Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Streams of Consciousness

October 2000

By Mike Gould

Hollywood loves the Web. A quick trip to http://www.apple.com/trailers/ shows why: movie trailers 24/7. For a negligible cost (by tinseltown standards), the studios can promote their movies to every online film fan in the world. And so can you.

Strictly Commercials
OK, so maybe you don't sell light sabers, let's say you sell cars. Cool-looking retro items like, say, the PT Cruiser. If you're a savvy marketeer like Chrysler, you spend a fortune filming TV ads, and you spend another small fortune showing them on TV. Once you've got your ads on the tube, it's a small step to put them on the wire, and that's what they did at http://www.chryslercars.com/pt_cruiser/. There is a link to a "Video Archive" that has QuickTime versions of all their TV ads, as well as a very sophisticated layout telling you everything you ever wanted to know about these puppies. (I am in the process of talking myself into buying one of these; my 10-year old Subaru is starting to show signs of wear.)

The buzzword-du-jour here is "Re-Purposing"; you serve up your message in as many formats and venues as you can. I've mentioned this before in talking about digital photography: you shoot your pictures in as high a resolution as you can for your print media, then use the same pictures on the Web, after a session with your photo masseur. Same deal with your video footage, whether it was shot on MiniDV for use on the local cable channels, or shot on film as part of a multi-kilobuck campaign destined for the Networks. You have your message enshrined on film or tape, spend another 10% or so of your budget and put it on your website.

Applying the Vise-Grips
The process of taking media Web-wards is a bit involved to discuss here in much depth, but it revolves around codecs. A codec (short for "compress - de-compress") is software that figures out how to take the enormous amount of information present in a tape or film, and squeeze it down to something that will fit through the pipes of our current Internet in a timely manner. And then manage the inflation at the other end, where the wire meets the computer. This is a tricky business, and still in its infancy. The folks that do this sort of thing have way-fast computers with very expensive cards in them, and tend to mutter words like "Sorenson" and "Cinepak".

But this is doable on a smaller scale; iMovie comes with a consumer version of the Sorenson codec, and can make a respectable movie, suitable for sending those home movies to Gramma. The same issues we discussed about digital photos apply here: the better the movie, the bigger the file, the slower the download.

Down by The New Mill Stream
Another process involved here is Streaming. When you send an ordinary photo or movie down the wire, the recipient has to wait for the entire file to arrive before viewing it. A streamed file is sent such that it begins playing shortly after it hits your computer. The short wait is called "buffering" and refers to the practice of holding a bit of movie in a designated memory area in your computer. The idea is to play the video smoothly from your computer's memory, with enough "slack" in the buffer to even out any network slowdowns. In other words, the buffer is like a reservoir of data; it contains the next bit of footage you are about to see. If the data stream is slowed down from the server sending you the file, the bit in the buffer continues feeding a steady stream to your screen while your modem does its best to continue dumping in data to the buffer. Sort of like the broom in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Yeah, that's it: you're Mickey and the buffer is the well and the sorcerer is Bill Gates and .... Um. Maybe not. Forget I brought it up. Let's just say it's magic and leave it at that.

The cool thing about the professional grade of Sorenson is that it has what is called "Variable Bit Rate" encoding; when you set up your QuickTime viewer on your PC or Mac, you tell it how fast you are connecting to the Internet. Then, when you select a QT movie that has been Sorenson-ized, the movie streams in at an appropriate rate for your connection.

This streaming behavior is more complex to set up than just posting movies on your website; your ISP has to add additional value (i.e., more software) at its end to enable this. If you are interested in streaming, contact your ISP to see what streaming services are offered. Your ISP can also probably point you to a suitable Web worker to help prepare your footage.

Streaming also works for audio-only broadcasts; local radio stations like WUOM, WEMU, and WCBN are streaming their content in addition to broadcasting it. (The fact that tiny, student-run WCBN - 88.3FM can be heard by those online in Khatmandu is truly mind-boggling, considering the fact that their radio broadcast barely makes it out of Washtenaw county.)

The Shape of Things to Stream
There has been a lot of discussion about movies on demand via the Web. The theory is you will one day be able to go to your TV/Computer/Telephone/Radio/Waffle Iron appliance over in the corner there, and request any movie ever digitized. This will require a lot of improvements in everything: bigger pipes (gigabit cable modems, DSL, or Something We Haven't Even Thought Of Yet), truly immense servers running severe FutureWare, and of course, much faster TV/Computer/Telephone/Radio/Waffle Iron appliances. I can't wait.

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