Media

It's OK, the internet will scale fine

I’ve been seeing a lot of press lately worrying that the internet won’t be able to handle the coming video revolution, that as more and more people try to get their TV via the internet, it will soon reach a traffic volume we don’t have capacity to handle. (Some of this came from a Google TV exec’s European talk, though Google has backtracked a bit on that.)

I don’t actually believe that, even given the premise behind that statement, which is traditional centralized download from sites like Youtube or MovieLink. I think we have the dark fiber and other technology already in place, with terabits over fiber in the lab, to make this happen.

However, the real thing that they’re missing is that we don’t have to have that much capacity. I’m on the board of Bittorrent Inc., which was created to commercialize the P2P file transfer technology developed by its founder, and Monday we’re launching a video store based on that technology. But in spite of the commercial interest I may have in this question, my answer remains the same.

The internet was meant to be a P2P network. Today, however, most people do download more than they upload, and have a connection which reflects this. But even with the reduced upload capacity of home broadband, there is still plenty of otherwise unused upstream sitting there ready. That’s what Bittorrent and some other P2P technologies do — they take this upstream bandwidth, which was not being used before, and use it to feed a desired file to other people wishing to download the file. It’s a trade, so you do it from others and they do it for you. It allows a user with an ordinary connection to publish a giant file where this would otherwise be impossible.

Yes, as the best technology for publishing large files on the cheap, it does get used by people wanting to infringe copyrights, but that’s because it’s the best, not because it inherently infringes. It also has a long history of working well for legitimate purposes and is one of the primary means of publishing new linux distros today, and will be doing hollywood major studio movies Feb 26.

Right now the clients connect with whoever they can connect with, but they favour other clients that send them lots of stuff. That makes a bias towards other clients to whom there is a good connection. While I don’t set the tech roadmap for the company, I have expectations that over time the protocol will become aware of network topology, so that it does an even better job of mostly peering with network neighbours. Customers of the same ISP, or students at the same school, for example. There is tons of bandwidth available on the internal networks of ISPs, and it’s cheap to provide there. More than enough for everybody to have a few megabits for a few hours a day to get their HDTV. In the future, an ideal network cloud would send each file just once over any external backbone link, or at most once every few days — becoming almost as efficient as multicasting.

(Indeed, we could also make great strides if we were to finally get multicasting deployed, as it does a great job of distributing the popular material that still makes up most of the traffic.)

So no, we’re not going to run out. Yes, a central site trying to broadcast the Academy Awards to 50 million homes won’t be able to work. And in fact, for cases like that, radio broadcasting and cable (or multicasting) continue to make the most sense. But if we turn up the upstream, there is more than enough bandwidth to go around within every local ISP network. Right now most people buy aDSL, but in fact it’s not out the question that we might see devices in this area move to being soft-switchable as to how much bandwidth they do up and and how much down, so that if upstream is needed, it can be had on demand. It doesn’t really matter to the ISP — in fact since most users don’t do upstream normally they have wasted capacity out to the network unless they also do hosting to make up for it.

There are some exceptions to this. In wireless ISP networks, there is no up and downstream, and that’s also true on some ethernets. For wireless users, it’s better to have a central cache just send the data, or to use multicasting. But for the wired users it’s all 2-way, and if the upstream isn’t used, it just sits there when it could be sending data to another customer on the same DSLAM.

So let’s not get too scared. And check out the early version of bittorrent’s new entertainment store and do a rental download (sadly only with Windows XP based DRM, sigh — I hope for the day we can convince the studios not to insist on this) of multiple Oscar winner “Little Miss Sunshine” and many others.

How to stop people from putting widescreen TVs in stretch mode

(Note I have a simpler article for those just looking for advice on how to get their Widescreen TV to display properly.)

Very commonly today I see widescreen TVs being installed, both HDTV and normal. Flat panel TVs are a big win in public places since they don’t have the bulk and weight of the older ones, so this is no surprise, even in SDTV. And they are usually made widescreen, which is great.

Yet almost all the time, I see them configured so they take standard def TV programs, which are made for a 4:3 aspect ratio, and stretch them to fill the 16:9 screen. As a result everybody looks a bit fat. The last few hotel rooms I have stayed in have had widescreen TVs configured like this. Hotel TVs disable you from getting at the setup mode, offering a remote control which includes the special hotel menus and pay-per-view movie rentals. So you can’t change it. I’ve called down to the desk to get somebody to fix the TV and they often don’t know what I’m talking about, or if somebody comes it takes quite a while to get somebody who understands it.

This is probably because I routinely meet people who claim they want to set their TV this way. They just “don’t like” having the blank bars on either side of the 4:3 picture that you get on a widescreen TV. They say they would rather see a distorted picture than see those bars. Perhaps they feel cheated that they aren’t getting to use all of their screen. (Do they feel cheated with a letterbox movie on a 4:3 TV?)

It is presumably for those people that the TVs are set this way. For broadcast signals, a TV should be able to figure out the aspect ratio. NTSC broadcasts are all in 4:3, though some are letterboxed inside the 4:3 which may call for doing a “zoom” to expand the inner box to fill the screen, but never a “stretch” which makes everybody fat. HDTV broadcasts are all natively in widescreen, and just about all TVs will detect that and handle it. (All U.S. stations that are HD always broadcast in the same resolution, and “upconvert” their standard 4:3 programs to the HD resolution, placing black “pillarbox” bars on the left and right. Sometimes you will see a program made for SDTV letterbox on such a channel, and in that case a zoom is called for.)

The only purpose the “stretch” function has is for special video sources like DVD players. Today, almost all widescreen DVDs use the superior “anamorphic” widescreen method, where the full DVD frame is used, as it is for 4:3 or “full frame” DVDs. Because TVs have no way to tell DVD players what shape they are, and DVD players have no way to tell TVs whether the movie is widescreen or 4:3, you need to tell one or both of them about the arrangement. That’s a bit messy. If you tell a modern DVD player what shape TV you have, it will do OK because it knows what type of DVD it is. DVD players, presented with a widescreen movie and a 4:3 TV will letterbox the movie. However, if you have a DVD player that doesn’t know what type of TV it is connected to, and you play a DVD, you have to tell the TV to stretch or pillarbox. This is why the option to stretch is there in the first place.

However, now that it’s there, people are using it in really crazy ways. I would personally disable stretch mode when playing from a source known not to be a direct video input video player, but as I said people are actually asking for the image to be incorrectly stretched to avoid seeing the bars.

So what can we do to stop this, and to get the hotels and public TVs to be set right, aside from complaining? Would it make sense to create “cute” pillarbars perhaps with the image of an old CRT TV’s sides in them? Since HDTVs have tons of resolution, they could even draw the top and bottom at a slight cost of screen size, but not of resolution. Some TVs offer the option of gray, black and white pillars, but perhaps they can make pillars that somehow match the TV’s frame in a convincing way, and the frame could even be designed to blend with the pillars.

Would putting up fake drapes do the job? In the old days of the cinema, movies came in different widths sometimes, and the drapes would be drawn in to cover the left and right of the screen if the image was going to be 4:3 or something not as wide. They were presumably trying to deal with the psychological problem people have with pillarbars.

Or do we have to go so far as to offer physical drapes or slats which are pulled in by motors, or even manually? The whole point of flatscreen TVs is we don’t have a lot of room to do something like this, which is why it’s better if virtual. And of course it’s crazy to spend the money such things would cost, especially if motorized, to make people feel better about pillarbars.

I should also note that most TVs have a “zoom” mode, designed to take shows that end up both letterboxed and pillarbarred and zoom them to properly fit the screen. That’s a useful feature to have — but I also see it being used on 4:3 content to get rid of the pillarbars. In this case at least the image isn’t stretched, but it does crop off the top and bottom of the image. Some programs can tolerate this fine (most TV broadcasts expect significant overscan, meaning that the edges will be behind the frame of the TV) but of course on others it’s just as crazy as stretching. I welcome other ideas.

Update: Is it getting worse, rather than better? I recently flew on Virgin America airlines, which has widescreen displays on the back of each seat. They offer you movies (for $8) and live satellite TV. The TV is stretched! No setting box to change it, though if you go to their “TV chat room” you will see it in proper aspect, at 1/3 the size. I presume the movies are widescreen at least.

Darfur movie, with white actors

There’s a great tragedy going on in the Sudan, and not much is being done about it. Among the people trying to get out the message are hollywood celebrities. I am not faulting them for doing that, but I have a suggestion that is right up their alley.

Which is to make a movie to tell the story, a true movie that is, hopefully a moving as a Schinder’s List or the Pianist. Put the story in front of the first world audience.

And, I suggest with a sad dose of cynicism, do it with whitebread american actors. Not that African actors can’t do a great job and make a moving film like Hotel Rwanda. I just have a feeling that first world audiences would be more affected if they saw it happening to people like them, rather than people who live in a tiny poor muslim villages in a remote desert. The skin colour is only part of what seems to have distanced this story to the point that little is being done. We may have to never again believe that people will keep the vow of never again.

So change the setting a bit and the people, but keep the story and the atrocities, and perhaps it can have the same effect that seeing a Schindler’s list can have on white euro descended Jews and non-Jews. And the Hollywood folks would be doing exactly what they are best at.

Time for RSS and the aggregators to understand small changes

Over 15 years ago I proposed that USENET support the concept of “replacing” an article (which would mean updating it in place, so people who had already read it would not see it again) in addition to superseding an article, which presented the article as new to those who read it before, but not in both versions to those who hadn’t. Never did get that into the standard, but now it’s time to beg for it in USENET’s successor, RSS and cousins.

I’m tired of the fact that my blog reader offers only two choices — see no updates to articles, or see the articles as new when they are updated. Often the updates are trivial — even things like fixing typos — and I should not see them again. Sometimes they are serious additions or even corrections, and people who read the old one should see them.

Because feed readers aren’t smart about this, it not only means annoying minor updates, but also people are hesitant to make minor corrections because they don’t want to make everybody see the article again.

Clearly, we need a checkbox in updates to say if the update is minor or major. More than a checkbox, the composition software should be able to look at the update, and guess a good default. If you add a whole paragraph, it’s major. If you change the spelling of a word, it’s minor. In addition to providing a good guess for the author, it can also store in the RSS feed a tag attempting to quantify the change in terms of how many words were changed. This way feed readers can be told, “Show me only if the author manually marked the change as major, or if it’s more than 20 words” or whatever the user likes.

Wikis have had the idea of a minor change checkbox for a while, it’s time for blogs to have it too.

Of course, perhaps better would be a specific type of update or new post that preserves thread structure, so that a post with an update is a child of a parent. Which means it is seen with the parent by those who have not yet seen the parent, but as an update on its on for those who did see it. For those who skipped the parent (if we know they skipped) the update also need not be shown.

Please don't videoblog (vlog)

At the blogger panel at Fall VON (repurposed to be both video on the net as well as voice) Vlogger and blip.tv advocate Dina Kaplan asked bloggers to start vlogging. It’s started a minor debate.

My take? Please don’t.

I’ve written before on what I call the reader-friendly vs. writer-friendly dichotomy. My thesis is that media make choices about where to be on that spectrum, though ideal technology reduces the compromises. If you want to encourage participation, as in Wikis, you go for writer friendly. If you have one writer and a million readers, like the New York Times, you pay the writer to work hard to make it as reader friendly as possible.

When video is professionally produced and tightly edited, it can be reader (viewer) friendly. In particular if the video is indeed visual. Footage of tanks rolling into a town can convey powerful thoughts quickly.

But talking head audio and video has an immediate disadvantage. I can read material ten times faster than I can listen to it. At least with podcasts you can listen to them while jogging or moving where you can’t do anything else, but video has to be watched. If you’re just going to say your message, you’re putting quite a burden on me to force me to take 10 times as long to consume it — and usually not be able to search it, or quickly move around within it or scan it as I can with text.

So you must overcome that burden. And most videologs don’t. It’s not impossible to do, but it’s hard. Yes, video allows better expression of emotion. Yes, it lets me learn more about the person as well as the message. (Though that is often mostly for the ego of the presenter, not for me.)

Recording audio is easier than writing well. It’s writer friendly. Video has the same attribute if done at a basic level, though good video requires some serious work. Good audio requires real work too — there’s quite a difference between “This American Life” and a typical podcast.

Indeed, there is already so much pro quality audio out there like This American Life that I don’t have time to listen to the worthwhile stuff, which makes it harder to get my attention with ordinary podcasts. Ditto for video.

There is one potential technological answer to some of these questions. Anybody doing an audio or video cast should provide a transcript. That’s writer-unfriendly but very reader friendly. Let me decide how I want to consume it. Let me mix and match by clicking on the transcript and going right to the video snippet.

With the right tools, this could be easy for the vlogger to do. Vlogger/podcaster tools should all come with trained speech recognition software which can reliably transcribe the host, and with a little bit of work, even the guest. Then a little writer-work to clean up the transcript and add notes about things shown but not spoken. Now we have something truly friendly for the reader. In fact, speaker-independent speech recognition is starting to almost get good enough for this but it’s still obviously the best solution to have the producer make the transcript. Even if the transcript is full of recognition errors. At least I can search it and quickly click to the good parts, or hear the mis-transcribed words.

If you’re making podcaster/vlogger tools, this is the direction to go. In addition, it’s absolutely the right thing for the hearing or vision impaired.

VAD (Video After Demand) instead of VoD

In an earlier blog post I attempted to distinguish TVoIP (TV over internet) with IPTV, a buzzword for cable/telco live video offerings. My goal was to explain that we can be very happy with TV, movies and video that come to us over the internet after some delay.

The two terms aren’t really very explanatory, so now I suggested VAD, for Video-after-demand. Tivo and Netflix have taught us that people are quite satisifed if they pick their viewing choices in advance, and then later — sometimes weeks or months later — get the chance to view them. The key is that when they sit down to watch something, they have a nice selection of choices they actually want to see.

The video on demand dream is to give you complete live access to all the video in the world that’s available. Click it and watch it now. It’s a great dream, but it’s an expensive one. It needs fast links with dedicated bandwidth. If your movie viewing is using 4 of your 6 megabits, somebody else in the house can’t use those megabits for web surfing or other interactive needs.

With VaD you don’t need much in your link. In fact, you can download shows that you don’t have the ability to watch live at all, or get them at higher quality. You just have to wait. Not staring at a download bar, of course, nobody likes that, but wait until a later watching session, just as you do when you pick programs to record on a PVR like the Tivo.

I said these things before, but the VaD vision is remarkably satisfying and costs vastly less, both to the consumer, and those building out the networks. It can be combined with IP multicasting (someday) to even be tremendously efficient. (Multicasting can be used for streaming but if packets are lost you have only a limited time to recover them based on how big your buffer is.)

Better handling of reading news/blogs after being away

I’m back fron Burning Man (and Worldcon), and though we had a decently successful internet connection there this time, you don’t want to spend time at Burning Man reading the web. This presents an instance of one of the oldest problems in the “serial” part of the online world, how do you deal with the huge backup of stuff to read from tools that expect you to read regularly.

You get backlogs of your E-mail of course, and your mailing lists. You get them for mainstream news, and for blogs. For your newsgroups and other things. I’ve faced this problem for almost 25 years as the net gave me more and more things I read on a very regular basis.

When I was running ClariNet, my long-term goal list always included a system that would attempt to judge the importance of a story as well as its topic areas. I had two goals in mind for this. First, you could tune how much news you wanted about a particular topic in ordinary reading. By setting how iportant each topic was to you, a dot-product of your own priorities and the importance ratings of the stories would bring to the top the news most important to you. Secondly, the system would know how long it had been since you last read news, and could dial down the volume to show you only the most important items from the time you were away. News could also simply be presented in an importance order and you could read until you got bored.

There are options to do this for non-news, where professional editors would rank stories. One advantage you get when items (be they blog posts or news) get old is you have the chance to gather data on reading habits. You can tell which stories are most clicked on (though not as easily with full RSS feeds) and also which items get the most comments. Asking users to rate items is usually not very productive. Some of these techniques (like using web bugs to track readership) could be privacy invading, but they could be done through random sampling.

I propose, however, that one way or another popular, high-volume sites will need to find some way to prioritize their items for people who have been away a long time and regularly update these figures in their RSS feed or other database, so that readers can have something to do when they notice there are hundreds or even thousands of stories to read. This can include sorting using such data, or in the absence of it, just switching to headlines.

It’s also possible for an independent service to help here. Already several toolbars like Alexa and Google’s track net ratings, and get measurements of net traffic to help identify the most popular sites and pages on the web. They could adapt this information to give you a way to get a handle on the most important items you missed while away for a long period.

For E-mail, there is less hope. There have been efforts to prioritize non-list e-mail, mostly around spam, but people are afraid any real mail actually sent to them has to be read, even if there are 1,000 of them as there can be after two weeks away.

Paradox of abundance, with DVRs and Netflix/Peerflix

An interesting article in the WSJ yesterday on the paradox of abundance describes how many Netflix customers are putting many “highbrow” or “serious” movies on their lists, then letting them sit for months, unwatched, even returning them unwatched.

This sounds great for Netflix, of course, though it would be bad for Peerflix.

It echoes something I have been observing in my own household with the combination of a MythTV PVR with lots of disk space and a Peerflix subscription. When the time pressure of the old system goes off, stuff doesn’t get watched.

This is a counter to one of the early phenomenon that people with PVRs like Tivo/MythTV experience, namely watching more TV because it’s so much more convenient and there’s much more to watch than you imagined. In particular, when you record a series on your PVR, you watch every episode of that series unless you deliberately try not to (as I do with my “abridged” series watching system where I delete episodes of shows if they get bad reviews.)

In the past, with live TV, you might be a fan of a series, but you were going to miss a few. They expected you to and included “Previously on…” snippets for you. For a few top series you set up the VCR, but even then it missed things. And only the most serious viewers had a VCR record every episode of every show they might have interest in. But that’s easy with the PVR.

We’ve found some of our series watching to be really delayed. Sometimes it’s deliberate — we won’t watch the cliffhanger final episode of a season until we know we have the conclusion at the start of the next season, though that has major spoiler risks. Sometimes there will be series fatigue, where too much of your viewing time has gone to a set of core series and you are keen for something else — anything else. Then the series languishes.

Now there is some time pressure in the DVR. Eventually it runs out of disk space and gets rid of old shows. Which is what makes the DVDs from Peerflix or Netflix in even more trouble. Some have indeed gone 6 months without watching.

As the WSJ article suggests, part of it relates to the style of show. One is always up for lighthearted shows, comedies etc. But sitting there for months is The Pianist. For some reason when we sit down in front of the TV and want to pick a show, Nazis never seem very appealing. Even though we know from recommendations that it’s a very good film.

When the cinema was the normal venue for films, the system of choice was different. First of all, if we decide we want to go out to a movie, we’ll consider the movies currently playing. Only a small handful will be movies we think worthwhile to go to. In that context, it’s much more likely we might pick a serious or depressing movie with Nazis in it. It could easily be the clear choice in our small list. In addition, we know that the movie will only be in cinemas for a short time, any given movie, especially serious ones, may be gone in a few weeks. That’s even more true in smaller markets.

I’ve also noticed a push for shorter programming. When you’ve rented a DVD, your plan for the evening is clear, you are going to watch a movie at home. When you just sit down to choose something from your library, the temptation is strong to watch shorter things instead of making a 2 hour committment to a longer thing.

These factors are even more true when there are 2 or more people to please, instead of just one. The reality seems to be when the choice is 2 hours of war or Nazis or a 22 minute TV comedy, the 22 minute comedy — even several of them in a row — is almost always the winner. Also popular are non-fiction shows, such as science and nature shows, which have no strict time contract since you can readily stop them in the middle to resume later with no suspense.

Anyway, as you can see the WJS article resonated with me. Since the phenomenon is common, the next question is what this means for the industry. Will the market for more serious movies be diminished? The public was already choosing lighter movies over serious ones, but now even those who do enjoy the serious movies may find themselves tending away from them.

Of course, if people take a DVD from Netflix and leave it on the shelf for months, that actually helps the market for the disk in the rental context, helps it quite a bit. Far more copies are needed to meet the demands of the viewers, even if there are fewer viewers. However, the real shift coming is to pay-per-view and downloading. If people look at the PPV menu and usually pick the light movie over the serious one, then the market for the serious ones is sunk.

End the accursed roving mic at conferences

These days a lot of conferences are being recorded and even live broadcast on the net. So they make a rule that people asking questions must wait for the microphone, causing long pauses that ruin the momentum of a debate or discussion.

I recommend conferences doing this get one of those small parabolic microphones if they can (mount it on the video camera if there is operator controlled video) or give it to an assistant. They can point it at the asker, and then they can talk until a better microphone arrives.

Another option (which might actually be good for coordinating questions) would be to tell question askers to phone a special number on their cell phone. When they are acknowledged to talk, they would press a key, and the sound mixer guy could unmute their channel. They could talk, at low fidelity until the wireless mic arrives. This could also be a way to line up for questions. The moderator could announce a the last few digits in the participant’s phone number (enough to be unique) and allow that phone into the sound system.

People with laptops could also use a voice app (perhaps even through the non-connected AP described in the prior blog post) if they had a microphone on their laptop!

I get, but mostly don't get, the slingbox

Jeff Pulver is a giant fan of the SlingBox, a small box you hook up to your TV devices and ethernet, so you can access your home TV from anywhere. It includes a hardware encoder, infrared controllers to control your cable box, Tivo or DVD player, and software for Windows to watch the stream. The creators decided to build it when they found they couldn’t watch their San Francisco Giants games while on business trips.

And I get that part. For those who spend a great deal of time on the road, the hotel TV systems are pretty sucky. They only have a few channels (and rarely Comedy Central, which has the only show I both watch on a daily basis and which needs to be watched sooner rather than later) as well as overpriced movies. But at the same time you have to be spending a lot of time on the road to want this. My travel itineraries are intense enough that watching TV is the last thing I want to do on them.

But at the same time it’s hard not to be reminded of the kludge this is, especially hooked to a Tivo. And if you have a Tivo or simliar device, you know it’s the only way you will watch TV, live TV is just too frustrating. I don’t have Tivo any more, I have MythTV. MythTV is open, which is to say it stores the recorded shows on disk in files like any other files. If I wanted to watch them somewhere else, I could just copy or stream them easily from the MythTV box, and that would be a far better experience than decoding them to video, re-encoding them with the SlingBox and sending them out. Because of bandwith limits, you can’t easily do this unless you were to insert a real-time transcoder to cut the bandwidth down, ideally one that adapts to bandwidth as the Slingbox does. And I don’t think anybody has written one of these, because I suspect the MythTV developers are not that too-much-time-on-the-road SlingBox customer.

(Admittedly the hardware transcode would be useful, but a 3GHZ class machine should be capable of doing it in software, and really, this should just be software.) For watching live TV, if you cared, you probably could do that in Myth TV. If you cared.

So the SlingBox…  read more »

Sudden web traffic not so great with Adsense

As I’ve written before, Google’s Adsense program is for many people bringing about the dream of having a profitable web publication. I have a link on the right of the blog for those who want to try it. I’ve been particularly impressed with the CPMs this blog earns, which can be as much as $15. The blog has about 1000 pageviews/day (I don’t post every day) and doesn’t make enough to be a big difference, but a not impossible 20-fold increase could provide a living wage for blogging. Yahoo publisher’s blog ads, which some of you are seeing in the RSS feed have been a miserable failure, and will be removed next software upgrade. They are poorly targetted and have earned me, literally, not even a dollar.

Recently however I noticed a way in which the Google targetting engine is too good, from my standpoint. From time to time my web sites or blog will get linked from a very high traffic site. This week the 4th amendment shipping tape was a popular stumble-upon, for example. I’ve also been featured from time to time in Slashdot, boingboing and various other popular sites.

When this happens, it’s not a money maker because the click-throughs and CPMs drop way down. This is not too surprising. The people following a quick link are less likely to be looking for the products Google picks to advertise. However, more recently I saw high traffic bringing down not just the CPM, but even the total dollars! I theorize that Google, seeing poor clickthrough, cycles out the normally lucrative ads to try others. So even the normal visitors, who have not gone away, are seeing more poorly chosen ads. Or it could just be randomness that I’m seeing a pattern in.

Solution: Consider the referer when placing ads. If the clickthrough is poor on a given referer (like slashdot or boingboing) then play with the ads to hunt for better clickthrough. For the more regular referers (which are typically internal, the result of searches and regular readers) stick to the ads that typically perform well with that group.

Give us TVoIP, not IPTV

A buzzword in the cable/ilec world is IPTV, a plan to deliver TV over IP. Microsoft and several other companies have built IPTV offerings, to give phone and cable companies what they like to call a “triple play” (voice, video and data) and be the one-stop communications company.

IPTV offerings have you remotely control an engine at the central office of your broadband provider which generates a TV stream which is fed to your TV set. Like having the super set-top box back at the cable office instead of in your house. Of course it requires enough dedicated bandwidth to deliver good quality TV video. That’s 1.5 to 2 megabits for regular TV, 5 to 10 for HDTV with MP4.

Many of the offerings look slick. Some are a basic “network PVR” (try to look like a Tivo that’s outsourced) and Microsoft’s includes the ability to do things you can’t do at your own house, like tune 20 channels at once and have them all be live in small boxes.

I’m at the pulver.com Von conference where people are pushing this, notably the BellSouth exec who just spoke.

But they’ve got it wrong. We don’t need IPTV. We want TVoIP or perhaps more accurately Vid-o-IP. That’s a box at your house that plays video, and uses the internet to suck it down. It may also tune and record regular TV signals (like MythTV or Windows Media Center.)

Now it turns out that’s more expensive. You have to have a box, and a hard drive and a powerful processor. The IPTV approach puts all that equipment at the central office where it’s shared, and gets economies of scale. How can that not be the winner?

Well for one, TVoIP doesn’t require quality bandwidth. You can even use it with less bandwidth than a live stream takes. That’s because after people get TVoIP/PVR, they don’t feel inclined to surf. IPTV is still too much in the “watch live TV” world with surfing. TVoIP is in the poor-man’s video on demand world (like NetFlix and Tivo) where you pick what you might want to see in advance, and later go to the TV to pick something from the list of what’s shown up. Tuns out that’s 95% as good as Video on Demand, but much cheaper.

But more importantly, it’s under your control. Time and time again, the public has picked a clunkier, more expensive, harder to maintain box that’s under their own control over a slick, cheap service that is under the control of some bureaucracy. PCs over mainframes. PCs over Network Computers and Timesharing and SunRays. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why they did this for economic reasons, or even for quality reasons.

They did it because of choice. The box in your own house is, ideally, a platform you own. One that you can add new things to because you want them, and 3rd party vendors can add things to because you demand them. Central control means central choice of what innovations are important. And that never works. Even when it’s cheaper.

If the set top box were to remain a set top box, a box you can’t control, then IPTV would make good sense. But we don’t want it to be that. It’s now time to make it more, and companies are starting to offer products to make it more. We want a platform. Few people want to program it themselves, but we all want great small companies innovating and coming up with the next new thing. Which TVoIP can give us and IPTV won’t. Of course, there are locked TVoIP boxes, like the Akimbo and others, but they won’t win. Indeed, some efforts, like the trusted computing one, seek to make the home box locked, instead of an open platform, when it comes to playing media (and thus locking linux out of the game.) A truly open platform would see the most innovation for the user.

Disclaimer, I am involved with BitTorrent, which makes the most popular software used for downloading video over the internet.

How web sites can do a much smarter 'pledge drive'

There is buzz about how Jason Kottke, of kottke.org, has abandoned his experiment of micropayment donations to support his full-time blogging. He pulled in $40,000 in the year, almost all of it during his 3 week pledge drive, but that's hardly enough. Now I think he should try adsense, but I doubt he hasn't heard that suggestion before.

However, PBS/NPR are able to get a large part of their budgets through pledge drives, so it's possible to make this happen. I think we should be able to do it better on the web.

For example, on PBS/NPR, when they start the pledge drive, they get into a pretty boring endless repeat of the basic message. They tell you that if they reach the goal, they can end the pledge drive early. But this rarely happens, and even when it does, if you pledge early, it doesn't stop the begging.

On the web it could. You could do a pledge drive here where, after a person donates, the drive is over for them. This is not the same as sites that simply charge a subscription fee to get past the ads (such as Salon and Slashdot). This would be an organized pledge drive which is over for everybody after a set period, but over even sooner for those who donate. (There's a touch of work to do for people who use multiple machines, of course.)

Indeed you could even have a "turn off pledge drive I'm never going to give" button for the freeloaders as an experiment. Or it might turn it down a notch. Hard to say if this would work. Of course, people could also write filters for web begging if you make the drives too long. Of course, the drive could even be started at an individual time for the less frequent visitors, though that punishes those who disable cookies or switch machines.

Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Student annotated video of lectures

Today many universities are doing video of their lectures, and making it available on the campus LAN (or older campus cable TV.) In some cases students are not going to class, but many just find it a useful addition.

I suggest an application where students, while watching the lecture, could press keys on their computer synced in timestamp with the video. They don't need to be online, they just need a modestly good clock. Buttons like "This is important, review this for the final." Or even comments like "I already know this" and "I'm lost."

Students might use the timestamps themselves to build a "best of" video of the lectures, since you could not possibly watch all the lectures to review for the exam. The combined votes of students could be merged to produce a consensus vote on the best and worst parts of the lecture.

The professor could even review these things to see where the students are getting lost, what material they think is most valuable etc.

Of course this could also be done with plain audio of the classes but video would show the course materials and blackboards.

Perhaps one student in the class might take it upon herself to edit together a study video for others to use. They could even charge for it if it were really good.

Internet TV, I'm waiting for you

I’m an earlier adopter with my mythTV box and fast connection. But I’m really keen to see the move to getting TV shows over IP. Cable’s bulk pricing just isn’t doing it for me any more.

I get many shows now via broadcast digital TV, and while I think this is a giant waste of spectrum, while it’s there I will certainly use it. So I’ve started examining just how much I get from my cable. Of course your tastes will vary, but I find I’m starting to care about only 3 or 4 channels. And since I’m paying $45/month plus tax for expanded basic cable from Comcast, that’s a great deal of money per channel. Those channels would be wise to start becoming available over the net, because we early adopters will pay nice prices compared to what the cable companies are paying.

The key is that with the MythTV or other DVR, you stop channel surfing. You pick the programs you like, and it records all of them and you don’t watch random shows. (Except for Tivo-style “suggestions.”)

Even though you limit your TV to just a subset of shows, you quickly are surprised to change the “500 channels and nothing on” problem into “just a few shows and always something good ready to watch.” Surfing and deliberate watching are just that different.

So the shows on cable I’m watching are the Daily Show (and somtimes a few other Comedy Central programs), some SF shows on the Sci-Fi Channel, and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Then, during certain events, I will go to the 24 hour news channels, the only things I ever find myself watching live. (Read on…) Now news, as it turns out, is the one thing that makes sense to be broadcast. It’s the only thing (along with its cousin, sports) we all want to watch the moment it’s produced. For the rest the delayed gratification of TV over IP, or even DVD rental through the mail, is just fine.

And indeed, the SF shows and Mythbusters will all appear on DVD 1-2 years after airing. The Daily Show is making itself available via the non-linux streaming media formats in reduced resolution, so it’s not quite ready for me, and it, as a form of news, needs to get to me right away. (The Daily show is on over the air TV in Canada.)

The TV shows on DVD are much better quality than analog broadcast, and of course inherently commercial free. They’re not HD yet, though. And the pointless delay, even though they get more money from people who buy or even rent DVDs than they do from advertisers at broadcast time. There is a 24 hour news channel made by ABC available over the air here.

The point is, if I could get my Daily Show in good quality and a format I can play on my system, I think I would be ready to drop my cable. The rest of my non-network watching would be on DVDs and the other brave shows willing to deliver to me this way, at a fair price — $1/hour for two adults, commercial free, if I buy in bulk. That would leave me without CNN, though the web is mostly substituting for that now, breaking news even faster than it does.

Of course there are people who watch shows from large numbers of channels who love the big bundling. They will hate this idea. But I expect most DVR users are seeing the number of non-network channels they watch drop, and the economics are changing.

(There are some intermediate alternatives. Dish Network has a $27/month package with the channels I want. Sadly, satellite systems don’t interface nearly as well with digital video recorders as analog cable does. Starchoice has a $20 CDN package but it has few of the classic cable channels, though it does provide The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, a couple of 24 hour news and lots of Canadian shows. About $18 USD after taxes.)

Slow RAID for the home network

Hard disk drives these days are cheap. Too cheap, in that while we love paying 30 cents/GB, the reliability is getting pretty poor. Doing backups, especially automatic backups is a must, but what about RAID?

One of the problems with RAID, at least RAID-5 is that you need to have 3, and ideally 4 or 5 drives in a machine. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of power, a lot of heat, a lot of noise. And many machines only have two IDE controllers so they can barely do 3 drives and can’t readily do more even if they had the slots and power for them.

So I propose a software RAID-5, done over a LAN with 3 to 5 drives scattered over several machines on the LAN.

Slow as hell, of course, having to read and write your data out over the LAN even at 100mbits. Gigabit would obviously be better. But what is it we have that’s taking up all this disk space — it’s video, music and photos. Things which, if just being played back, don’t need to be accessed very fast. If you’re not editing video or music, in particular, you can handle having it on a very slow device. (Photos are a bigger issue, as they do sometimes need fast access when building thumbnails etc.)

This could even be done among neighbours over 802.11g, with suitable encryption. In theory.

Not that there aren’t some major issues to overcome. The machines must be on most of the time. (A single disk can be taken out of a RAID temporarily, and thus a single machine hosting one disk can be turned off or rebooted, but not for long periods.) If you lose access to two disks (or your LAN) you can’t get access to the data. And it’s going to use a lot of your network capacity, though gigabit networking is starting to get cheap. And the idea gets better…  read more »

Tivo announces exciting new "file copy" feature

(You might want to see Tivo’s actual press release about being able to move programs from a Tivo to an iPod.)

ALVISO, CA — NOV 21, 2005 — TiVo Inc. (NASDAQ: TIVO ), creator of and a leader in television services for digital video recorders, today announced an enhancement to it’s system which actually allows the copying of files from one computer device to another, at least if its one of their partner devices.

The enhancement will include exclusive capabilities such as TiVo auto-sync that will allow subscribers to choose if they want new recordings of their favorite programs easily transferred to their portable devices via their PC. Every morning the devices can be loaded with new programs recorded the night before. This is similar to syncing technology available for decades on most computers, including the linux system Tivo is based on, but now in a revolutionary new feature, Tivo has put it back in.

“Sure, computers have always had the ability to copy and sync files, and we had to take all that stuff out of the Linux OS we built the Tivo on” said Tom Rogers , CEO of TiVo . “By enhancing our TiVo ToGo feature, we’re putting that back in, for our two specific partner devices, making it easy for consumers to enjoy the TV shows they want to watch though only if they have an iPod or PSP —whenever and wherever they want, unless it violates our other restrictions.”

TiVo said it will begin testing the feature in the coming weeks with a select group of TiVo Series2â„¢ subscribers who own the Apple Video iPod or PSP devices. TiVo said it plans to make the feature available to its entire standalone TiVo Series2 subscriber base as early as the first quarter of next year.

Last year, TiVo stopped disabling file copying for all its Series2 subscribers and called it the TiVoToGo feature. The TiVoToGo feature reducing the blocking of the normal ability to transfer TV shows from their DVR to a laptop or PC over their home network. From the PC, subscribers can watch the shows, or transfer them to devices compatible with Microsoft Portable Media Center format. Today’s announcement adds support for the Apple iPod and Sony PSP, as well as the ability to specify Season Passâ„¢ recordings to conveniently transfer to the portable device via the PC overnight. File copying is still blocked for all other devices.

Subscribers will need to purchase certain low-cost software to facilitate this revolutionary concept of copying files. To discourage abuse or unlawful use of this feature, TiVo intends to employ “watermark” technologies on programs transferred to a portable device using the TiVo ToGo feature that would disable the normal ability to have privacy over what programs you watch.

99 cents for a rerun with commercials?

I was amused to hear folks on PRI’s Marketplace radio program say that 99 cents for a rerun on the video iPod was a good price. Turns out that 99 cents includes commercials in that rerun, because people polled said they would rather pay 99 cents with commercials intead of $1.50 without them.

As I have written before, the public sure is misjuding this. TV CPMs are about $10, or 1 cent per ad shown to a viewer. So in a half hour program, with about 15 ads, the network and everybody below them would have made about 15 cents to show it to you. 30 cents for an hour long show. At full resolution too, and the ability to record it without DRM to watch later. Yes, Apple gets a cut, is it that huge?

So 99 cents is no deal, though they are actually sacrificing more to cut the price 50 cents and include ads, unless they can target the ads better and thus get more revenue from them. Will you be able to fast forward on the downloaded shows?

My main lament has been about what a bad deal TV advertising is. You get $1.20 worth of programming to watch a full hour of pure advertising. Way below minimum wage.

I want to see TV available for download, but I think instead of this system should give us shows at a similar cost to the advertising based one (plus a retail markup) at better resolution to boot.

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