Broaden Your Video Horizons

In the early days of the Internet boom, anything seemed possible. The Web promised a new frontier for digital media, where anyone could become a celebrity without ever leaving the comforts of home. It seemed like it was the greatest casting call in human history. That was the dream, anyhow. But what is the reality?

The Need for Speed

While Web video offered many new opportunities, the fact of the matter was that the Internet wasn’t quite ready to live up to the promise. Understanding this problem requires a look back at the way things were, compared to where they are today.

In the early-90s, when the Internet began its invasion of everyday life, nearly everyone connected to the ‘Net via dial-up modem connections. Most modem speeds back then weren’t what they are today. Nowadays, many dial-up users connect to the Internet using a 56kbps modem, the fastest connection speed for a standard dial-up modem. Unfortunately, many phone companies use their wires in such a way that 26kbps is the fastest anyone can connect, however. Back in the old days, many modems were only able to connect at half of that rate.

The sluggish transfers of dial-up resulted in a video experience that brought new meaning to the term "stop-action" or played highly-compressed, highly-distorted video smoothly at resolutions the size of a postage stamp. Beating the problems of delivering Web video required the use of greater bandwidth. Greater bandwidth allows more data to be sent at a time.

When data-transfer speeds vary greatly, data bottlenecks occur. For example, a typical dial-up modem connection, nowadays, only connects at around five to twelve kilobits per second. Yet, modern network cabling can handle transfers of data up into the gigabit (millions of bits per second) range. So the first part of the solution was to increase the rates at which systems send and receive data from the Internet.

Bottlenecks are particularly a problem for Web-based video, since video playback quality is time dependent. Most networks use shared connectivity, meaning that network users compete for available bandwidth: the more users on the network at a time, the lower the bandwidth.

High network traffic distorts unbuffered video playback, since data must wait to pass through the cabling intermittently.

Beating the System

Enter broadband Internet connections. While broadband refers to many types of connections, the most common at the consumer level are digital cable modems and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connections. For about twice the price of a dial-up connection, users can access the Internet from 50 to 100 times faster with a broadband connection. At these speeds, Web users finally watch and deliver digital video the way it was intended to be seen: full-screen, smooth-moving and visually sharp video delivered without the painful wait times experienced during a dial-up session.

Broadband is critical for successful Web video, because it finally offers the increased bandwidths necessary to handle the amounts of data that quality digital video requires.

How Fast is Fast?

As mentioned, typical broadband speeds range from 50 to 100 times faster than dial-up connections. But what does that really mean? To put this into perspective, downloading a 1MB file might take anywhere from three to five minutes with a good dial-up connection. Using a broadband connection, the same file will usually download in just four to ten seconds.

The benefits of broadband don’t stop at faster downloads. For digital video, this also translates into less video compression needed and larger screen resolutions – delivering vastly superior video images to Web users. The megabits-per-second speeds of broadband allow videographers to produce full-screen videos that are easy to download or stream to Web audiences.

Streaming video refers to video content that you can play on your computer without actually downloading the entire file to the system’s hard drive. There are benefits and drawbacks to working with streaming video. One benefit is that video playback begins immediately (once the buffer is full). The rest of the file continues to stream to the system in the background, while the received data plays back. Another benefit is that you can skip to the middle or the end of the video, without downloading everything that came before that point.

The main drawback of streaming video is that users must be online to view it. Since nothing is permanently downloaded to the hard drive, users can’t simply click the media file to re-watch the video. For copyrighted material, however, streaming video offers a bit of protection for this very reason.

One of the most common misconceptions about Internet performance (thanks to marketing initiatives primarily from Intel) is that faster computer systems equal faster connections. The fact is that a computer’s modem or Network Interface Card (NIC) almost completely determines connectivity performance. This is easily demonstrated using a cutting-edge system (say, 3GHz processor and 512MB of RAM) that’s set up with a dial-up connection.

The Broadband Bandwagon

One of the main reasons high-quality digital video is now a reality is that many of the cable companies have heavily invested in their cable infrastructures to provide cable modem services, increasing the availability of broadband. Another reason is that more people are demanding the kind of media-rich Web browsing experience that broadband makes possible. As a result, more people are making the leap into the broadband arena.

As of mid-2003, the total number of worldwide cable modem subscribers reached 27 million. This number is expected to reach 34 million by year’s end, and as many as 68 million by 2007. With over 14.6 million cable modem subscribers, North America leads the broadband market, followed by 6.6 million in the Asia-Pacific region and 3.7 million in Europe. Regarding total market share, cable modem accounts for 67 percent of the broadband market, with DSL accounting for 28 percent.

Up to Speed

To start delivering high-quality digital video to the masses via the Web and to optimize the experience for a broadband audience, you’ll need to do a little preparatory work. These considerations are made after the final edit, when you must determine what file types, compression, frame rate and other settings you’ll use to process your video.

Selecting a file type (format) is fairly straightforward: use a cross-platform file format platform (e.g. Windows, Linux and Macintosh compatible) to assure the widest possible audience. Some choices include Windows Media, QuickTime and Real.

Compression is one of the most important considerations, since this determines the final file size, image quality and color depth you’ll be limited to when processing video. Fully uncompressed video files are enormous (about 27MB of data per second for NTSC). Source file sizes vary depending on what kinds of format the camcorder shot and the computer captured. Some of the better codecs that deliver high compression and superior image quality use the MPEG-4 standard, such as the DivX codecs. MPEG-4 plays back cross-platform, as well as on satellite television and wireless devices.

Making the Switch

Many Web users wonder why they should make the switch to broadband. After all, dial-up has worked so far and it’s less expensive. So, why bother? The fact is that broadband potentially offers what dial-up will never be able to deliver. It’s beneficial to many different markets, such as advertising, entertainment, video conferencing and distance learning services.

What broadband offers to Web users is not unlike what cable television offered viewers during the age of antenna-only television. And with millions more subscribing, the opportunities will only become greater with time. It’s simply the best way to get the most out of digital video on the Web, both as a viewer and a content creator.

[Sidebar: Batch Processing]

Some compression tools, such as ProCoder, cleaner XL and Final Cut Pro 4, allow you to batch process your video files. This means that you can encode multiple files to your chosen format automatically or encode multiple files to multiple formats automatically. Once the specifications are set, the software does the rest of the work converting the files without requiring any further attention from you.

[Sidebar: Video Hosting]

Many sites offer video hosting services and some support streaming. Be sure to read all of the submission guidelines carefully, since some sites may require a fee for their services. Some great places to start looking are:

  • ifilm.net
  • atomfilms.com
  • cinemanow.com
  • microcinema.com
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