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Workshops Kick Off Streaming Media East 2004

Streaming Media East 2004 didn’t officially begin until Tuesday, but there was plenty going on Monday with a trio of in-depth workshops—two aimed at streaming neophytes and the other targeted squarely at old pros looking for new tricks.

Steve Mack, principal of Lux Media and author of the Streaming Media Bible, gave newbies three hours of solid streaming fundamentals in his "Streaming Media: Best Practices" workshop. Breaking the session down into three discrete sections—creation, encoding, and authoring—Mack covered everything from capture to delivery. Beginning by reminding the audience that, while the PC market has just about leveled off, the demand for other Internet access devices (mobile phones, PDAs, set-top boxes, etc.) shows no signs of slowing down. "That’s where the growth is, and streaming is at the center of that growth," he said.

Steve MackWith the cheerleading out of the way, Mack got down to the nuts and bolts, giving the audience of nearly 100 a quick tour of the audio, video, and encoding gear they need to get up and running. Digging into the details of acquiring and encoding good audio for streaming, Mack delivered plenty of hands-on tips with wide-eyed enthusiasm and good humor: "When you’re encoding audio, you have to remember that human ears are predisposed to pay attention to loud noises. They might be trying to eat us."

Mack spent a good deal of the workshop talking about topics such as recommended encoding settings for particular delivery speeds, the pros and cons of 2-pass variable bit rate encoding, and how to deal with getting rid of interlacing artifacts that come when you try to repurpose television content for streaming. "You’ve got to massage the video signal to look good on a computer screen," he said. Since most TV content will wind up in a smaller frame size when it’s streamed, Mack recommends discarding every other line when going from interlaced (TV) to non-interlaced (VGA) displays. "Since you’re often going from 720 lines down to 360, simply getting rid of every other line gets you almost all the way there, in a way that most viewers won’t notice."

Even when he got deep into encoding issues, though, Mack always returned to reminders that effective streaming video is conceived and produced with streaming’s constraints in mind from the get-go—constraints that make some streaming camera-work basics "counterintuitive" to broadcast training. "Broadcast cameramen are all about getting the most interesting shot, like interviewing the suspect outside of the courtroom with the flag waving in the background," Mack said. "But that flag is just extra video noise for the codec to encode, and it takes away encoding [and detail] from the real subject of the shot." Mack also recommended keeping the use of transitions and wipes to a minimum, citing both the difficulty that codecs have with longer transitions and his personal opinion that the majority of these transitions are "dumb." Another tip he make life easier for your codec of choice—especially when encoding lower resolution content like you might find on a VHS tape—is to use motion blur filters which can reduce the amount of detail in textured backgrounds, typically without doing much damage to the end user’s viewing experience.

A great example of the best practices promised by the session’s title occurred when Mack ventured into the realm of embedded players. While he did spend some time discussing how they work and can be implemented, he opened and closed this section with his belief that the best way to accomplish this task is to simply use a metadata file. This metadata tells the browser what to do with the content that’s about to be streamed. The media is then played back in a standalone media player rather than inside of the browser, which Mack believes is unnecessarily complicated considering the added value (or lack thereof) in embedding players into Web sites. He concluded this section with a brief discussion of the bumbling back and forth of Real and Windows and their cross-compatibility woes.

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