Postmodern Webcasting
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 10 (October 2004)

Postmodern Webcasting

There was a time, not too many years ago, when Web-casting was all the rage. It was during the dot-com craze, of course, when the Internet and Internet distribution seemed like the future of all things, and Webcasting was no exception. It didn't matter particularly that streaming video technology was immature, the products narrowly conceived, and Webcasting services just plain mysterious. The industry expected everyone—businesses and consumers—to hop aboard the stream train.

In the nearly four years since those high-flying days, streaming has kept a fairly low profile, and rightly so. For a while, it was kind of embarrassing for people to admit that they actually thought it would ever really work. Yet, a low profile does not mean Webcasting has gone away. Rather, the technology has simply taken its more appropriate place as an enabler of practical visual communications and entertainment solutions, rather than a solution unto itself.

A good example is in products like VBrick Systems' VBrick "stream-ing media appliances," which began to emerge during the Webcasting boom, and somewhat surprisingly, have continued to grow in popularity ever since. The idea of an appliance comes straight from the dishwasher, toaster, or refrigerator in your home: a product designed for a specific purpose that you essentially just need to plug in and turn on for it to do its job.

With VBrick, that task is inputting a standard video/audio input, encoding it into MPEG video, then packetizing it as IP (Internet Protocol) data for distribution over a network. VBrick Systems further attempts to remove as much of the techno-speak as possible by calling what it does "television over IP," thus allowing potential customers to understand in very straightforward terms what the products can do for them.

And what is that? For educational organizations like the State of Utah's schools and universities, it means giving students in remote parts of the state direct virtual classroom access to the system's best instructors. By sending real-time feeds of classroom lectures over a closed wide-area network, students across the state can receive much of the same classroom experience as those attending lectures. VBrick has also had widespread success in government and military applications by, for example, giving military base supervision direct visual oversight of remote training exercises.
With its streaming media appliances, VBrick tries to appeal to a broader audience by eliminating techno-speak and calling what it does "Television over IP."

Those are examples of narrowcasting that leverage the available bandwidth of closed intranets to send high-quality MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video. Yet, VBrick also supports MPEG-4 and Webcasting to the broader Internet with products like VBXcast. It has the same appliance-like mission of encoding and packetizing data, but with a lower data-rate compression format.

One of the smartest things that VBrick has done with VBXcast is to include 5gb of prepaid streaming content with the purchase of the device. That allows new users to test and explore their Webcast-ing and bandwidth needs before ever committing to monthly service and bandwidth agreements. What's more, a ready-to-go account with an experienced service provider means that Webcasting is still as easy as plugging in an appliance, connecting video sources, starting a Webcast, and sending viewers an e-mail link to see the stream. That's a big difference from the complexity new users faced a few years ago.

Sony is another company that is offering Webcasting as a feature rather than a focus. Sony's new Anycast Station is a six-input video switcher and six-channel audio mixer built into a briefcase-sized carrying case. On the surface, that's not really all that new; it's reminiscent of Pinnacle Systems' portable StreamGenie streaming media from a few years ago. The difference is that the Anycast Station is built for switching first, with Webcasting as one possible output rather than the primary purpose of the product.

With plenty of experience in video-production and live-event switching, Sony has built a professional portable switcher that's appropriate for use in a variety of applications, including business presentations, event staging, on-site promotions, and distance learning, whether or not Webcasting output is even used.

Sony's Anycast Station includes a server application that simplifies Webcasting for applications ranging from business presentations to distance learning.

However, the Anycast Station is built on an embedded Linux OS and has a CPU and a hard disk drive that allow it to record and store both still-image graphics and overlays, including PowerPoint slides and motion video clips. With a computer keyboard and mouse, it can easily call up these stored files during a live presentation or event. There is also great facility for on-the-spot title creation, as well as an RGB input for displaying content for a separate PC. The CPU is also powerful enough for real-time encoding, and a built-in server application makes Webcasting almost as simple as any other output, just as it should be.

Offering one of the clearest examples of the move away from technology for its own sake and toward practical solutions is RealNetworks, the company that once dominated streaming audio and video compression and whose RealPlayer once led in the battle for the desktop over Windows Media and Apple's QuickTime. Today, the RealPlayer has been superceded by the Windows Media player in terms of installed desktops, but RealNetworks has remained a streaming industry leader by charting a course that may be more important to the success of streaming in the long run.

First, RealNetworks has openly become codec agnostic, as RealPlayer works as comfortably with MPEG-4 and QuickTime (and even codec rival Windows Media) as with its own RealVideo compression format. In so doing, the company has boldly given up its former focus in favor of providing an infrastructure within which content owners can serve media to the Internet and, just as importantly, realize a return.

Most visibly, RealNetworks has spent much of the last four years building media partnerships and turning them into subscription-based Web channels viewable using the company's RealOne player. Content owners as diverse as CNN, the NBA, and iFilm now use the RealOne player and RealNetworks' SuperPass service as the vehicle for allowing paying customers to view premium content over the Web. For content owners, that means an Internet billing strategy potentially able to deliver a real return on investment.

RealNetworks' subscription-based content franchise has also grown to include RadioPass (featuring more than 3200 radio stations), RealArcade online gaming, the RealRhapsody online music store, and online movies in partnership with Starz. There's a lot to offer to a diverse viewer base, although it's ultimately only an example of what might be possible in the Internet age. More importantly, the company has shown that customers are willing to pay a subscription fee for streamed content and has offered a for-profit business model for Webcasting. That's a huge step forward for an industry that once had a "build it and they will come" mentality and effectively relied on broadcast-style advertising for narrowcast content.

Equally important, RealNetworks' Helix server platform offers a scalable architecture for delivering that content over a corporate LAN to a few viewers or, with gateways and proxies, over the Internet to thousands of simultaneous viewers. Helix even supports the emerging distribution of content to wireless devices, such as cell phones and PDAs. Most recently, Real 10 added important digital rights management, including support for portable and home consumer electronics devices.

Admittedly, none of these examples show that Webcasting has returned to the public perception prominence it had during its dot-com heyday. But they do indicate that Webcasting is increasingly a serious solution for distributing content to a targeted audience. And they prove that the promise of Webcasting, allowing both large and small entities to leverage the power of video, is starting to be realized.

Jeff Sauer is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and director of the Digital Video Group, an independent research and testing organization for digital media. He can be reached at