On Ramp: Streaming Video: The Whole World Is Watching

Spring Vacation’s over and you have simply amazing video of all the holiday events. The kids did a great job. The Easter egg hunt was a big success. Your images were outstanding–the best you’ve ever shot, and the editing bumped the entire program up to a higher level. Now you want to share your masterpiece with family and friends scattered all over the country. But the idea of spending hours dubbing duplicates, addressing all those mailers, not to mention all that postage–well, it just doesn’t seem very appealing at all. Maybe it just needs to get shown at the next family gathering.

But wait–there is another way to share your work: streaming video.

Hook up your camcorder to your computer digitizer and with a few clicks of the mouse button, your video is transformed into a streaming video wonder. You post it on your Web site and presto, family and friends all over the country, all over the world for that matter, can see your video playing off their computer screens. No more postage, no more dubbing. Your video is streaming on the World Wide Web.


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So what is all this about streaming video? What’s the buzz? Welcome to On Ramp, the place you’ll find the answer to these and other questions about how to play your videos on the Internet.

What Is Streaming Video?

Streaming video on the Web is rapidly evolving from Internet novelty to must-have killer app. It’s a way of distributing video to just about anyone on the planet with a modem and an Internet connection. With streaming video, the Web is not just about text and static pictures anymore. Now your video, with moving images and great sound, can communicate with people all over the world. Now you can think of your Web site as your own personal TV broadcasting station.

Video distribution is not new to the Internet. In the beginning, there was downloading. The Web producer (that’s you) would post a QuickTime, video for Windows or MPEG file to a Web site and Web surfers (your viewers) would download them onto the hard drive storage of their computer; playback would begin once the entire file was finished downloading. Sounds great, huh? Well it was, as far as it went. Being video, these files were really big–two, three, five or more megabytes in size. As a result, it took data a long time to travel from a Web site, across the Internet, through your modem and onto your hard drive. Once you spent all that time downloading, did you get something you were interested in looking at? Maybe so, maybe not.

Why Is Streaming Video Better?

With streaming video, once the viewer clicks on a choice, the video starts to download in the usual way, but with a difference. As soon as enough video data has been accumulated on the viewer’s computer, the software player for the streaming video starts to show the program. Goodbye wasted download time and hello user content control. Now, you can watch the first part of the streaming video while the next part of it is still in the process of downloading. No more time lost because you’re not interested; one click of a mouse button and the video is history, just like turning off a TV. As a matter of fact, most streaming video players have Play, Pause, Forward, Rewind and Frame-advance buttons just like a VCR.

Streaming video technology is getting better all of the time. While 18 months ago it was more useful to talk about streaming video display in terms of seconds per frame rather than the usual frames per second, that is no longer true. Development is rocketing along in fast-forward. Contemporary streaming video has the potential to become the most effective and economic way to distribute video, period.

Where Can I See It?

There’s streaming video all over the Web, and more is going up all the time. This column will point you towards some examples of many different varieties of streaming video. For example, Industrial Light and Magic’s Star Wars Web site (www.starwars.com) provides one of the most effective examples of using streaming video to communicate with a vast audience. Filmmaker Lynne Hale has been producing a multi-part documentary on the making of the upcoming Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace. She has been posting five-minute episodes once a month to the Star Wars Web site. Check it out. You will need the RealNetworks G2 streaming video plug-in for your Web browser. You can download this free from www.real.com.

While you’re looking at RealMedia sites, be sure to check out Live Concerts, a site that’s dedicated to streaming video and audio of (you guessed it) live musical performances. Hosting both live streaming events and archived concerts from the past, Live Concerts is sure to have something for everyone’s musical taste, be it pop, jazz, grunge, punk, reggae or country music.

Just to prove that not every streaming video site is a big-budget monster, check out Escape School, a site devoted to teaching kids how to escape from assailants who are much larger than they are. Through a handful of short instructional clips, Escape School uses streaming video to make its point much more forcefully than text and pictures alone could.

You’ve Got Questions?

Is it expensive to produce streaming video? No. As a matter of fact, you just might own most of the hardware and software necessary already. Basically, all you need is a video digitizer, video editing software and a program that formats your digital video for streaming. To post your video on a Web site, however, you need to make sure that your Internet service provider allows streaming media on its servers. Even some of these come free of charge.

Is streaming video complicated? No. Streaming video is actually rather easy to produce. First, grab your trusty camcorder and start rolling tape. Then digitize your footage and edit if necessary. Next, open up your streaming video conversion application, adjust the settings to your liking, and have the software convert your digitized video into a streaming file format. Then post the video to your Web site, and presto! You’ve got streaming video.

What are the limitations of streaming video? Well, nothing’s perfect. If there is congestion on the Internet when you try to access the streaming video file (as there often is), there will be playback interruptions due to delayed or lost data. A very choppy start-stop viewing experience can result. Then there is the picture quality issue. If you are expecting an HDTV viewing experience–or even just an ordinary television-style viewing experience–then streaming video doesn’t cut it (yet). Today’s streaming technology usually provides a low-resolution image that’s approximately the size of a 3-by-4-inch file card at best. Keep in mind, though, that streaming video quality is improving very rapidly.

The Stream Ahead

In the coming months, On Ramp will delve ever deeper into the topic of streaming video and what it can do for you. This column will be your eyes and ears on this rapidly developing world. When you want to know how to do it, why to do it, who is doing it, and what to do it with, this is the place to turn. Stay tuned.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.