Streaming Video: Adding Real Multimedia to the Web

It has become increasingly easy to incorporate video into any digital document. New tools create new opportunities for multimedia Web publishing. This article describes the steps in the process.

Streaming media came about in response to the problem of bandwidth-greedy audio and video files. Streaming media opens the door for many multimedia applications via the Internet that were impossible without the process. Streamed audio and video files can be found in a number of World Wide Web locations serving a wide-variety of purposes, such as a vocal introduction to a homepage, a movie of a speech in an online database, or an interactive educational presentation on a special-interest page. One of the major attractions to streaming media is "live" broadcasting. Audio and video on a wide-variety of subjects from sports to business to news to entertainment can be found online.

Examples of available "live" streamed media files read like the "short list" of content providers. BBC, CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Rolling Stone, C-SPAN, Sony, ESPN, NHL, and National Public Radio are but a few. The Progressive Networks' Real Guide lists 1,200 live audio radio stations and 94 stations using streaming video. The company Broadcast.com broadcasts a large selection of streaming media programming; including sports, talk and music radio, television, business events, news, commentary. Other uses currently include corporate conference calls, full-length CDs, movie trailers, audio books and p'etry, in an entertaining multimedia or interactive form.

Streaming Media in Education

Both live and taped streaming media can find rich applications in training and education. One training organization, CREN <www.CREN.net> uses regularly scheduled audio webcasts to transmit technical talks that benefit education and research communities. Listeners interact via e-mail to touch base with electronic networking experts.

Evidence of how accessible it has become is that individuals not only corporate giants, can create and use streaming video on their Web sites. (More on the how-to later.) I regularly integrate streaming video in my Philosophy curriculum and in Ethics Updates (http://ethics.acusd.edu), my World Wide Web site on ethics.

Campus lectures are an excellent source of video. For the past two years, whenever I have sponsored an ethics-related lecture on campus, I have asked our Media Center to videotape the event. I have also asked the speaker for a second release, one which would allow me to broadcast that lecture over the Web. So now, when I am teaching Ethical Theory, I have a video integrated into my syllabus of a lecture we sponsored on-campus by Carol Gilligan, "Voice and Relationship: Rethinking the Foundations of Ethics." (See http://ethics.acusd.edu/theory/)

Before I would have asked students to read some of Gilligan's essays. Now, at home, work or a campus lab, they see and hear her as she speaks. This is especially compelling and appropriate in this case, because Gilligan's work has emphasized the importance of voice. It is fitting that they actually hear her voice and listen to her words, as well as read them.

Next semester, when I teach Applied Ethics, I will be using a video of a lecture on our campus by Oscar Arias on "Globalization and World Security." Once again, seeing and hearing the speaker is important, because part of the impact of his message comes from his personal impact. (See http://ethics.acusd.edu/socialethics/)

I have also videotaped a number of my own lectures in ethical theory, and these too are integrated into my syllabus. Students who miss class can simply click on the link and see and hear the lecture, albeit last year's version of that lecture. Fortunately, most still come to class.

Increasingly, I can imagine that video assignments, integrated into a Web-based hyper-syllabus, will be part of many courses. Some of the difficulties standing in the way are technical, but these are rapidly diminishing. Others are legal, and the prospects of progress there are bleaker. It is not a major problem in using video of campus lectures, but is a very thorny issue in using pre-existing commercial video.

Let's turn to some of the nuts and bolts of putting video on the Web.

Streaming Video

First, a small bit of vocabulary. I've already used the term "streaming video," and it deserves a clear definition. When video first came to the Web, it was necessary to download the entire video file before beginning to play it. As video files can easily be many megabytes, and bandwidth was worse then than it is now, those working in this area sought a way to avoid making the end-user wait a long time for a video file.

This is where streaming video came on the scene. Instead of downloading the file in its entirety before playing it, streaming technology takes a different approach: it downloads the beginning of the file, forms a buffer of packets, and when an appropriate buffer is reached, the client player plays back the packets in a seamless stream. While the viewer is watching, it downloads the next portion, etc., until the entire file is played. The buffer provides a way for the player to protect itself in case of network congestion, lost packets, or other interference. This vastly reduces the time it takes for a video to start, and even very long videos can begin playing over the web in a matter of seconds. The audio or video file should play without noticeable interruption. RealNetworks led the way in the development of streaming video, launching RealAudio in 1995, but Microsoft is quickly closing the gap with NetShow and MediaPlayer.

Streaming video has been coupled with increasingly sophisticated compression techniques, and the result has been impressive. It is now possible to get good quality video over the Web with a modest connection such as a 56K modem. Even at slower speeds, acceptable video is possible. This makes video a realistic option over the Web in a way it had never been before.

Putting your own video on the Web has become surprisingly easy and cheap, thanks in large measure to RealNetworks. (Microsoft's NetShow, although technically the equal of RealVideo, d'es not have as friendly an interface as RealProducer (formerly RealPublisher) d'es for encoding.) Whereas this article concentrates on the RealNetworks products, it is worth noting that Microsoft's NetShow is technically equal to RealVideo, and has another advantage; it's free, both for the player and the server. There is a free version of RealPlayer which works just fine, but there are significant restrictions on the use of the free version of RealServer and on the technical support for the free version.

Anyone who wants to create and publish RealVideo should get the RealPublisher program from RealNetworks. It comes in a free version and a "plus" version ($89.00 introductory price), which includes features such as the ability to encode and stream live events. The Plus version is particularly worthwhile if you are going to publish to a G2 server, discussed below.

Four Steps to Web Video

Step 1. Acquisition
The first step is to make a videotape of whatever you want to publish. There are two things to remember when taping. First, pay close attention to sound quality. The sound quality will usually be degraded over the Web, and you want to begin with as high a quality as possible. For lectures, make sure the speakers all have individual microphones. Second, remember that this will play in a very small window. Close-up shots are better than shots that show much of the room. Use the highest quality videotape format you can. Use SuperVHS equipment if it is available. Always save your original tape after you have finished this whole process.
Be aware that you can use existing videotape. If your media center or library has a set of video (or audio) tapes of events that you would like to put on the Web, these too can be put up on the web, presuming you have proper permissions.

Step 2. Get Permission
Once you have a good tape to work with, you need to obtain permission for anyone on tape to broadcast it. Your media center may already have a form. You may, in conjunction with them, want to develop a standard form that covers both putting the tape in your university library collection and putting it up on the Web. The permission should indicate that it is for non-profit purposes and that it may be revoked by the speaker at any time.

Step 3. Encode Video
The next step is to encode your video. This requires some hardware as well as software. If you are going to RealVideo route, the best way is to get a video capture card that RealProducer will recognize. There are a number of these available, and the one that I bought (which works with Windows NT) was an Osprey card for $129. The other piece of hardware is a VCR. The VCR plugs into the video capture card in your computer, and that provides the conduit for moving the video from the tape to a digital format.
There are two routes for encoding video. If your video card is compatible with RealProducer, you can encode (i.e., translate) it directly into RealVideo format. This saves time and disk space, but the RealVideo format d'es not lend itself to easy editing. Alternatively, it can be encoded to an AVI file format in Windows. This can then be readily edited in a program such as Adobe Premier, titles added, sound cleaned up, etc. Then the AVI file can be encoded into a RealVideo file. There are two disadvantages to this approach. First, it can require a huge amount of disk space (in the gigabyte range, not megabytes, if it is a long video). Second, it is a two-step process instead of one. The advantage, however, is that it gives you much more control over the final product.

Step 4. Publish to Server
Once the video is encoded, you need to publish it to a server. Here the software package for RealProducer is very nice, for it walks you through each step of the process painlessly. It creates the html code for the player, ftps the various files to the server, etc. There may still be tricky moments initially, but this program reduces them to the minimum. Also, once you have gone through the process successfully the first time, subsequent publishing is a breeze.
The time involved in the first two steps will depend on the event. The third step, encoding, takes only a few minutes longer than the tape itself. Thus, to encode a one hour lecture, you will probably only need seventy-five minutes, presuming that your equipment is already set up. During most of this time, you can do something else--you just need to know when the tape is over to step encoding. Similarly, the time it takes to publish to a server (once you have done it successfully) is minimal. To publish a one-hour lecture, you need about 10 minutes to create the html page and then you need whatever amount of time it will take to send your files to the server. This depends on the speed of your Internet connection, but in this stage, you don't have to be present when the process finishes. I have often started to send a big file (50 MB) and then just gone to bed. It was all uploaded when I woke in the morning.

Servers and Formats

Before you can successfully complete step 4, you need a server where your video files can be sent. There are several possibilities here.

First, streaming RealVideo files can be sent out from a regular Web server, such as an Apache server or a Netscape server. There are certain technical limitations to doing this, but initially it is a no-cost way of getting files up on the Web. The only requirement is that the web server be configured to recognize the RealVideo MIME types. This is something that the person who administers the Web server can do in 5 minutes.

Second, RealNetworks makes a free basic server, which will stream RealVideo, including the new G2 format, very efficiently. There are licensing restrictions on the free server (one per institution, not for classroom use, etc.) that may make it unsuitable for your purposes. If so, then your alternatives are either to use a regular server or to consider the next possibility, one of the several servers that RealNetworks sells.

Third, then, is the retail RealServer. This comes in a number of configurations, including one designed for classroom use. Typically, RealServers are priced according to the number of concurrent streams that they are licensed to broadcast. Consult RealNetworks for current pricing.

Finally, it is possible to rent space on a RealServer that is run commercially by someone else. This eliminates the hassles of configuring your own server, etc., but d'es mean a regular monthly fee. On my own site, I use the free version of RealServer to broadcast non-classroom video. For my own classroom lecture, on the other hand, I simply post these on my regular Web server (Microsoft IIS 4.0). All of this, incidentally, physically resides on the same machine. Running an additional RealServer d'es not necessarily entail buying an additional machine.

One final technical note: RealNetworks has come out with a new format, G2, which is an advance over the older formats in two ways. First, the overall quality and compression are better, including the audio. Second, G2 incorporates a technology called SureStream. This technology allows the server to determine what kind of connection a visitor has and to adjust the size of the stream in accord with the available bandwidth for each visitor. This means if one person come to the site on a 28. 8 modem, the stream will be adjusted to that bandwidth (about 24K). If someone else comes to the site on a T1 line, the stream he or she receives will be much wider. Previously, to accomplish something like this, you had to encode several different versions of the video. This might mean making three or four recordings of the same video, each at a different rate. With G2, you make a single recording (admittedly, a pretty big file), and the software pares it down for smaller connections. This is a highly desirable feature.

The process of creating streaming video is straightforward and the tools are user-friendly. Now it's up to you to go out there and add your own multimedia creation to the Web. I think you will be pleased, if you give it a try, at how easy it is. Even if you are not ready to try, let me urge you to begin making video tapes of important campus lectures and conferences, and getting permissions for putting them on the Web. Then, once you are ready to do so, you will have the content with which to work at your fingertips.

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