Las Vegas -- A new generation of creative tools on display
here last week made it clear that Webcasting is poised to become the common ground for
competition among broadcasters, programmers and service providers of every description.
While digital television was the primary topic of
discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention, the opportunity to
exploit Web-centric strategies stood out as one that's ready for primetime at a
moment when digital TV is at a mere beginning point in broadcasting and cable.
The strength of the Web framework for pursuing
interactive-entertainment options was evident in new streaming technology, in easy-to-use
3-D and other creative software tools and in an explosion in the means by which
high-quality video and multimedia applications can be distributed end-to-end.
"In the coming world of convergence, both Internet
companies and broadcasters have the opportunity to capture a huge new market,"
Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard noted in his keynote speech.
But while Kennard emphasized broadcasters'
over-the-air delivery system as key to their ability to compete in the interactive domain,
it was obvious that broadcasters, like everyone else in the entertainment-distribution
business, will have to jump on the Webcasting bandwagon if they are to benefit from the
full power of interactivity.
"Webcasting is not just broadcasting a station's
shaky audio or video on the Internet anymore," said Peggy Miles, founding chair of
the new International Webcasting Association.
With quality improvements made possible by high-speed
backbone and access networks, Webcasting has become a means by which digital-TV
broadcasters can "build narrow portals of interest and segmentation that will change
the experience of TV," she noted.
One of the key developments facilitating the move to
Webcasting of multimedia content is Apple Computer Inc.'s beta release of
"QuickTime 4.0," which now includes a streaming component that relies on the
same streaming-transport protocol used by RealNetworks Inc., the leading provider of
By choosing to use "Real Time Streaming Protocol"
-- now a standard endorsed by the Internet Engineering Task Force -- Apple has assured the
availability of streamed QuickTime files across a vast base of end-users with RTSP-based
"plug-in" client software already installed on their personal computers, said
Steve Bannerman, senior product manager for the QuickTime group at Apple.
"We've separated the server from the client
[software], which is crucial to getting to economies of scale," Bannerman added.
Until now, files containing multimedia clips based on
QuickTime -- the dominant tool in CD-ROM, Web and other multimedia applications -- could
not be streamed in real time unless they were reformatted into another vendor's
Now, developers using QuickTime 4.0 will be able to use any
existing QuickTime file, as well as many other multimedia formats, in streaming
applications, without having to reauthor the components, Bannerman said.
"Developers can capture, edit, archive and deploy
[content] assets at one time," Bannerman said. Apple simply added a new streaming
"track" to the process so that instructions to accomplish that task are
integrated into the file without having to change other file components, he noted.
Further expanding the flexibility and reach of QuickTime,
Apple is moving to multiple compression formats, including a new software-only codec
(encoder/decoder) developed by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sorenson Vision Inc., Bannerman
And, he added, Apple is making its source code available to
everyone so that QuickTime can be embedded in other vendor's media tool kits.
The new system also allows developers to create
applications, such as online games, where some content elements are accessed from the
network and others are embedded in playback devices, such as compact discs or DVDs.
"Imagine games where the network track provides new
versions without requiring the user to purchase a new CD-ROM," Bannerman said.
The extent to which developing multimedia applications has
been simplified was brought home in the unveiling of a new 3-D tool kit from MetaCreations
In a demonstration that drew expressions of amazement from
the audience, MetaCreations CEO Scott Hawthorne showed how, with a few mouse strokes, a
two-dimensional photograph could be turned into a 3-D graphic viewable from all sides,
where sides not shown in the original picture are filled in through special techniques
that are automatically applied by the software.
Hawthorne also demonstrated 3-D graphics created from
pictures taken from four angles, with degrees of resolution automatically adjusting to the
graphics power of the end-user's computer. And MetaCreations introduced a streaming
component to its tool kit that allows such graphics to be Webcast in e-commerce and other
"The system looks at the speed of the CPU [central
processing unit] and the pipeline and gives the graphic as much geometry as the system
will bear," Hawthorne said. Warner Bros. is one of the first customers putting the
new tool kit to use, he noted.
Along with a bounty of creative software that has made the
development of interactive Webcast applications extremely simple, the vendor community has
added new means of assuring distribution of high-quality video and other multimedia
content across national backbones.
As reported last week, RN's Real Broadcasting Network
has developed a new approach to distribution that will allow Internet-service providers to
deliver video streams without having to negotiate special backbone arrangements with
In another new development, Waltham, Mass.-based InfoLibria
Inc. unveiled a distributed network-caching technology designed to accommodate streaming
VHS- or better-quality video over the Web without requiring special backbone arrangements.
The system -- which was designed to support video streaming
at 750 kilobits per second and above -- uses caching and multicast technology in boxes
that can be colocated with ISPs' servers.
"We provide just enough buffering to assure that a
steady stream of fast data is multicast to end-users from the ISP POP [point of
presence]," noted Mack Leatherby, director of marketing at InfoLibria.
"Intelligent caching is something that will equalize
the ability of providers to distribute high-quality video, whether or not they have access
to broadband backbone bypasses of the Internet," he added.
Leatherby said InfoLibria has taken orders for
several-thousand units from ISPs. While declining to name most customers, he said RCN
Corp. -- which is deploying broadband-access networks in the Northeast -- will use the
gear to facilitate delivery of Webcast content.
From a cable perspective, it's clear that the fear of
being outpaced by other data-service providers with high-quality video content is
beginning to outweigh long-standing fears of cannibalization of traditional cable content.
The latest case in point is @Home Network's
"Click Cinema," a new 24-hour broadband-digital film portal that aggregates
short-form film and other entertainment content from AtomFilms, D.Film, iFilm.net and
Zeum, among other, unnamed entities.
"By using broadband to showcase movies as they were
meant to be seen, we can deliver a truly compelling online experience," said Eric
Elia, Click Cinema producer for @Home. "What the Internet did for publishing,
broadband is doing for filmmaking."
Clearly, the tools and distribution means are now in place
to push virtually anyone involved in interactive TV into the Webcasting space. The
development pace -- involving everyone from traditional broadcasters to cable MSOs to ISPs
-- could become explosive in the months ahead.