Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Streams of Thought: H.264 Wins—Now What?

With Microsoft's announcement that it's adding H.264 playback to Silverlight, some would argue that H.264 has emerged triumphant in the codec wars. So what does that mean for the future of online video?

by Tim Siglin
September 9, 2008

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This column originally appeared in the European edition of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for subscription information.

H.264 set the stage for dominance a few years ago for a common live, on-demand, and broadcast format. Compared to MPEG-2 (the format of traditional digital television and DVDs), H.264 offers two to three times greater compression, making it much more attractive for network delivery as well as for HD video.

The need was simple: a common decoding format that could be used across the streaming, videoconferencing, and IPTV segments. H.264 enables content created for one type of device to be easily delivered or adapted to another, at least in theory. The European-embraced ideal that a standardised open format drives competition and reduces the cost of devices, thereby expanding the addressable market, also means that devices as dissimilar as home computers (Windows, Macintosh, and Linux), the leading mobile devices (iPods and iPhones from Apple or handsets from Nokia and Sony Ericsson), and DVRs and IP set-top boxes all use H.264 at their core.

Also, with a common format consumers and businesses are encouraged to create and share more media, as they know that broad distribution is possible. Because of this, consumers, media companies, and vendors alike all benefit from increased growth, innovation, and choice.

True, there are still other formats out there: Microsoft has VC-1 and On2 Technologies has VP6. But even these two powerhouses are embracing H.264: Microsoft’s IIS 7 server component supports H.264, and it has just announced it will demonstrate H.264 in Silverlight later this week at the International Broadcasting Conference (IBC) 2008 in Amsterdam. It will be available in 2009. For its part, On2 owns Hantro, a European company that uses H.264 for embedded video delivery. There are more announcements to come from both of these players, one suspects, as the H.264 juggernaut continues to roll forward.

Now what? Will the streaming, broadcast, videoconferencing, and on-demand video worlds all suddenly stop innovating, having been conquered by H.264, an analogue of Alexander? Not exactly. We are entering another round of Pax Romana (to mix metaphors), yet big challenges lie on two fronts. First, the player. This is a large issue, as the format wars have given way to a player war. Since H.264 can be encoded in any way a developer sees fit but must meet a particular decode standard to qualify as H.264 video, the decoders in players are very important.

Consider, for instance, Sanyo’s H.264 camera. The Xacti HD1000 camcorder is an H.264 1080i camera that captures full 1920x1080 (1080i) at 60 frames per second using a newer CMOS sensor. It captures on an SD or SD High Capacity (SDHC) chip and looks rather good. In tests with this camera right after its release, the files could be dropped into QuickTime Player for immediate playback, as they were .mp4 files.

Unfortunately for Sanyo and its customers, Apple “fixed” something in QuickTime that suddenly made all video clips shot on the Xacti HD 1000 unreadable in QuickTime Player, iTunes, and almost every other third-party application that relied on the underlying QuickTime engine. This is just one example of what’s happened several times across both the Macintosh and Windows platforms as H.264 encodes are written not to spec but to fit a particular player.

That issue, writing H.264 to spec, is the second—and bigger—challenge we now face.

Often, as was the case with AVCHD, the format isn’t quite up to H.264 spec, so it’s couched in terms like “based on H.264” or other marketing speak. AVCHD is a format that was jointly created by JVC and Sony in an attempt to get a tapeless format that is approximately 25% better than HDV in terms of recording bitrate. Unfortunately, AVCHD isn’t H.264 and, as such, requires conversion into another format for video editing. The conversion that Apple does creates image quality loss, and Adobe has yet, as of the time of this writing, to come out with a native AVCHD solution (the third-party solutions they recommend are only single-platform fixes).

Enterprising companies such as Blackmagic Design have figured out that they can capture directly off the HDMI output from an AVCHD camera and encode it to another format, but that in itself creates issues for editing (no timecode via HDMI) or streaming (an uncompressed stream that needs to be compressed).

So today we’re finally at a point where the pieces of the H.264 ecosystem have come together to form a common platform of acquisition and delivery. That deserves a celebration, but it’s also a reminder to all the players in the various segments to make sure their interoperability and adherence to the H.264 spec is of paramount importance.

Otherwise the frustration of “almost being there” will create as many problems as we had during the format wars.

The power of the audience

If you've taken a look at this blog you'll notice that the role of the audience (consumer) is underlined many times. Be it Peter Hirshberg, or Marshall McLuhan, Charles Leadbeater or Yokai Benkler- even John Cleese's blog and Seth Godin's comments on white bread, the audience/ consumer is recognized as being an integral part of the processes surrounding mass media.

What's my point? I guess I'm saying that New Media is a mass medium like TV or anything else and that understanding how the end user functions and feels is crucial in the creation of the communication loop.

It's not the Web it's us, it's not TV, it's us, it's not the film fest, it's us. How is this important? In designing any campaign of any sort- or even understanding and implementing copyright laws for the Internet for that matter- using the tools available to us today, you must engage an audience of consumers and there are many ways to do that.

Engaging an audience requires that we understand some of underlying dynamics of the various sub-cultures making up the audience. The speakers posted in this blog certainly address this very well. The most important thing to walk away with though is providing the audience with something to do, as Marshall McLuhan would have said. The reason the Internet is far more interesting to most people than Television is that it has been created to allow the users to decide for themselves where to go and what to see. It is the ultimate source of instant gratification to date. It provides the audience with New Improved TV!!!

Having said that, understanding what that means is crucial. Marshall McLuhan describing the advent of new mediums would say that the older medium is the content of the new medium. What he meant was in their beginnings Film’s content was the narrative- the novel, TVs content was the Film, to extend that idea the Internet’s content is TV. But we know, that’s only scratching the surface.

What McLuhan was talking about is the creator’s of these mediums initially impose a certain way of using a medium and that lasts until the audience takes control by creating there own content for these media. Sounds like what I call Technological Determinism and the power of the audience. Marginal enthusiasts take a medium and create content that suits there needs and desires- we call this cultural appropriation. Then, thought leaders and aesthetic leaders pull this re-appropriation into the center where it becomes a major new trend and best of all, copyright and legal ownership is imposed.

Back to the Internet: Web 2.0 is only the beginning, don’t believe the hype, don’t invest in any big ideas just yet, watch the those sub-cultures on the margins of the larger audience (i.e. consumer pool), and always try to engage your target audience by providing them a sense of empowerment. People need to connect- let’s help them do that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Le multiplateforme pour gérer tout le cycle de vie d’une production audiovisuelle: Entrevue avec Philippe Pelletier

Charles Prémont,
vol. 14 no 37 - 8 septembre 2008

Si les majors américains ont fait le passage vers la déclinaison sur plusieurs plateformes de leurs productions, il y a encore un bon bout de chemin à faire au Québec. Philippe Pelletier, Chef de service Nouveaux Médias chez Technicolor, met beaucoup d’énergie pour promouvoir l’idée que l’avenir n’est plus dans le DVD, mais bien dans le format numérique. « Il est temps de se demander comment le consommateur veut recevoir son produit. Autrement dit, il faut se mettre à gérer tout le cycle de vie d’un produit », dit-il. Une façon de penser les affaires qui, selon lui, pourrait être une réponse au P2P.

«Si on fait un modèle qui anticipe les capacités de chaque plateforme et qui mise sur ce que veut le consommateur tant en qualité de service et de prix, il n’y a pas de raison pour que les
gens continuent à aller sur des sites pour télécharger des torrents», dit Philippe Pelletier. Le problème réside selon lui dans le fait que l’offre qui se trouve présentement sur le Web n’arrive pas à la cheville de celle des sites de pirates. «Oui, aller télécharger des torrents, c’est long, mais tout est là. Si j’ai une boutique en ligne qui me permet d’acheter n’importe quel film pour trois dollars et m’offre du contenu exclusif en plus, pourquoi irais-je risquer d’attraper un virus sur un site de P2P», demande-t-il. Pour y arriver, il faut changer quelque peu la façon de penser son projet. «On peut vouloir faire un film, ce qui est très correct, mais on peut aussi vouloir faire un projet. Chaque plateforme a ses particularités et il faut savoir s’adapter à chacune d’elle si on veut en tirer le maximum. Aussi, l’ordre dans lequel on pense notre projet n’est pas nécessairement le même. On peut commencer par le film pour dériver vers le Web et le mobile, mais on peut aussi commencer par le mobile pour se rendre sur le Web et, éventuellement, à la télévision», explique Philippe Pelletier. Un bon exemple, selon lui, est Le Cas Roberge qui a profité de ses capsules Web pour promouvoir le film.

L’intérêt d’une déclinaison sur plusieurs plateformes réside dans la promotion de la marque. «Il faut faire ce que j’appelle du “brand streaming ”, c’est-à-dire qu’il faut reprendre la marque le plus souvent possible sur le plus de plateformes possible. Le but, c’est que l’idée circule pour diriger les gens vers les plateformes qui sont payantes. Quand on pense à une mise en marché de cette façon, il ne faut pas s’imaginer que toutes les plateformes seront rentables, mais bien que toutes les plateformes qu’on utilise contribueront à mousser les ventes de celles qui le sont», explique Philippe Pelletier.

Selon lui, le Québec est un microcosme idéal pour ce genre de modèle de mise en marché. «Les plateformes comme le Web ou le mobile se prêtent très bien aux productions à très petit budget. Il faut aussi penser que les plateformes sont accessibles à la grande majorité des gens. Faire que son film soit disponible sur le Web en format HD peut toucher plus de gens que d’en faire un disque Blu-Ray», dit-il. Les coûts pour décliner son produit sur plusieurs plateformes sont loin d’être prohibitifs à son avis.

Des obstacles technologiques et industriels importants restent cependant à franchir avant qu’un modèle d’affaires basé sur les multiples plateformes remplace celui qui est en place présentement. «L’important, c’est d’avoir une bonne boutique en ligne, une qui soit capable de soutenir un grand achalandage. Si on y offre des prix alléchants et des avantages, les gens vont se diriger vers le Web pour consommer leurs produits culturels. Le magasin iTunes est déjà un des plus grands magasins de produits culturels au monde. Ils s’attaquent directement au marché du DVD et je ne serais pas surpris qu’ils réussissent à le dépasser », dit Philippe Pelletier.

Selon Philippe Pelletier, la déclinaison sur plusieurs plateformes offre beaucoup de potentiel, tant dans les formats grands publics que dans les productions spécialisées. «Il faut arrêter de penser qu’il n’y a qu’une plateforme légitime pour son produit. Le Web et le mobile sont des modes de consommation faciles. Les gens de l’industrie se plaignent de la perte de revenu engendrée par l’Internet, mais ce n’est pas dire toute l’histoire. Quand des milliers d’admirateurs bloguent et mettent des extraits de notre produit sur YouTube, ce n’est certainement pas que négatif. Les humains veulent faire partie de quelque chose, ils veulent être au courant et vivre des trucs ensemble: on ne peut pas aller contre ça», explique-t-il.

Peter Hirshberg: The Web and TV, a sibling rivalry!!!!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Nothing to do with New Media: John Cleese on his career in advertising