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Copyright © 2002 -
Information Today, Inc.
Studio Streaming: The Spirit of Streaming
Posted Oct 27, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Back in the pre-election frenzy of late September, public attention turned away briefly from the candidates themselves to CBS' Dan Rather, who managed to reinforce every myth about the so-called "liberal media" by relying on bogus documents for a 60 Minutes story about President Bush receiving preferential treatment during his early-1970s National Guard tenure. The memos were supposedly written by one of Bush's squadron commanders, Texas Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, and suggested that the officer had been pressured into sugarcoating the young airman's performance evaluation to keep Bush in good standing.

An interesting side story emerged when one of Killian's former secretaries said that while she was sure the CBS memos were forgeries, the "spirit" of what they contained was accurate. No journalist worth his or her salt would rely on that for a defense, and nobody with any sense would buy the argument that—when it comes to a news story—fudging the facts is OK if the spirit of the story is true. Rather admitted he'd been duped and disavowed the story.

What got me thinking about the so-called "Rathergate" (must the name of every political scandal now be followed by the suffix "-gate"?) is the ongoing tension in the streaming media world between true streaming and progressive download. True streaming is the real-time delivery of audio and video over the Internet, while progressive-download technology buffers some of the content to the recipient's computer memory before the media starts playing. As playback begins, the download continues in the background.

The advantages to progressive download are clear: A user's connection speed is irrelevant to the playback quality; even though the buffering takes longer through a smaller pipe, once the clip starts playing, the picture and quality are just as good on a machine with a 56.6Kbps modem connection as one on a T1. In other words, from the point at which playback begins, the "spirit" of progressive downloading is essentially the same as that of streaming. So if somebody calls a progressive download "streaming," who cares?

If you're a streaming service provider or one of the companies who's worked hard to make true streaming a viable technology, you care a lot. As more and more Internet users get broadband access, streaming offers a world of possibilities for delivering live, real-time content from concerts to training to corporate communications. To confuse progressive-download technology with streaming is an insult to the real thing and those who create it. We're not yet to the point where broadband in every home is a reality (and let's face it, until we can stream dinner, that's a far lower priority than a chicken in every pot), but it's now reaching enough people that streaming is well on its way to finding its place in applications beyond B2B and education.

So forgive the streaming zealots if they're quick to point out that progressive downloading and streaming media aren't the same thing. But if you're a videographer eager to show off a demo reel, you probably are concerned less with what it's called than what it does, and if progressive download still offers the best end-user experience, then the choice is an easy one. Most pro- or prosumer-level NLEs allow you to output for both streaming and progressive download, and plenty of encoders (from QuickTime to Windows Media to multi-codec tools like Sorenson Squeeze) give you literally dozens of output options. Then there are proprietary codecs, Java players, and plug-ins like Macromedia's Flash Video, which lets you embed streaming video into a Web page relatively easily (you can embed video in other codecs in Web pages, but not without a fight).

So your output and delivery choices likely aren't limited by your own technical capability. But you need to worry about the technical capabilities of the people who'll be viewing the video; slow machines and modems can make streaming video nearly unwatchable. San Francisco-based Alexa Lee provides an interesting case study in how one videographer has used both streaming and progressive downloading, and how her method has changed over time. When I spoke with her for the EventDV article "Streaming for Videographers" [August 2004, pp. 50-54], she talked about the challenge of trying to create video for all potential viewers. "Actually, it's not a challenge anymore, because I decided I would not develop for the dial-up user and the person with the way-old computer," she says.

Lee had worked in QuickTime and had moved on to Sorenson Squeeze, and struggled with the effects of applying different compression parameters. Since we first talked, though, she's started using Flash Video to embed her clips on the pages of the portfolio site for her company, Big Pookiehead Productions (www.alexalee.com). Both the old QuickTime clips and the new samples are stellar examples not only of state-of-the-art wedding videography but of effectively edited and compressed video for the Web.

When you click on a clip, the Flash player opens up inside a page that includes information on everything from the wedding's site to who did the make-up and hair design. It's a textbook lesson in how to present a demo reel on the Web. But that Flash player reports that the video is "streaming," when in fact it's a progressive download. If you're on a fast machine with a broadband connection, the clips buffer for only a second or two before they begin playing; on a slower connection, it takes only a few seconds longer.

Purists would surely cry "foul" at labeling such video as streaming. Something tells me that neither Lee nor her clients care, nor should they.


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