Streaming video is a sequence of “moving images” that are sent in compressed form over the Internet and displayed by the viewer as they arrive. Streaming media is streaming video with sound. With streaming video or streaming media, a Web user does not have to wait to download a large file before seeing the video or hearing the sound. Instead, the media is sent in a continuous stream and is played as it arrives. The user needs a player, which is a special program that uncompresses and sends video data to the display and audio data to speakers. A player can be either an integral part of a browser or downloaded from the software maker’s Web site.
Major streaming video and streaming media technologies include RealSystem G2 from RealNetwork, Microsoft Windows Media Technologies (including its NetShow Services and Theater Server), and VDO. Microsoft’s approach uses the standard MPEG compression algorithm for video. The other approaches use proprietary algorithms. (The program that does the compression and decompression is sometimes called the codec.) Microsoft’s technology offers streaming audio at up to 96 Kbps and streaming video at up to 8 Mbps (for the NetShow Theater Server). However, for most Web users, the streaming video will be limited to the data rates of the connection (for example, up to 128 Kbps with an ISDN connection). Microsoft’s streaming media files are in its Advanced Streaming Format (ASF).
Streaming video is usually sent from prerecorded video files, but can be distributed as part of a live broadcast “feed.” In a live broadcast, the video signal is converted into a compressed digital signal and transmitted from a special Web server that is able to do multicast, sending the same file to multiple users at the same time.
Streaming media is audio and video that are transmitted on the Internet in a streaming or continuous fashion, using data packets. The most effective reception of streaming media requires some form of broadband technology such as cable modem or DSL. A packet is the unit of data that is routed between an origin and a destination on the Internet or any other packet-switched network. When any file (e-mail message, HTML file, Graphics Interchange Format file, URL – Uniform Recourse Locater request, and so forth) is sent from one place to another on the Internet, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) layer of TCP/IP divides the file into “chunks” of an efficient size for routing. Each of these packets is separately numbered and includes the Internet address of the destination. The individual packets for a given file may travel different routes through the Internet. When they have all arrived, they are reassembled into the original file (by the TCP layer at the receiving end).
A packet-switching scheme is an efficient way to handle transmissions on a connectionless network such as the Internet. An alternative scheme, circuit-switched, is used for networks allocated for voice connections. In circuit-switching, lines in the network are shared among many users as with packet-switching, but each connection requires the dedication of a particular path for the duration of the connection. “Packet” and “datagram” are similar in meaning. A protocol similar to TCP, the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) uses the term datagram.
MPEG, the Moving Picture Experts Group, develops standards for digital video and digital audio compression. It operates under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The MPEG standards are an evolving series, each designed for a different purpose. To use MPEG video files, you need a personal computer with sufficient processor speed, internal memory, and hard disk space to handle and play the typically large MPEG file (which has a file name suffix of .mpg). You also need an MPEG viewer or client software that plays MPEG files. (Note that .mp3 file suffixes indicate MP3 (MPEG-1 audio layer-3) files, not MPEG-3 standard files.) You can download shareware or commercial MPEG players from a number of sites on the Web.
The term codec is an acronym that stands for “compression/decompression.” A codec is an algorithm, or specialized computer program, that reduces the number of bytes consumed by large files and programs. In order to minimize the amount of storage space required for a complicated file, such as a video, compression is used. Compression works by eliminating redundancies in data. Compression can be done for any kind of file, including text, programs, images, audio, video, and virtual reality (VR). Compression can reduce the size of a file by a factor of 100 or more in some cases. For example, a 15-megabyte video might be reduced to 150 kilobytes. The uncompressed file would be far too large to download from the Web in a reasonable length of time, but the compressed file could usually be downloaded in a few seconds. For viewing, a decompression algorithm, which “undoes” the compression, would have to be used.
There are numerous standard codec schemes. Some are used mainly to minimize file transfer time, and are employed on the Internet. Others are intended to maximize the data that can be stored in a given amount of disk space, or on a CD-ROM. Codec’s are used in many popular Internet products, including QuickTime, Netmeeting, Cu-Seeme, and VDOphone.
Flash, is a popular authoring software developed by Macromedia, and is used to create vector graphics-based animation programs with full-screen navigation interfaces, graphic illustrations, and simple interactivity in an antialiased, resizable file format that is small enough to stream across a normal modem connection. The software is ubiquitous on the Web, both because of its speed (vector-based animations, which can adapt to different display sizes and resolutions, play as they download) and for the smooth way it renders graphics. Flash files, unlike animated but rasterized GIF and JPEG, are compact, efficient, and designed for optimized delivery.
Known as a do-it-yourself animation package, Flash 4 gives Web designers the ability to import artwork using whatever bitmap or illustration tool they prefer, and to create animation and special effects, and add sound and interactivity. The content is then saved as file with a .SWF file name extension.
Web users with Intel Pentium or Power Macintosh processors can download Flash Player to view Flash content, which performs across multiple browsers and platforms. Flash is lauded for being one of the Web’s most accessible plug-in. According to an independent study cited by Macromedia, over 90 percent of Web users already have Flash Player installed. Macromedia was recently acquired by Adobe in a 3.4 billion dollar deal.