In the recent past, 99% of us didn’t know or care about video formats. We went to the video shop and got a plastic box with two spools of magnetic tape that somehow contained recorded motion picture and sound. Formats were something TV stations and film distributors were concerned with. Who cared if Beta — the dinosaur of the video world — was actually much better quality? Our Friday night in cost us $5 plus microwave popcorn and we were happy.
Then the world changed. Hurtling down the Information Superhighway, we could watch video clips on web pages. Millions of us have since become film producers and distributors (so much so that the home computer industry — led by Apple — is engaged in the latest big marketing push right now, catering to our ‘digital lifestyle’).
But even if you aren’t planning to be an online Scorsese or virtual Spielberg with your camcorder movie of Baby’s first drool, general background knowledge of video formats helps. At the very least, it’ll demystify your web browsing a little.
Islands in the Stream
Following the joint telecommunications industry/federal government initiative to sabotage the early success of broadband, most of us are still chugging away on 56k modems (or less). The only way to view a video over the web used to be the same way you view a page — your browser downloaded it, then displayed it. Doing so with a 4k html document isn’t a problem, but when it comes to a 5Mb video file, you’re in for a long wait.
One of the early solutions still in widespread use (and set to stay — as bandwidth power grows, downloadable multimedia will invariably follow) is streaming video.
Instead of downloading a whole clip, streaming video can direct your browser (or player) to play a video file as you download it. If you’ve ever watched a streaming video on the web, you’ll have noticed the word ‘buffer’ somewhere. If the data coming down the wire is too fast for your processing application to display it, it stores it in memory (a buffer) so the whole thing can run at the intended speed smoothly. If the incoming data is too slow, that’s when the video jumps or stops.
The race for software or standards omnipotence is as ongoing in video formats as any other area of IT. And like most areas, it’s settled down to a handful of big hitters and an endless string of small, entrepreneurial developers.
You’ll read a lot about ‘standards’ of video compression and delivery. Don’t be fooled by official sounding descriptions — everyone wants their tool to be the most used, and there are as many video ‘standards’ as there are video files. MPEG and AVI just happen to be the leaders right now.
What’s in a Name?
Mpeg is generally the best quality format for compression ratios, sound and picture quality. Developed by an International Standards Organisation committee (the Moving Picture Experts Group), Mpeg is a freely distributed set of standards (not a piece of software) for compressing and encoding video.
* 1991’s MPEG-1 is the original standard. At VHS quality, it was designed for use in multimedia like CD-ROMs and quickly adopted for the web because of the PC-screen resolution quality and small file size.
* MPEG-2, born in 1994, is DVD or broadcast quality. In theory, you could send an MPEG-2 file to a TV station or DVD distributor and they could broadcast or burn it to a DVD as is.
* Four years in development, MPEG-4 has just burst onto the scene. A huge feather in Apple Computer’s cap as it’s based on the Quicktime format, it’s scalable quality, so it’s destined for everything from broadband Internet to satellite TV and mobile phones.
No, they didn’t forget a number. Otherwise called MPEG Audio Layer 3, the file extension (.mp3) became MPEG-3’s nom de plume. A hugely successful audio compression format, it strips so much information out of music data (without there being any difference to the human ear) that entire music tracks can be sent across the Internet — much to the terror of the multinational music publishing industry.
Developed by Microsoft for use on the web and the subsequent standard in Windows, .avi (Audio Video Interweave) displays at 320×240 pixels and 30 frames/second — no good for full screen broadcast but perfect for downloadable clips over the web. Since 95% of the world’s computers run windows, most broadly targeted video on the web (like large porn clips) are .avi — simply because developers know there aren’t many computers without the in-built Windows Media Player.
Quicktime’s native video format, processed by the Quicktime player on either platform. Not nearly as ubiquitous as .mpg or .avi.
Developed long before the modern Internet by the likes of Yamaha and Roland, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard allows two electronic music devices (like synthesisers) to communicate, using computer data to describe values in a note like pitch, modulation, and duration.
The native Windows audio format for sound files, used for storing video rather than compressing it. Developed by Microsoft and IBM.
Apple’s default format for sampled sound in the Mac OS. Like .wav, it’s not a compression format.
Note. Most of the major players are cross-platform, so the old platform specific rules don’t always apply.
Who’s in the Game
Online video is a huge area already, and when the promised mass uptake of broadband happens, developers and providers will be fighting over content and delivery goldmines that are already worth big money.
Several corporate names are synonymous with video formats or services. Think streaming, and most people in the know mention the Realplayer Basic Player, the lynchpin of several partnerships with major content providers.
Living up to the reputation for the cutting edge digital experience they’ve reinvented the whole company around, Apple are ahead of the game by having a big stake in the new MPEG standard, which used the most recent version of their multi-platform player — Quicktime — as its basis.
The Quicktime player can display or process .aiff, .mpeg, .mp3, .wav, .aif, .mid, .png, .tif, .bmp, .targa, or converted .avi (several of which are static image formats).
Microsoft — rarely the first out of the gate but with the advantage of their huge customer base (and development purchasing power) — bundle Windows Media Player with Windows XP. Common supported formats include .asf, .asx, .wma, .wax, .wmv and .wvx.
But the war for video supremacy spreads further than developers. Because most people don’t give much thought to watching clips in a standalone player, developers have to create plug-ins for popular browsers — the ’embedded’ applications that take over processing of certain file types.
Developers will concentrate on the best performing (or most popular) browsers, then content providers will format their video or sound for the plug-in which will give them access to the biggest audience, so video compression/delivery standards have a sizable stake in the success of one browser over another.
To view online video, most of what you need is already in your web browser. If you’re more astute about the machinations of plug-ins and helper applications, you can even manipulate which in-built player handles each format.
Creating it is a different matter. Assuming you start with your raw, digitised video file from your production facility or DV camera, it has to be encoded for playing.
Encoding is much the same process in video as it is any other sort of file. It can (and usually does) encompass compression, but in simple terms, it’s the process of preparing a file for processing by software that carries the appropriate decoder (like Stuffit or Winzip have the decoders for the .sit and .zip formats).
How you encode video for use on the web is another story entirely. You can download a free converter that will change one format to another, or you can spend big money on professional video encoding with your own hardware or a film & video production service.
Who Will Kill the Radio Star?
Web video is a huge area, and getting bigger. Internet infrastructure is expanding beyond the phone lines, processing power is going through the roof and one day there’ll be as much web content on the airwaves as there is TV broadcasting now.
Whether that will mean the death of traditional TV or the melding of the two media, the stage is set for another dogfight between standards, formats, and the enormous sums of development money and effort behind them.