Helaine and I watched the Philadelphia Eagles game this afternoon. It’s a game that wasn’t on local TV. We don’t have a satellite receiver, nor does my cable company have an out-of-town game package. We watched because a friend, near Philadelphia, fed it to me.
The concept is the important thing here, but first, I have to explain the technical specs. His PC has an ATI All In Wonder 8500DV video card, with a tuner. He downloaded Microsoft’s free Windows Media Encoder, which will serve streaming video. We also temporarily ‘punched a hole’ in his firewall/router, so an arbitrary port we chose would be available to me in Connecticut. I connected with Windows Media Player, directly, without first using my browser.
The video he sent was encoded at a fixed bitrate of 148 Kbps, 15 fps, with 320×240 resolution. We tried a higher bitrate first, but his connection wouldn’t keep up and the video was unacceptably choppy. Next time we’ll play around with the compression parameters to find something custom which works better.
What I saw was sharp when the camera wasn’t moving, pixelated with minimal change or motion, and choppy with heavy motion. I was easily able to read the on screen graphics for time, down, etc. The audio was perfect. Other than the initial point of connection, we never hit a point where I had to wait while the stream was buffered.
This is video on demand in the simplest and most pure sense. It was what I wanted when I wanted it.
Because my friend has limited upstream capacity on his cable modem, what I watched was compromised. But, it was so close to being very good, that I can assume it wouldn’t take much more bandwidth – maybe 250 Kbps – to hit a sweet spot. You’ve got to figure variably compressed video, streamed using Windows Media server or another server allowing a variable bit rate, would give even better video for the same bandwidth.
The fact that the video wasn’t too large on my 1400×1050 laptop screen was fine. Unlike ‘television’, I was watching this up close. In fact, while the game was on, my wife and I were doing other things on the computer, though the game was our primary focus.
It isn’t necessary to have full screen video to have a meaningful streaming experience!
Whenever I read about the promises of VOD or using the Internet for television type programming, I hear about the huge bandwidth necessary for full screen, VHS quality. It’s just not necessary. In fact, full screen might be a detriment.
Computers are viewed differently that TV’s. It’s an immense difference. We’re closer and we’re not adverse to doing multiple tasks on the screen at once. Someone is going to have to step up to the plate with that realization and then VOD over an IP network will be reality.
After the game, I asked my wife if she’d be willing to pay for a live concert, by an artist she really likes (Rick Springfield), at this smallish screen size, but with sharp video and good stereo audio? She said, “yes.”
To me, this makes some events economically feasible that wouldn’t make sense as free TV, basic cable or even pay-per-view. There are undoubtedly other applications, with similar niche audiences.
The current streaming technologies from Microsoft and Real make it easy to integrate advertisements in many different ways, often without stopping or disturbing the actual desired content.
This is the 500 channel universe we’ve heard about. Except, it’s really an infinite channel universe.
Of course, there’s a question of whether there’s enough bandwidth right now to handle it. The answer’s probably no – but – there is a plethora of ‘dark’ fiber, waiting to be powered up. If video is the next killer app for computers, there will be plenty of incentive to unleash enough bandwidth to enable it.
I work for a local TV station, but I don’t consider this our ruin. If we’re smart and aggressive, we’ll be able to sell the content we already produce, and specialized content that demands our localized expertise, in this new venue.