Streaming Slideshows for the Net

Despite all of the attention that streaming video is garnering these days the quality of a streaming video file still leaves a lot to be desired. Until the challenges of broadband delivery are overcome, choppy, out of sync video is what many people now experience. But don’t despair, there’s another streaming solution available that’s good, easy to produce and fun to watch. A streaming slideshow delivers high-quality images and audio and gets around the bandwidth-hungry appetite of streaming video.

Internet bandwidth is one of the trickier problems facing streaming media producers these days. Deploying this stuff is like trying to shove an elephant through a soda straw. Though wide-band cable and DSL access are growing, most folks still access the Net through narrow-band telephone service. This is where streaming slideshows come in. Sending a sequence of still images over the Web with accompanying audio uses much less bandwidth than full motion video.

It’s estimated that by 2002 over 300 million users worldwide will be connected to the Internet. That makes the Internet the most accessible place on Earth for you to reach a broad audience, 24 hours a day. Not interested in such a broad audience? Want to send your latest vacation photos to a few relatives and friends scattered around the country? Streaming slideshows are for you too. And in this article we’ll show you why and how.



Gear Here

If you already produce digital video, you probably have a lot of the gear you will need. First the basics. This is a no-brainer, but you need a computer. If your PC or Mac was purchased in the past few years, chances are it will do. Next, you need some way to create still images, such as a camcorder, a digital still camera or a film camera and scanner. And don’t forget the audio. Cassettes, CDs or mp3 files and a mike for narration are all you need.

Now let’s get a bit more specific. First, whether it’s an external, less-than-full-motion device or a top-of-the-line internal capture card, you’ll need a digitizing or capture device. And to transfer your still images to your computer, there’s a wide range of devices, from the venerable Snappy (www.play.com) to any number of other digitizer cards or external USB and parallel port capture devices that you can use (see Videomaker May 2000). Many of the newer graphic cards even have digitizer capabilities built in. If you have a Mini DV camcorder, you can use the same FireWire (IEEE 1394) card that you use for video. Virtually all sound cards can digitize the audio for your soundtrack requirements.

Editing software is another must. If you already have an editing application, this will work well for editing your streaming slideshow. There are a variety of specialized programs that are specifically developed for streaming slideshow production. These include Real Slideshow (www.realnetworks.com), Scala (www.scala.com) and, with some tinkering, even PowerPoint.

Most of this type of software has audio mixing capabilities built in. Make sure your software has a means of compressing and preparing your slideshow for Web posting. High quality stand-alone programs such as Sorenson Broadcaster or Media Cleaner Pro do a superior job of compression and artifact removal. However, they can be expensive. On the other hand, if you’ve already edited a project in standard video editing software and want to put up a streaming slideshow sample, you’re already half way there.

Finally you need a modem, access to the Internet through an ISP (Internet Service Provider) and a Web page to link to your project. Often the application will provide you with access to free Web sites that are specifically designed to handle streaming slideshow formats. Both Scala and RealSlideshow provide these capabilities. Once your checklist is complete, it’s time to start producing.



Plan Your Production

All good productions start with a plan. What are you trying to communicate and how are you going to do it? Streaming media require you to consider some additional factors. You are producing for a very small screen. Nobody is going to mistake any streaming slideshow project for an HDTV production. Keep in mind that a typical streaming project will have screen dimensions of 320×240 or 160×120 pixels. Full screen video is 640×480 or above, so we’re talking half or quarter the screen size. You are composing images for display on the equivalent of a shipping label. Don’t plan on showing expansive vistas of the Grand Canyon. Think closeups. Besides practicality, closeups are one of the most powerful types of shots. And finally for image quality, use the best format available to you. Mini DV is ideal while S-VHS or Hi8 will be superior to standard VHS and standard 8mm.

Shoot to edit. Think sequences. Identify still sequences that provide a beginning, a middle and an end of a particular event. Shooting video for stills is an effective method of producing images for a streaming slideshow. Think of your camcorder as the ultimate still camera motor drive. After all, video is made up of 30 separate still frames recorded per second. Once you’ve got your shot, you can go back and choose the exact frame that you want. You can also use a digital still camera to produce your streaming slideshow. And finally, if you have a scanner, you can always take your 35mm prints and scan them into your computer.

But video is only half of your production. Excellent audio is a must for slideshows. Fortunately, high-quality streaming audio has been available on the Internet for quite a while now. A well-produced track communicates effectively and often makes up for faltering images. To get excellent audio, begin with proper mike placement, attention to levels and quality recording. Check out the Sound Track column in Videomaker for excellent articles on audio production techniques.

Small details in a shot will not show up in a streaming slideshow. If you shoot a page of text or a medium shot of a bumper sticker, say, don’t expect the viewer to be able to read it. Compression will smooth small details into oblivion while making a small-sized file. If you keep your project short and concise, you will end up with an effective project.



Getting it in

The form that your video starts out as will determine the route you should follow. Here are three possible options:

  •  You have an edited video in the form of an .avi or .mov file.

  •  You have raw video footage on tape.

  •  You have stills (digital stills or photos) or other digital images (tiff, gif, etc).

    Regardless of what form your images start out as, you’ll need still images to create your slideshow. If you are starting with video, either in the form of an edited .avi, .mov or as raw footage, you’ll need to extract the stills you’d like to use.



    Option 1

    You have an edited video in the form of an .avi file.

    Some applications will take a rendered video clip and export stills based on settings you enter. Other applications force you to make your stills elsewhere and import them. The usual method is to choose your stills in your editing software and export them as still .jpg or .bmp files.

    Once you have your stills saved as .jpg or .bmp files, you are ready to assemble your slideshow.



    Option 2

    You have video footage on tape.

    If your footage is on tape, the first thing you’ll need to do is digitize or capture your footage. Digitizing converts analog video and audio into digital form for further computer processing, while capturing transfers your Mini DV or Digital8 footage to your computer’s hard drive. This is where it can get tricky. Be sure to check your card’s software settings to optimize your images. If you set your digitizer card to a setting that it’s not optimized for it may not work properly.

    Once you have your stills saved as .jpg or .bmp files, you are ready to assemble your slideshow.



    Option 3

    You have digital stills or photos.

    Save the stills to a folder on your hard drive. If you have digital stills, follow the directions in your camera’s manual and import them to a folder. Some digital still cameras save their files as a proprietary format, so remember to save your digital stills as .jpg or .bmp files. If you have photographs you’ll need to use a scanner or you can shoot the photographs with a video camera and then digitize or capture the footage. If you’re scanning the photos, remember that image resolution for the Web only need be 72 dpi. You may also need to scale or crop your scanned or digital images to a common size.

    You can save yourself some time by giving your image files names that will help you sequence them in the right order. You might name them in sequential order with numbers or use names with descriptions. Once you have your stills, follow your software’s directions for importing them and any audio file you have prepared.

    Once you have your stills saved as .jpg or .bmp files, you are ready to assemble your slideshow.



    Assembling a Slideshow

    When you put together your slideshow, your software will usually prompt you for certain settings like the duration of each slide, titles, copyright info, etc. Tip: if your target audience will use phone modems to see your project, keep the average slide duration to two seconds or longer. This often allows enough time for the viewer to get a fully-resolved still image before it’s time to change to the next one.

    Some applications like RealSlideshow, allow you to specify a .wav, mp3 or other sound format for your audio. This can be a re-edit of your audio track to match the images or it can be music or whatever other audio you like.

    At this point some applications will prompt you for the final size of your slide show. Resolutions 320×240 and smaller work best for an audience made up of 28k modem users.

    One of the final parameters to set is the target audience connection speed. This will determine the final image and audio quality.



    In the End

    Given the explosive growth of the Internet and the current bandwidth limitations, there is no better way to share your images with the rest of the planet than streaming slideshows. Most of the gear required is relatively inexpensive when compared with the potential audience that you can reach. The only limitation is your own creativity, so stream on.

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