Searching for an Ideal High-definition Video Streaming Technology

Edgar Huang, Ph.D. School of Informatics
Clifford C. Marsiglio, Testing Center
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Introduction

In the news media world, the trend of media convergence—disseminating news across different media platforms, such as newspapers, radio, television and the Internet, to reach different audiences—started to shape its momentum around the turn of this century.1 This trend is most noticeably reflected on the media Web sites. Up to 2005, close to half of the top 100 U.S. newspaper Web sites (42%) joined television network Web sites to post in-house videos or syndicated videos apart from textual stories, photos and Flash animations.2 Producing videos is not newspaper companies’ traditional job, nor is it the job of thousands of businesses and organizations. Yet using videos to tell stories, promote causes, services and products, or entertain audiences has become so popular that it became not only a popular culture, but has also earned a fortune for many. The huge success of YouTube is a legend.

Over the last two years or so, Adobe’s Flash video technology, which is behind YouTube and many other Web sites’ success, has dominated the online video streaming business. Adobe’s Flash Player has stably stayed at a 97% to 99% pre-installation rate over the last three years.3 Flash video is so successful that even several prominent Web sites that had used Microsoft’s Windows Media to stream their videos for years, such as MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and AP.com, surrendered to the power of Flash video. Today, when an Internet user watches a video online, chances are he or she will no longer be asked to download a media player, to pick one from the players already installed on the user’s computer, or to download a video. This is largely thanks to the popularity of Flash video.

However, one major problem that is still bothering thousands of online video users is the prevalent notoriously low quality of video images as typically seen on YouTube.4 Providing users a TV viewing experience on the Internet has a long way to go for media convergence efforts. The logical step to take is probably to lift online video to the high definition (HD) quality so that it can be compatible with the dominant HDTV image quality these days.5 Steve Chen, one of the YouTube founders, told a conference in November 2007 that HD was not a high priority because he said video on YouTube was “good enough.”6 Jakob Lodwick, founder of Vimeo, a video startup sharing service that provides HD video, called Chen’s remark “categorically stupid” (ibid.). Mr. Lodwick probably should have shown some sympathy to YouTube, which has turned into an online video goliath within three years. Facing the lack of a commercially successful HD video streaming technology, giants like YouTube and many other commercial Web sites have had a hard time committing to an HD streaming technology.

Several companies have taken advantage of the HD video streaming technologies to push to the public commercial contents or social media contents. The qualities of these Web sites vary dramatically. Swarmcast has come up with something called Autobahn HD Player for Flash and claims on its Web site that it provides the best video quality for user connection. With a 100Mb connection speed at the authors’ school, the so-called HD quality of their showcase video is not more than that of a YouTube video. In July 2007, ABC.com started to stream full episodes of their popular TV shows in full screen with an HD quality. Move Networks, a company in Utah, was behind the ABC “HD streaming video” sensation. Even though ABC.com uses the term “HD streaming” on its Web site to exalt its video quality, its streaming is not true HD streaming. Its videos are not even stored on a media server. The whole “streaming” process of the short clips, what Move Networks calls “streamlets,” is done on a Web server. Since it uses a technology called adaptive stream, which simulates multi-bit-rate streaming on the fly, its video quality could seriously suffer and frame size would automatically shrink when an Internet connection drastically drops. So far, very few Web sites have exhibited outstanding HD video streaming quality. Rushing to take advantage of the most recent Flash HD streaming capability, Vimeo.com launched a new hi-def channel in October 2007. The site allows amateur video photographers to upload and stream their HD videos. The streaming and image quality of many of its videos during full-screen viewing look impressive. NBC Universal and News Corp's online video startup Hulu.com's HD Gallery has also shown promising progress in HD video streaming.

The increasing popularity of online videos has encouraged many big and small streaming technology companies to come up with better online video streaming solutions. HD video streaming has been the recent battleground for many of these companies.7 Online HD video streaming is based on the standards of HDTV, a digital television broadcasting system with greater resolution than traditional television systems, such as NTSC in the United States and Japan and PAL in large parts of the world. There are two popular HDTV standards: 1280x720 and 1920x1080. Obviously, HDTV is a big bandwidth hog. Putting such a large frame size, either one of them, onto the Internet at 18 to 20Mbps with the MPEG-2 compression standard is not realistic for most home Internet users as of 2008 and probably in the near future. In the United States, for instance, the typical consumer DSL and cable-modem connections deliver data from 768Kbps to 10 Mbps often without maximum performance. Therefore, MPEG-4 Part 10/H.264, another standard for video compression that allows high-quality video transmissions at less than, even much less than, half the bit rate of MPEG-2, which was finalized by ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) together with the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) in May 2003, has been widely adopted for streaming HD videos on the Internet. But, as to how H.264 can be best taken advantage of to produce outstanding streaming quality and HD image quality, companies disagree. Should the priority be put on a smooth watching experience by occasionally or constantly sacrificing the image quality, or should the image quality always be emphasized at the sacrifice of users’ time on waiting for a longer time for a video to start and for frequent rebuffering? The former seems to defeat the purpose of HD video streaming while the latter provides a torturing viewing experience. Is it possible to present both streaming quality and image quality at their best? Different companies have answered these questions in very different ways. As a result, different kinds of HD video streaming technologies are seen in the market.

Adobe introduced Flash Player Update 3 in December 2007 to integrate the H.264 video codec, a standard format for high-definition (HD) video, into its Flash Player 9 so that the player is now capable of decoding 1080p H.264 videos. The Update 3 has also integrated the high-performance AAC audio codec into the same player and supports the hardware acceleration features provided by modern graphic cards so that CPU usage can drop drastically when a Flash video is being played. This progress is a sure blessing for Flash HD video streaming. Together with Flash Media Server 3, which was introduced into the market in early 2008, updated Flash Player 9 is a big step toward high-quality HD video streaming. But is Flash HD streaming video the best technology of its kind in the market today?

Flash HD streaming video is not the first of its kind. In reality, Adobe is a latecomer in the HD streaming arena. Apple’s QuickTime 7, for instance, which supports H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec and streams QuickTime HD videos, was introduced into the market in April 2005.8 Microsoft’s Windows Media Video 9 Series, which includes the VC-1 advanced compression video codec that enables WMV HD videos, was drafted in 2003 and made official in March 2006.9 There are also some less known contenders in the online HD video streaming market. Vividas was incorporated in England and Wales in 2000 and introduced its Java-based HD streaming technology in 2006.10 DivX, established in 1999, showed its capability of broadcasting HD video online in November 2006 through its DivX Codec.11 As of the time of the writing of this article, Adobe Flash HD, Apple QuickTime HD, DivX HD, Microsoft Windows Media HD, and Vividas HD, have been the only online HD video streaming technologies that have demonstrated their outcomes on their company Web sites or on commercial Web sites. This study will compare these five technologies to find out the advantages and disadvantages of using each technology.12 An ideal online HD video streaming technology is one that presents HD image quality without long initial buffering or any rebuffering. It should also be easy, quick and inexpensive to encode such a video at as small a file size as possible. Finally, it should have an easy full-screen support. This study aims to find out which of these five technologies is closest to this ideal.

Global broadband adoption has seen big growth in the last several years. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from June 2007 showed that 60% of member countries’ web users were on broadband.13 In the United States, over half of the households (53%) had a broadband connection as of July 2007, which accounted for 72% of all home Internet subscriptions, up from 60% in 2006, as revealed in a Leichtman Research report.14 Although U.S. average broadband connection speed is still slow (4.9Mbps) compared to those of the top countries, such as Japan (63.6Mbps), South Korea (49.5Mbps), etc., according to The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation,15 it is already fast enough to handle HD streaming videos, which are mostly encoded with a bit rate in the 2Mbps range. ABC.com’s full episode HD video streaming with a resolution of 1280x720, 60fps is a good example.16

ABC is the media company that created in July 2007 the sensation of streaming HD-quality video of its full episode TV dramas. Although other big network companies, such as CNN, NBC, Fox and CBS, have lagged behind in this HD streaming game, it is very likely that ABC’s pioneering use of HD streaming videos will soon trigger an online video streaming revolution to turn today’s exotic curiosity into tomorrow’s standard since the broadband infrastructure is largely ready and many large content delivery networks (CDN), such as Akamai and Digital Rapids, are equipped with the HD video streaming capability. The purpose of the study is to help online video producers, companies, schools and organizations to make informed decisions regarding choosing an online HD video streaming technology for producing a satisfying online video watching experience.

 

Notes:

1. Huang, E., Davidson, K., Davis, T., Bettendorf, E., Shreve, S. and Nair, A. (2006, Autumn). Bridging newsrooms and classrooms: Preparing the next generation of journalists for converged media. Journalism and Communication Monographs, 8(3), 221-262.

2. Huang, E. (2007). Use of rich media differs at newspaper, TV Web sites. Newspaper Research Journal, 28(3), 85-97.

3. Source: http://www.adobe.com/products/player_census/flashplayer/

4. This problem is sometimes coupled with a long initial buffering and then frequent rebuffering, even long-duration rebuffering.

5. The year 2009 will see the end of the broadcasting of the standard 720x480 NTSC TV signals, which will be replaced by HDTV signals.

6. Source: http://valleywag.com/tech/steve-chen/youtube-founder-thinks-this-is-good-enough-322898.php

7. HD video streaming technologies have been developed in different contexts. For instance, Sling’s Slingbox Pro-HD, a digital video receiver and player, is used to move video content around a home via streaming. So does Monsoon’s HAVA. LifeSize and Tandberg has dedicated to video conferencing via HD streaming. This study has focused on online HD video streaming.

8. Source: Introduction to QuickTime 7

9. Source: Windows Media Video 9 Series Codecs.

10. Source: About Vividas.

11. Source: DivX for Mac Version History.

12. The authors are aware of some other companies that have also developed similar products. For instance, Vuze requires that its proprietary Azureus Player be downloaded to watch its HD videos. Its Java-based technology is very similar to Vividas’s except that Vuze’s Azureus Player is very buggy and mandates downloading all HD videos for watching, a practice that defeats the purpose of streaming. Vircas Web site used to post an HD video player and sample videos. Now, the site has left nothing but an introduction to the company. Microsoft’s Silverlight technology is claimed to support HD video streaming but Microsoft has provided no examples. Therefore, the author decided not to include any of these products in this study.

13. Source: OECD Broadband Statistics to June 2007.

14. Source: Broadband Internet Access & Services in the Home.

15. Source: 2008 ITIF Broadband Rankings.

16. See Todd Spangler (May 31, 2007), How ABC.com Plans to Deliver HD Online.

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