it.This company started in 2006 behind Steamboat Ventures, a Disney investment arm, with the help of Drew Major (one of the founders and chief architects in the early Novell days). Move has raised well over $50 million in funding since inception. It was behind the initial launch of ABC.com and ESPN 360, and is now working with Fox.com. It has focused on quality (even for high-definition and long-form programming) and scale (it delivered 300,000 concurrent streams of an Oprah Winfrey special in March) and a variety of elements intended to help monetize video streams, Move CEO John Edwards says (while denying he's THAT John Edwards).
The big difference with Move Networks is in the preparation of the video. It breaks the video into a series of small files that are tagged for viewing and prepared for every environment imaginable, including mobile delivery. Move's documentation claims this is a more scalable way to deliver video than a centralized server that has to provide an unbreakable stream session with a client.
A small footprint, Move Networks' client examines CPU load and bandwidth and provides rate shifting or adaptive streaming depending on the state of the connection or the device the video runs on. Move uses its own version of these features (called Move Adaptive Streaming), which are typically provided in protocols like RTP/RTSP. The work Move does is intended to free the content provider from worrying about anything but providing the highest quality user/viewer experience.
Companies that do video for a living--and by that, I mean it's a primary business into which they've invested massive dollars--will have the wherewithal to work directly with the CDN or employ sophisticated services from companies like Move. Most custom-build their own video players and publishing processes using Flash and various workflow tools. To do this for a company that simply publishes video as one piece of the rest of what it does is onerous. If you want special features, like letting users upload their own video, if you want to tie video content into your site taxonomy, if you want to serve ads as pre-roll, if you want to add the ability to rate content or comment, if you want to create thumbnails and design different players for various parts of your site ... the amount of development isn't trivial.
We've evaluated what amounts to specialized video content publishing systems from companies like Maven (now owned by Yahoo), The FeedRoom (our current provider), and Brightcove.There are many others, like ThePlatform. Our experiences so far have been enlightening. Because we do more publishing than just video, it made sense to outsource the publishing and reporting system; and yet we need the publishing system to work with our content management system and Web analytics platform. (If you'd like a copy of our RFP, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
CONTENT: THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION
Some day soon, all television will be delivered on the Internet. You will watch it wherever makes the most sense: your Internet-enabled TV, your computer, your clientless PC connected to the cloud, your mobile handset, your tablet. Hell, I don't know, maybe your virtual wireless goggles or your retinal implants.
You'll search using video programming search engines, or select from a Google Gadget or RSS-controlled personalized page that, like TiVo, makes recommendations for you. Or Facebook will tell you what those people you pretend are your friends are watching. Or heck, I don't know, you'll subscribe to a Twit-TV feed from your favorite recommenders. Maybe you'll have a special video browser.
Shows may have launch times (live), but everything will be on demand. Not just the shows you watch today, like Lost or Survivor or whatever the next faux reality show is (Extreme Desperate Idol Survivors: Miami), although those will be there, too; but original programming, much of it aimed at someone just like you. Pondering your lonely, miserable existence? There will be a channel just for you, my emo friend. Banjo player? Pick up your straw hat, grab your wife/second cousin and tune in. Want to watch a comedy troupe do improv in an Atlanta nightclub? (Insert Rim Shot.)
These shows won't be a half hour or an hour. They'll simply be as long as they need to be. Ads will be few (for some shows, you may have to be a registered subscriber just to watch, thus making you a target for special offers and ads), but they will be meaningful and thus memorable and useful and clickable and maybe even interactive if you're into that sort of kinky stuff.
You will know if others of your ilk (God forbid) are watching at the same time, or maybe even be alerted to go watch what friends are watching, and you'll be able to interact during a program, right there on your television. You'll be able to pause a show, bring up a VoIP session, talk to a friend who's birthday you just realized you forgot, while IMing someone else on screen to remind him to call as well, all while someone else is telling you to get back to the show because you're someone's game show lifeline.
Sound far-fetched? (LOL) Most of this is happening somewhere right now! Today's televisions are coming equipped with Ethernet capabilities (Panasonic demonstrated one at the Consumer Electronics Show in January). Technologies like Apple TV and Slingbox blur the lines between what's on the Web and what's on TV.There have been rumors about a Google-oriented TV where you can view pictures, watch YouTube, and conduct other Internet tasks.
As the lines between TV and Internet blur, the smart money is on video driving a better relationship between you and your customer. The sooner you have your tripod balanced or your shoulder-mount strapped on, the happier your customers will be.
Photo illustrations by Sek Leung