Video over the Internet

Q. Dr Paul - the local Internet guru here is telling the professors here that anyone can do video over the Internet now, so that they need not bother with TV broadcasting any more. Our local cable TV company is very upset. Anxious of Amsterdam

A. Dear Anxious - If I could pass a law banning "Internet gurus" I would. As usual with gurus, there is truth in the message, but only the truly enlightened (such as the guru) understand the whole truth. Lesser mortals, like most of us, just panic.

There are a number of technologies that "do" video over the Internet. The technical term is "streaming video". A small add-on piece of software to your favourite Internet browser, the "streaming video player", allows you to watch video over the Internet, stop it, restart it, rewind, and so on, just like a video recorder. The video is stored on a powerful computer called a "video server". For best results the computer running the streaming video player has to be pretty powerful too.

A more serious issue is that, unfortunately for most of us, the kind of Internet needed to deliver streaming video of watchable quality is not the kind of Internet that most of us have - neither at home nor at work. To begin with, a connection which delivers around 1 megabit/s is required, far beyond modem speeds and a good way beyond ISDN. It is possible to do a sort of video over ISDN, like videoconferencing but not as good, in other words not the kind of video that one would normally pay to watch.

A second problem is that the Internet connection must transmit the video without noticable delay - the technical term is that it must have low latency. This kind of Internet is found, sometimes, in wealthy companies and advanced research insitutes, and is often called a broadband Intranet; it is not the kind of Internet offered by most Internet providers and at most universities.

A few lucky countries do have the kind of Internet that can deliver video. As in so many other areas, Finland is one of these. A trial of this kind of video is being run by Telecom Finland, in partnership with the Xing corporation of California.

There is another kind of technology that is often said to "do" video. This is the Internet version of videoconferencing. The most well-known piece of software in this area is called CU-SeeMe. It provides a kind of crude videoconferencing, but at the current stage of development it is not going to make anybody throw away their ISDN line and H.320 system from PictureTel or whoever. However, in time, as the software improves and the Internet gets "faster" (higher throughput, lower latency) it will become interesting.

If your professors are prepared to consider audio instead of video, much more is possible over the Internet at its current stage of development. The best known product delivering streaming audio over the Internet is RealAudio, from Progressive Networks. However, there are others, including from Xing. (As so often, the major players, including Microsoft and Sun are running well behind the niche companies. Interestingly, Progressive Networks was founded by ex-Microsoft people.)

The general way to describe RealAudio is to think of it as allowing you to run a radio station over the Internet. People can listen to the radio station on a mid-range PC or Mac, using a connection no faster than 14.4 kbit/s. It's amazing? (Even if the quality in the past has been only that of one's car radio in a bad signal area. It is getting better now.)

A number of universities including the Open University in the UK and over a dozen US universities are using RealAudio. There are two educational paradigms at present: the live lecture and the recorded tape. Many critics feel that neither of these sound like the future of distance education; however, experience at the OU confirms the view that with a sufficiently charismatic live lecturer, substantial audiences will tune in to a live lecture.

It is also thought that there are attractions in having a large on-line corpus of recorded tapes, such as in medical education. Theorists suggest that the real educational future of RealAudio and similar technologies lies in the delivery of a Web-searchable database of audio fragments. (Examples: pronunciation of dinosaur or chemical names, quotations from famous personalities.)

Work is going on apace to enhance the audio quality of RealAudio and similar products, but for best results, very fast modems or ISDN connections are likely to be needed.

There are also several products which handle telephony over the Internet; how successful they are will depend more on the long-term funding of the Internet and the views of the telcos than on software issues.

The most interesting area at present, certainly around ISDN speeds, is the delivery of audio-graphics over the Internet. Various firms including Progressive Networks and Microsoft have demonstrated streaming audio linked with WWW graphic pages. An interesting Israeli company called GEO is demonstrating a product called Emblaze which delivers cartoon-quality animations over the Internet at modem speeds. GEO has plans to link this to RealAudio.

Before one gets too carried away with this technology, aspiring Internet gurus should note three points:

I hope I have not put you right off. If you want to do something soon and are not in Finland, I suggest you play around with RealAudio.

Futher information with Hyperlinks can be found in Technology Watch and Dr Paul on the LearnTel WWW Site.

Issue 7 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 25 March 1997