A scant year ago, the word Internet was neatly tucked away behind the walls of major government, education and research institutions. Today, one can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about the Net. In fact, as I write this article, I’m winging my way to Amsterdam to shoot the Music Dance Experience, a 23,000-person Rave that will run exclusively on the Internet.
In this article, I’ll give a brief description of the Net, a topic that has filled many books–just stop by your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. Then I’ll describe how you can deliver short 1-5 minute video segments to people on the Net. Following this will be a description of how you can broadcast longer video segments or live video through the MBONE, or Multi-Cast Backbone.
So if all this talk about the Net has you wondering what this means to you as a videomaker, read on; we’ll bring you up to speed on the latest growing trends in the world of Internet video.
The best way to think about the Internet is to picture it as a network of networks. Let’s start with the most basic element of the Net: a single computer. In many situations, this lone computer connects to other computers through a local network, such as those found at the workplace or in schools. Generally, these types of networks exist within the building or buildings that house the computers. The Internet extends this idea by connecting these smaller networks into a larger network of networks.
The Internet started small. Originally, its goal was to allow the major research institutions of the government to talk to each other. At the time, there was great concern about the possible failure of a network that carried crucial data about national defense. The designers of the Internet met this concern by giving it a web-like structure. Pieces of information that travel this web, called “packets,” may travel many different paths to reach the same destination, just as a car going from Los Angeles to San Francisco can take Highway 101 if Interstate 5 isn’t available.
Shortly after this “network of networks” came into being, other educational institutions joined the growing organism, which was soon dubbed the Net. Business was soon to follow, starting with major defense contractors and continuing today with a multitude of consumer companies. Today, the Net spans the globe and provides a communication medium for about 30 million people, a number that is growing at a rate of 150,000 per month.
Even a small portion of those thirty million people provide quite a large potential audience for your videos. The site my company maintains on the Net has many videos available, from cartoon animations to movie trailers and commercials. In fact, videos are one of the most popular download items on the Net.
We also have an area for unsigned bands. Why is this important? Because videomakers without major studio affiliations are a lot like those unsigned bands. The Net provides the distribution of your videos to a potential audience of millions. Read on to find out how you can tap into this market.
Video on the Internet
There are a number of ways you can deliver your video on the Internet. Here, we’ll discuss two of them: digitizing your video for downloading, and playing your work over the MBONE.
Digitizing your video and making it available for downloading is a lot like distributing video on tape. Users access a site and “download” the video, copying it from a site on the Net to their own hard drive, much as they would call you to get a copy of your tape. This approach works well for short works of 1-5 minutes, or “teasers.” Longer works present a problem because digitized video takes up a large amount of space, and therefore takes longer to transmit over the phone from one computer to another.
In order to use this method, you’ll first have to digitize and compress your video. The first step, digitizing, involves the translation of the analog tape signal into the ones and zeroes that your computer understands. This usually requires some extra hardware not normally found on most home computers–a digitizer card.
These devices are available at every level of quality, performance and price. For distributing your video over the Net, you don’t need one of the super-expensive, 60 field-per-second capture cards. These generate files much too large to download practically. (For a full selection of audio digitizers, see our DTV Buyer’s Guide in the March ’95 issue.)
Once your video is on the hard drive, something immediately becomes apparent: it takes up a lot of space. For this reason, you need to use a CODEC (compression/decompression scheme) to squeeze it into a smaller file. Currently there are many ways of doing this, but at present, two CODECs lead the pack: Quicktime from Apple and MPEG from the Motion Pictures Expert Group.
Quicktime is a standard for encoding video and audio files for computer playback. Quicktime players (which are like software VCRs for computers) are available for Macintosh, Windows and UNIX machines.
While popular on Macintosh machines, Quicktime does have some drawbacks. The compressed files tend to be larger than MPEG files, and the quality is nowhere near as good as MPEG, especially when you want to do full-screen video. If you’re targeting Mac users, Quicktime may be the way to go since the player comes as a standard part of the Mac operating system. On the downside, Mac users account for less than 5% of the computers on the Internet.
MPEG is a high-quality standard for compressing and decompressing video and audio streams. MPEG-1 has become the standard for encoding video and audio on CD-ROMS and this has helped spur its takeoff in the PC market. There are currently hardware-based MPEG players available for Windows, UNIX and Mac that allow full-screen, 60-field-per-second playback for around $300 and dropping. However, this cost only covers the ability to play MPEG-encoded videos; if you want to make your own MPEG-encoded files, you’ll pay more.
MPEG does a better job of compressing audio and video streams than Quicktime. This means you can cram those huge video files into an even smaller space, which reduces the necessary download times. The disadvantage of MPEG is that no players are available bundled with the operating system for your computer. There has been some talk of including one with Windows ’95. Until that time, a software player is available from Xing technology that offers a $14.95 solution to the problem.
For those who have the resources, I recommend using both Quicktime and MPEG files. If you have to choose one, invest in MPEG. This will allow the largest possible audience to view your videos.
The Internet also offers a method of distribution that is similar to a TV broadcast: the Multicast Backbone, or MBONE. This is a network layered on top of the Internet designed to provide distribution for audio and video. Using the MBONE, everyone “tuned in” will receive your show on their computer.
Here’s how it works: a UNIX program called “mrouted” allows the MBONE to create tunnels between machines, each of which requires a high-speed connection to the Internet. When a program plays over the MBONE, each of these machines receives it simultaneously, similar to a TV network broadcast.
There are currently several open issues with the MBONE. While it works well for live or lengthy topics, it limits your audience to those with high-end UNIX workstations. Also, the network at present can only stand one broadcast or so at a time, which makes it a limited medium at best. As it stands, it is a grand experiment supported by the good will of many people.
The good news is the capacity of the MBONE is being increased as I write this article. Recently, some broadcasts of mainstream media have found their way to the MBONE, including the Rolling Stones and the Mega Music Dance Experience. More common events include broadcasts of the Internet Engineering Task Force meetings. In my opinion, your best bet is to find someone with experience in MBONE multicasts. See if they think your video would be of interest to the Internet. Live broadcasts are always good. Failing that, you could make a pitch for content not found elsewhere, or content of special interest to Internet users.
If you have access to the Internet and you’re interested in learning more about the MBONE, I suggest you join the MBONE mailing list by sending mail to mbone- firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Before you ask any questions, read the FAQ (frequently asked questions file) obtainable from ftp.isi.edu in the directory /pub/MBONE. Then download the mail archives and search through previous months of the list.
If you’re not familiar with UNIX and Internet hardware terminology, these files could be a challenge to decipher. Even so, a reference manual or two and some good old-fashioned perseverance will pay off. As with any new technology, the learning curve can be a little steep, so be prepared.
If you can’t wait to put your videos on the Net but lack the money or expertise, there are companies out there (like On Ramp Inc.) that will do it for you. Your virtual audience awaits!
Karl Jacob is the Chief Technology Officer and a partner in On Ramp Inc. On Ramp’s World Wide Web site can be found at http://metaverse.com. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.