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Stream Heat: What’s Hot & Why
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, July 2001

Streaming is still hot… but maybe, it’s better known as “rich media” these days? Whatever you call it, it has many faces and it’s changing fast.

Although I frequently resist being overcome by the “buzzword du jour,” maybe rich media is a better catch phrase for the video Web. After all, (as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) not all video on the web is streaming (most notably QuickTime FastStart and video encoded to play in Flash.)

At its essence, the video Web has no essence. In fact, the more things change — as bubbles burst and innovations leap frog most producer’s understanding — then, the more important it becomes to remember that the Web is not one thing… and neither is the video Web. In other words, the rich media space has more faces than one of those disco mirrors. Thus, I thought I’d use this month’s Video Web column to offer some varied reflections from some of the rich media world’s current hot spots.

So, pardon me, if I jump around a bit. This column will include a brief big picture commentary on the battles over digital rights management, a recommendation of one of the most cinematic (yet commercial) sites on the web, and an online application that can be used by video folk to create rich media sites without Flash’s learning curve.

In a video Web world without standards, even the un-standards want to set new ones. Geez. Just when you were worrying that your CDN was NG, here comes another TLA. OK, I’ll translate.

... the development of commerce models for digital media are crucial to the viability of our online future ...

Actually, a CDN is a Content Delivery Network, most usually a streaming hosting provider with technical resources that most individual companies lack. And, a TLA is a Three Letter Acronym, so I better get serious.

For those of you who haven’t been worried about it, DRM is Digital Rights Management. And ever since the Internet bubble burst, everyone in rich media has been trying to figure out how to monetize (or how to make money) from their digital media content. This is especially true of the large entertainment companies whose world got rocked by Napster. So, now, at least, they are attempting to respond to Napster’s wake up call.

In response to that response, the major streaming video and other media players (except QuickTime so far) have opened a new front in their on-going battles for media player dominance. Presenting DRM, the last must have feature in a streaming media architecture.

True, the development of commerce models for digital media are crucial to the viability of our online future; but can’t we all just get along? Unfortunately, apparently not; but I thought you’d want to be up to date, just the same.

And, of course, DRM doesn’t even begin to address advertising supported streaming media, nor does it even approach more high level revenue models like sponsored online video productions. Remember “Playhouse 90”?

In fact, one of the most interesting and innovative streaming video sites that I’ve seen lately is a sponsored site: This site offers entertaining short films free, and they are high quality web originals that are available in all three major streaming formats (plus their own customized, “enhanced” player). And, more importantly, these short sponsored films are available exclusively on the web and directed by top quality directors like John Frankenheimer (Manchurian Candidate), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrell).

As a result, BMW has done something that few other web sites have been able to achieve. They have created a destination web site that is creating its own “viral” marketing buzz. Of course, fast BMW cars are built into all of the plots, but the production quality is impressive and the sales pitch is strictly optional. As you know, these last two components are something that is rare seen in sponsored video programming — whether online or off-line. Certainly, the video Web needs this kind of positive reinforcement. It’s nice to see the evidence that there is a future for sponsored video programming on the Web.

Another extremely innovative site that I’ve been spending a little bit of time at recently is a networked rich media authoring application called Balthaser:Fx. It calls itself an “online design system.” And, this one really hit close to my heart because it combines a mission, as Chairman & CEO, Neil Balthaser described it to me, of “making technology transparent rather than opaque” with Flash-based vector media.

As I discussed in my April column (“Video in Flash: A New Online Option”), Macromedia Flash has recently become a very compelling video delivery environment, thanks to a new high quality encoding tool called FLIX from Wildform, Inc. In fact, if you haven’t seen the interactive video jukebox on Wildform’s home page, I really think it’s worth a visit. The quality of the video is quite good; and their Flash player shows off the interactive capabilities of Flash (although the interface could be better… click “View Jukebox” to see a different movie trailer clip.)

What I realized in thinking more about the online delivery of video clips using the Flash file format was that it presents real challenges for video producers who don’t want to go through the learning curve nor the expense necessary to author in Flash. Also, if you just posted a video clip in Flash without authoring, it would be losing the player controls etc. that are built into QuickTime, Real or the Windows Media player. Balthaser:Fx addresses that challenge with a complete online rich media authoring environment that, I think, any media professional can learn to use quite quickly.

Of course, like any pre-packaged solution, there are limitations on having ultimate control and the ability to tweak your media, but the accessibility issue is addressed far better and extensively than with most other “shortcut” solutions. In fact, the quality of their pre-designed components is quite impressive and results from the fact that this company is also a talented custom production house. The user interface (while still needing a bit of work) is elegant and (like the whole application) is authored in Flash.

... Balthaser:Fx ... is really pioneering a new type of networked application, and the system requirements show that.

Something else that’s really unusual about Balthaser:Fx is that it is really pioneering a new type of networked application, and the system requirements show that. For example, because of the software and media that is downloaded to you in components as you use them, this online system requires a high bandwidth Internet connection (like a cable modem or a DSL line). Also, interestingly enough, while it is Mac-compatible, that is only true by using Netscape, not with Internet Explorer. Apparently, there is a conflict with some of the sophisticated database interactivity and JavaScript used by this online application, only on the Mac and only with Internet Explorer. As with most Flash productions, playback of your rich media productions authored with Balthaser:Fx is fine across all platforms and browsers.

Balthaser also uses a unique pricing model. It’s free for 30 days for you to play with, but to publish for the world to see, you need to buy either a one scene project for $49 or a 20-scene project for $199 (although there’s a discount if you sign up within 10 days of logging in). Within those cyber-contracts, you also get from 5 to 10MB of server space into which you can upload your own media assets for incorporation into your production. This could, of course, include a video clip compressed as an SWF file.

Neil’s father and partner, Ken Balthaser summarized two of the trends that I think make this an important application as well as an important authoring direction for rich media and video professionals. He said, “We believe that broadband is the future” and that “the Web will become more entertaining.” Those two things are very true and very important for our industry to remember.

Enjoy… and fail to stay tuned at your own risk.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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