lthough many companies that built infrastructure for streaming video and established large-scale video encoding enterprises took it on the chin last year, streaming video is by no means dead. Quick as a flash - Macromedia Flash MX and Flash Player 6 - there's an easy new solution for streaming video. "Flash is continuing to grow in popularity online," says Phil Price, who heads Pelham, NY's Phil Price Digital Media. "With Flash MX, people are encoding video through the Flash .SWF file and playing it through Flash Player 6, so you don't need a streaming server," he points out. "You get around the [previous] high cost of streaming and get around the need to encode to all formats, too."
SF's Wild Brain creates the Web show Joe Paradise, which won first place in the "Internet Action Adventure" category at the World Animation Celebration.
With the release of Flash MX, developers "can embed video more smoothly into an animated program with interactivity," Price adds. "The whole point of streaming is not to just watch the video - the video is part of a whole interactive presentation."
MACROMEDIA FLASH MX
Macromedia Flash was originally developed by FutureWave and dubbed Future Splash Animator. "It was a drawing tool and you could create animations with it," recalls Troy Evans, Macromedia Flash Player product manager. "We acquired FutureWave Software in 1996, renamed it Macromedia Flash and added interactivity and scripting. Now we've added video."
When Macromedia (www.macromedia.com) acquired Future Splash Animator's .SPL format, it received a new moniker: .SWF for Small Web Format. Macromedia owns the Runtime player and distributes the .SWF format. "It's an open specification so a developer can publish to it with their authoring tools," Evans explains. Today some 40 to 50 tool vendors export to the .SWF format.
In just a few years Macromedia Flash has become ubiquitous among computer users with Internet access. According to a March 2002 NPD Research study, 98.3 percent of all Web users have Flash 3 through 6 installed.
With Adobe's LiveMotion2, users can employ the tools in After Effects and output to Flash.
Macromedia introduced Macromedia Flash MX, the sixth iteration of the software, and its companion Macromedia Flash Player 6 on March 15. Designed to create Internet content and applications, Flash MX has powerful video, multimedia and application-development features which allow the creation of rich user interfaces, online advertising, e-learning courses and enterprise application front ends. With Flash MX, vector-based content and applications download faster than their bitmap equivalents. Streaming data content appears immediately without users having to wait for the entire piece to download.
Flash Player 6 is the first to incorporate a true video codec, Evans points out. "We partnered with Sorenson, which created the Spark codec for us based on the H.263 standard, a small and lightweight standard used in videoconferencing. Flash Player 6 has only a small footprint within the browser for a compelling application.
"With Flash MX, you can put video in a .SWF file on a Web server and stream over HTTP, so it's easy to deploy video content," he continues. "With Sorenson's Squeeze software, you can batch convert existing video files and output them as .SWF files integrated with your Flash movie."
Flash MX's rich media support includes import and manipulation of any standard video file; dynamic loading of JPEGs and MP3 files in Runtime; and high-fidelity audio support for MP3, ADPCM and more. Flash Player 6 also features new accessibility required for government and institutional use. It implements the Microsoft Active Access Standard (MSAA) to allow screen readers such as Window Eyes to read out the content for the visually impaired. "We want to keep evolving that," Evans says.
Although Flash MX and Flash Player 6 do not support live video content on the Web, Macromedia expects to release future products for this application, according to Evans. Additionally, Macromedia is "very committed to supporting the next generation of devices," he says. "Flash Player 5 already plays in Casio's Pocket PC 2002."
With its reputation for high-quality video compression already firmly established, Sorenson was Macromedia's choice to provide the video capabilities for Flash MX. "High-end compression for quality video is what we do best," says Sorenson VP of marketing and sales Ed McGarr. "We have licensed proprietary codecs to Apple for QuickTime 3, 4 and 5."
After about a year of discussions with Macromedia, Sorenson licensed its Spark codec to the company. Spark is included in the Flash MX authoring tool for basic video encoding and compression; the Spark decoder is included in Flash Player 6. Sorenson also offers developers an upsell to Squeeze for Flash MX, which includes the Spark Professional version of the codec, a Variable Bit Rate (VBR) compression application. The advanced features in Squeeze with Spark Pro enable users to create high-quality video at much smaller file sizes than the standard Spark available in Flash MX.
Wildform's encoder Flix 2.1 outputs all types of Flash video, says CEO Jonathan Blank.
McGarr acknowledges that "we're somewhat dependent on the adoption rate of Flash MX for the upsell to Squeeze" but is confident that once people "wet their whistles" with the Flash MX authoring tool they'll crave even more capabilities available through Squeeze. "When you import video in Flash MX to do basic compression, a hot link to Sorenson Spark Pro comes up which shows its benefits," he explains.
The benefits of Squeeze are many. "We can give a one-third smaller file size," McGarr says. "Sorenson Vcast automated hosting services enable users to store any kind of files [Windows Media, Real, QuickTime] and with just a couple of mouse clicks deliver them worldwide over the Web, a process which has formerly been expensive and hard to do."
Squeeze supports two-pass VBR, which produces higher-quality video than standard compression while only adding slightly more processing time. It also offers intelligent presets, batch processing through Watch Folders, adjustable cropping, audio/video filters and video noise reduction.
Sorenson technical marketing manager Kari Bulkley, who helmed the beta program for Squeeze, reports that "people are shocked" to see that an uncompressed 218 MB video clip in the demo can be compressed to 400K "and it still maintains phenomenal quality."
The demo on the Sorenson Web site also shows "how easy it is to put video inside the MX application," he adds. As a result, "people who found barriers to putting video inside presentations are getting excited about using video."
McGarr says, "As the lights start to go on, where it makes sense people see that as an alternative choice to compressing for Windows Media, Real or QuickTime, they can compress just once and play the video everywhere. Flash Player 6 is being ported to all sorts of devices, and it plays on all browsers and platforms. The value is in the ubiquity of Flash."
He muses about whether Flash will become "a de facto standard in the light of the advent of MPEG-4. The dream of MPEG-4 has been that you compress once and it plays anywhere. But Macromedia may have stumbled on this first with Flash MX."
AVID'S FORMAT FLEXIBILITY
"The development community pushes what standards will be supported," notes Macromedia's Evans. "As more and more Flash content is integrated with video, we encourage developers to ask third parties if they support Flash."
Avid's Matt Allard says Avid-authored content can be output in a number of ways.
Avid Technology, Inc. (www.avid.com) has a longtime commitment to format flexibility. "Most video content is authored in Avid, and there are a number of ways to output it," notes senior product marketing manager Matt Allard. "We have connections to all paths, the ability to go to third-party products freely. It's easy for Avid to operate as a content provider for Flash developers on the video side. It's a natural extension of what we've been doing for years."
Avid has supported Sorenson's Spark codec since its introduction. With the purchase of the codec, Avid users can take immediate advantage of Flash MX, which will take a project created on an Avid Media Composer, Xpress DV or DS system and turn it into a Spark stream for the Internet. "We can take standard video types - MPEG, DV, QuickTime, AVI files - and incorporate them directly into Flash," Allard points out.
But Avid has gone beyond simple Flash output compatibility. At NAB Avid announced the MetaSync capability, designed to allow users to synchronize virtually any kind of metadata with video and audio during the post production process. MetaSync is a standard feature within Windows-based versions of Avid Symphony v.4.0, Media Composer v.11.0, Film Composer v.11.0, Media Station XL v.11.0, Avid Xpress v.5.0 and NewsCutter v.3.0.
"With MetaSync, we've added the ability to time interactivity to what happens in the video stream in XML, the language Flash speaks," Allard says. As long as a file type or process can be represented in XML, it can now be imported into Avid's editing systems and synchronized with video and audio content. This means that a separate team working on the metadata elements of a program is no longer required. An Avid editor, connected to a LAN or WAN, can edit the metadata directly into the Meta Track of a sequence during post.
Allard explains that the MetaSync capability grew out of Avid's exploration of interactive television. "We built an infrastructure to provide interactive authoring for TV and abstracted it to go well beyond interactive TV to things like triggering motion in a ride simulator. The idea is having triggers tied to video content with standardized XML input/output. Then you can provide triggers for anything that speaks XML."
This notion of regarding Flash content as akin to interactive television content shows that "the lines are blurring to the point at which we can see convergence happening," Allard says. "The interactivity we're beginning to do opens up exciting possibilities."
ADOBE's LIVEMOTION 2.0
"From our standpoint, Flash is primarily a vector animation format," reports Dave Trescot, director of product management for the dynamic media group at Adobe Systems (www.adobe.com). "When you get into true video with strongly synchronized audio and video content that people are going to watch for minutes, even hours I think they'll use QuickTime, Real, Windows Media and the upcoming MPEG-4."
Macromedia Flash MX features Sorenson's Squeeze with Spark Pro, which allows users to create high-quality video in smaller file sizes.
The newest version of Adobe's LiveMotion software, a tool which enables designers and developers to create versatile, animated content for the Web and other media in a number of formats, carries forward Adobe's support for Flash in the animation environment.
LiveMotion 2.0, which began shipping in February, integrates Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and GoLive into the .SWF workflow. Through a new After Effects plug-in users can export complex animations from After Effects 5.5 to LiveMotion 2.0 using the XML-based Adobe Motion Exchange (.AMX) file format where they can add interactivity and optimize for Web deployment.
Interactive content created in LiveMotion can be exported to .SWF with streaming MP3 audio and QuickTime videos for Web delivery.
LiveMotion 2.0 also fits easily into existing Flash workflows with support for ActionScript, which allows developers to transition back and forth between LiveMotion and other Flash authoring tools without having to learn a new scripting language. LiveMotion 2.0 permits Web professionals to move beyond basic Web animations to dynamic Flash applications, XML-based chat rooms and high-end interactive content.
"Flash has been the only available format for vector-based Web animation," Trescot notes. "For many, it's the only animation tool they've ever used. They don't realize there's a richer and deeper set of tools in After Effects. Something that may be incredibly difficult to do in Flash may be trivial in After Effects. Now, with LiveMotion 2.0, people get to use these After Effects tools and output Flash."
After Effects users who want to extend their work to the Web can bring their animations into LiveMotion 2.0 through the .AMX interchange and export .SWF, Trescot adds.
Wildform (www.wildform.com) was putting video in Flash before Macromedia knew it was possible, claims CEO Jonathan Blank. He recalls building a multimedia music Web site using the Real player and encountering a number of problems, "especially customizing the player for links, e-commerce and branding," Blank says. "We decided to look for something else and came upon Flash. It goes through firewalls, and everyone already has the player installed so it seemed to alleviate all the problems. Then we said, hey maybe we could put video on Flash, and we came out with Flix v.1, the first encoder to encode video to Flash."
The cost-effective Flix software quickly gained followers such as SF Interactive whose ad campaign on cnet.com using Flix garnered a response rate 400 percent higher than ever before. A Web project for Apocalypse Now Redux using Flix features clips from the new edition of the movie classic.
The Flash format offers a number of benefits, Blank points out. "Everyone has the player and can see the video without downloading. Companies can create customized players easily, which is great for branding. It's easy to add multiple links into the video and to embed interactivity into the player. And you can use Flash for rich media e-mail."
Now, with the release of Flash MX, Wildform has introduced Flix 2.1, which uses video compression comparable to QuickTime, Windows Media and Real. It offers both one-pass and two-pass variable bitrate encoding.
Flix 2.1 outputs all types of Flash video: Flash 3 through 5, Flash MX and Flix's own vectorized video. Because it will be a while before Macromedia's new Flash Player 6 achieves wide distribution, Flix 2.1 gives users the option of encoding in Flash 3 through 5, Flash MX or both. Flix also includes the new vectorized video output that consists only of vectors: lines and curves defined by mathematical equations that can scale to any size without distortion. Flix's vectorized video will play in any Flash Player (3 through 6).
"You can bring video into Flash, convert it into an animation with vector video, then animate it further, edit it, draw on it in the Flash authoring tool," Blank explains. "You can scale the image as large as you want and it retains all of its features full screen. People are using it to make professional shorts and feature-length movies."
Flix 2.1 also includes easy-to-use presets with bandwidth control; automated .SWF functions such as play controls, hyperlinks, load movie and preloading; and numerous output options such as HTML, Flash e-mail, JPEG and Windows and Mac projectors.
Although Wildform recognized early on the possibilities of Flash, Blank admits he doesn't know the full potential of the format. "With Flash MX, Macromedia is breaking into the streaming world. Will Flash compete as a full-blown media player? I don't know. It will be interesting to see in what direction Flash goes."
As for Wildform's Flix, "we're going to be adding additional vector outputs so we can use other software besides Flash," Blank promises. "We'll also be adding some editing capabilities and a cool feature designers love where Flix will output a player for you."
Macromedia's Evans notes that "developers are starting to push the limits of Flash MX. We're seeing compelling, engaging content and user interfaces. We think of what's possible, then the developers blow us away with what we never thought was possible."
Editor's note: Discreet, Media 100, Quantel and Apple were invited to share thoughts on supporting Flash but decided not to participate