Searching for monkeys in Cyberspace

Politics in Hi Def

clock August 25, 2008 20:13 by author offbeatmammal

DNC08 It’ll be interesting to look back on this post when the elections are over to see who the winner is but right now I’m watching the Democratic National Convention in all it’s HD glory.

The video gallery for the official Democratic Convention site has been developed using Silverlight by the folks at Vertio (who also developed the Hard Rock Memorabilia site and released the open source Slide.Show project).

Working with Level3 and Move Networks they are delivering a live HD video experience (not just maxing out your bandwidth – they use adaptive streaming to balance the quality to your connection and PCs capabilities) and within minutes of a speaker finishing at the podium the clip is available for on-demand viewing as well.

The quality is pretty amazing. I look at projects like this with 6 years of experience live streaming Big Brother as a filter and a minimum bar for quality and I wish I had access to these tools back then! They take Windows Media to a whole new level (and with Silverlight they bring in back to the Intel powered Macs with the same level of fidelity). Right now Silverlight doesn’t offer a Linux solution, but with the Moonlight player we can hope the same experience isn’t that far off.

I thought I was impressed, but the folks from Online Video Watch and seem to back my opinion up ;)

Downloads are the future

clock March 18, 2008 18:40 by author offbeatmammal

I'd not bought into the HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray war. Not because I thought one standard was better than the other, but because over the last couple of years I've become more and more convinced that over the wire and over the air distribution are going to dominate.

In the US with Comcast and Verizon pushing speeds (12Mbps and 50Mbps are fairly common for Cable and Fiber respectively) and despite the grandstanding about net neutrality and p2p on-demand video is growing - you only have to look at Netflix, AppleTV and the Xbox Marketplace to see that.

Rather than jump on the Blu-Ray bandwagon with the demise of HD-DVD Microsoft are betting on downloads as the way forward. As long as the infrastructure continues to advance and the ISPs and record/music business don't spoil it for everyone I think it bodes for a great future...

Fun with your webcam in Windows Live Messenger

clock July 20, 2007 23:25 by author OffBeatMammal

Windows Live Messenger is all about improving communications, but the folks at Microsoft Research don't think it has to be serious all the time.

The folks from the Visual Computing team have just released a demonstration of their Digital Video Effects for MSN Messenger project which showcases ideas based on several core technologies developed in the past few years by the team: face detection, face alignment, face segmentation, and 3D face pose tracking.

This release includes some fun features:

  • Background Blur: blurs the background to protect the privacy of the user.
  • Magic Lens: morphing of facial features, such as enlarging the nose (I'm sure folks with find uses for that feature!).
  • Flying Text: let text flying out of the user’s mouth as the user types any text in the edit control.
  • 3D face mask: attach 3D virtual objects or masks on user’s face. It's almost Halloween!

Of course this is very much an alpha so it may have unexpected results. If you have problems it's a simple uninstall from Add/Remove Programs (WinXP) or Programs and Features (Vista).

I'm off to plug my video camera back in....

Internet Radio - are it's days numbered?

clock April 18, 2007 03:50 by author OffBeatMammal

A while ago the RIAA asked to be awarded royalties from Internet Radio providers such as Pandora and Live365 that was totally disproportionate to their income and not in line with what traditional or satellite radio are being charged.

The first appeal against the ruling has failed.

This gouging is apparently intended to protect the artists, when in fact it looks like it will drive many of the US based Internet Radio providers to the wall. This is not good for anyone actually creating music.

The upshot is a lot of this artist revenue will either go away, or move offshore to less well regulated environments... and the only people who suffer will be the artists (I can't find it in my heart to care about the folks from the RIAA!)

Luckily you can help. There is a letter-writing campaign underway so you can let your Representatives know this is going on (email and fax work as well), and you can write to the media and spread the word on and off-line.

Let's not let short-sighted greed destroy a nascent industry that has the potential to reverse the record labels push to lowest common denominator mediocrity in mainstream music.

Reading about the RIAA and the latest DRM snafus, it makes you wonder why people are returning to DRM free vinyl...

Watching DVDs on my Xbox

clock January 17, 2007 00:23 by author OffBeatMammal

I can slot a DVD into my Xbox360 and watch it just fine. I can slot the same DVD into my Media Center PC and watch it just fine.

When I buy a DVD for my daughter I can rip a backup to my Maxtor HDD and file the original away to keep her sticky fingers off it but let her watch it on the Media Center. But what happens if I want to use the Media Center and have her watch the DVD in the other room on the Xbox... I've gotta go find the original disk again.

Why? Because while the Media Center is quite happy to stream a DVD image over the local network from the network connected Maxtor (or maybe soon a Windows Home Server) the Xbox only lets me do that for photos and music.

IMO this is a real limitation, a pain, and thorn in the idea of connected home entertainment. I'm not going to argue the legalities or the technicalities, just the user experience.

In his CES keynote this year Bill Gates talked about the connected media experience. I want it, and I want it all and now!

Well, in order to live the dream for the moment I have to make some sacrifices. Namely quality and convenience. While the Xbox won't let you stream a DVD to it, you can transcode it to WMV and it will let you watch that.

There are two solutions - live transcoding and manual. While Live transcoding seems like it should be the best solution it's fine for me, but a little hard for my daughter to control so I've gone the manual route at home.

The live solutions are Transcode 360 (for WinXP MCE and Vista) or TVersity. The former requires a Media Center machine, and the latter runs under any flavor of Windows XP or Vista.

Transcode 360 plugs into the existing Media Center interface or can be accessed as part of My Movies and is fairly simple to use though (in common with other on-the-fly solutions) you're at the mercy of a remote transcoding queue. Movies are selected from the usual user friendly UI within the Media Center Extender display and you then elect to start the transcoder to play it.

TVersity is another good solution (and doesn't need MCE - it works on any PC) that works pretty well (with the same caveats as Transcode 360) however the selection of available content is from within the Xbox Video list - a text filename list... so it has the added disadvantage for my daughter of no pretty pictures.

With both the live solutions I've had problems with the queues not starting/stopping as expected and the software getting itself tied in knots. As I say... okay for me, but not a good user experience for the wife and daughter.

So, that leaves manual transcoding. After looking around at a few I've settled on one that's fairly quick, easy to use and a good price.

Mobile DVD from SPBSoftwareHouse is intended to take your DVDs and transcode them for portable devices (mainly aimed, like most of their apps, at the Windows Mobile platform). I tried it because I use some of their other apps every day and think they're very good developers. With some tweaking of settings the resulting movie is as good a quality as pretty much anything I've seen via a transcode (and their forums indicate that support for a specific Xbox profile might be in the works).

This solution enables me to keep the original DVD in their jewel case and just transcode the main movie to a WMV, attach a pretty JPG to the folder and present the movies to her in the Media Center interface and she can use the Xbox just like she would the Media Center. I do however resent the extra work and storage space (as some movies we keep in DVD archive format as well because we want the special features and are happy to usually watch on the Media Center machine)

Note: With Transcoding you will loose extra material, multiple audio tracks, subtitles, etc., and a transcoding process always degrades the quality some

Update: Wii users can brag... Orb makes their life even easier!

the iPhone - will I love it?

clock January 10, 2007 17:40 by author OffBeatMammal

When I first heard the specs on the Apple iPhone I must admit I felt the drool starting. There is so much about this thing to like.

Apart from the fact it uses a weird mash-up of Google and Yahoo to provide the web search and services backend (when we have a much better solution with Windows Live Search, Messenger etc for Mobile - and Steve, we've had this going for a while now... it's not revolutionary) this is a pretty amazing device in many respects.

Apple are, if nothing else, masters of design. This looks pleasing, easy to use and capable. And despite Robbie Bach's misgivings on their ability to execute they appear to have come close to exceeding everyone's expectations.

The fact that this is an OSX device with support for a bunch of cellphone standards as well as WiFi and Bluetooth, sports a large touch screen that can cope with multiple points of contact, knows where it is in the world as well as it's orientation and how close to your face it is makes for a pretty capable platform.

On top of that add a standards compliant, fully featured browser (Safari) and a decent HTML mail client - without forgetting that it's also a phone and music player with all the polish of an Apple designed UI it's going to be popular.

Or is it?

Kevin Wilson has a good point:

My take on the iPhone? It's an awesome product. But I don't think its going to make a dent in Research In Motion's (RIMM) business. I don't see myself going away from a device with a keyboard. I think iPhone is going to be a big hit in the consumer smartphone market (with the caveat that the price point is an issue). But for mobile mail, there isn't a better device than the blackberry and I've tried them all.
I also think the exclusive deal with Cingular is nuts. Why force people who want an iPhone to switch carriers? Apple is an obnoxious company. They make wonderful products that blow me away. But I really dislike their approach to business.

And he's not alone though the nay-saying is, I think, waiting until more people have had this in their hands - though if they can't resolve their trademark dispute with Cisco (and Citrix) it might be under a different name. 

My take on it is that it's not perfect. It lacks 3G support (important outside of the US) and the forward facing camera that are required to do that properly. It's also very shiny - are we going to see the same saga of scratches and fingerprint residue that's plagued many of the iPod versions?

Battery life seems a little low for a device that's going to be always on, and always with you... and I wonder if they've learnt anything from the non-replaceable battery issues of the iPod. Update: Seems not, and 9 more things they've not learnt.

My first thought was "I want one" but overnight reflection says "wait for 2.0". At the moment I'm getting along fine with my K-Jam and Windows Mobile does everything I need... though not everything I want.

It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft (and the Window Mobile hardware OEMs) and the "traditional" cellphone companies (along with Symbian etc) respond to this.

I was bemoaning only recently that I don't want to carry both a Zune and a cellphone on my hip and look like Batman.. for many I think the iPhone will balance the need and the nerd sufficiently to raise the bar for consumers in this space.

WPF/E - resizable in-page video player

clock January 7, 2007 03:46 by author OffBeatMammal

With everyone in the office getting all excited about WPF/E I thought I'd give it a try. I got Visual Studio and the SDK all installed on my machine (see here and here for some handy hints on getting started) and wondered what to build...

Bearing in mind I have no artistic talents, and I didn't want to get bogged down on something too complicated I thought I'd pick on something that would have been pretty hard with earlier technologies.... dynamically resizing a video while it's playing embedded in a page (so all the content re-flows properly and everything looks cool.

Hopefully the sample below will work (or you can click to see it full-screen) if you don't see a video appear in the top right hand corner then you may need to install the WPF/E runtime.

What amazed me about this wasn't the first time I saw the video playing in the browser, or the fact I could resize it without it missing a beat... it was the fact that from clicking "Project | Create" in Visual Studio to uploading the sample here took about 2 hours (and I was half watching a movie on the TV at the same time!)

In fact, probably the single hardest thing was tidying up the JavaScript for Firefox! I've not had a chance to test this on OSX yet (my PowerBook is still in a container somewhere!) so I'd love some feedback from the Mac world...

If anyone wants the code just let me know and I'm happy to share... at the moment it's very ugly and probably not a good example of a "how to" with WPF/E (especially given my position on the learning curve and the amount of time I actually dedicated to this) - if I get it tided up (and work out why it's a bit jerky in FF) I will attach it here. But I think there will be a bit of RTFM first ;)

Ajax set to surpass Flash in '07

clock January 3, 2007 01:23 by author OffBeatMammal

A little behind the times but I think this is an interesting prediction - Ajax set to surpass Flash in '07.

I've never been a huge fan of Flash. It makes for hard to maintain applications with non-standard under interfaces (especially crippling keyboard control).

Ajax is, in some ways, a lot better a solution - allowing the same level of dynamic interface (albeit without some of the "prettiness") and when developing with one of the common libraries (such as Ajax.ASP.Net or makes for a very manageable implementation

Add WPF/E into the mix and you have all the benefits of both world... and for Windows and OSX users a better solution than Flash in many regards- and XAML is a much more open platform than compiled SWFs, and it is much easier to use in a scripting environment alongside the browser DOM.

Adobe are flexing their muscles with Apollo but feature for feature WPF/E looks like a better platform at the moment for shops not tied into the Adobe cycle - but it's going to be a tight race (see point #8)

A new era of TV?

clock December 29, 2006 18:01 by author OffBeatMammal

A recent survey showed that 27% of respondents (the biggest slice) believed "Online Video / Internet TV" would be the dominant tech meme for 2007 (browser based apps came in at 22%, Mobile Web at 15%. Rich Internet Apps - WPF/E for instance - came in lower but IMO that represents the time it's going to take for people to get to grips with what that technology can deliver).

It's certainly something that's been a long time coming. The huge success of YouTube, Google Video, AOL Video and of course Soapbox proves that there is a huge appetite for non-studio produced content (and certainly a huge pool of people keen to produce that content).

Projects like the forthcoming Venice Project (from the creators of Skype), the Democracy video player/sharing platform, Tioti, tVadio and a number of other independent peer to peer video (P2PTV) distribution mechanisms are promising to deliver the best of that content (both user generated and studio produced) in an efficient, high quality, free/low-cost manner. However with some of those the legality of some of the content is questionable. With others the breadth of available content is also going to be a limiting factor. For many users the sheer bandwidth requirements are also going to be an issue if users are on capped or shaped plans that limit their consumption (or have heavy financial penalties for high usage)

The production companies themselves are not standing idly by while this happens. In the UK the BBC are about to launch iMP - a p2p application which allows users to watch shows up to 7 days after they've aired, and Channel4 have a similar service. NineMSN in Australia is offering a Catch-up TV service (download, not p2p) and in the US networks are making episodes of popular shows available via the iTunes store (wonder what that will do for syndication of the lists of CSI:, Lost, 24 and Battlestar Galactica?) though as it's mostly targeting the video capable iPods that quality isn't as good as HDTV yet. ClickStar and RealNetworks are both heavy-weight players in this space. Even Netflix (the DVD home delivery pioneers) are looking at electronic delivery as an option.

In conjunction with various networks Microsoft are making TV episodes and movies available (in SD and HD quality) for both Xbox and Media Center Edition users for download and rental.

So what does this mean for consumers?

Well, in the short term I think lots of confusion. Different services will offer access to different slices of content and you may well end up having to subscribe to three of four different providers to get the mix of Sci-Fi Movies, first-run TV drama and home-made bizarre juggling accident videos. Like the iTunes music store and PlaysForSure there will be incompatible DRM solutions, different restrictions on viewing, archiving and sharing and platforms supported.

During 2007 I think we'll see a whole bunch of new start-ups offering "the" best solution but it's going to take most of the year to work the kinks out, get a decent momentum (and convince the mainstream producers that it's a viable proposition) and let the dust of acquisitions settle.

Meantime the advertisers will be looking at new ways to monetise the content!

Microsoft bringing movies (and TV) to you

clock December 24, 2006 06:11 by author OffBeatMammal

By now you should be familiar with Spotlight in Media Center, and it's ability to delivery radio, games, TV episodes and movies right to your media center PC ... and from there to your big screen TV when you want it.

You're didn't know about Spotlight? Well find a Windows PC with Media Center Edition and check out what's on offer in your region. In Aus the answer was "not much" but here in the US the choice is pretty amazing.

Well, the Xbox team didn't want to feel left out. Sure they can act as an extender to a Media Center, but there are some folks who've got one and not the other. For the Xbox only crowd there are now movies and TV episodes available for download and rental in the Marketplace.

The price of the new Xbox offerings are really good (especially considering you can select HD, or choose SD for a discount) and the range has stuff for me, my wife and my daughter (actually we're all fans of Avatar - the last Airbender)

They both use different purchase models and rules - Spotlight links to a number of alternative third party providers, whereas the Xbox Marketplace uses Microsoft Points (a familiar currency for Zune users as well)

Now in an ideal world the content on both Spotlight and the Xbox Marketplace would be common, content could be selected on the Media Center and viewed on the Xbox, Content could be bought or rented or kept on a subscription basis and shared between MCE, Xbox and Zune... but like the disconnect between Zune and PlaysForSure they're different (and as yet pretty much unknown) markets so time will tell what's a practical direction for these to go.

The Xbox service seems to be doing really well so far... getting good reports from users.



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