Government Video - June 1997
The Internet Comes to NAB
by Sheldon Liebman
Once upon a time, you could go to a trade show and expect to see a highly focused group of products that was very appropriate to the work you were doing. Over the past few years, this seems to have changed to the point where trade shows are trying to cram in anything and everything they can that could possibly be of interest to you.
As a result, the number of trade shows has increased substantially while the focus of these shows has been severely diluted. The goal seems to have changed from meeting the needs of the attendees to setting new records every year with respect to the number of exhibitors and booth space sold.
As potential attendees, we need to be more discriminating about which shows we attend since there are so many to choose from and such a wide variety of products at most of them. This year's NAB introduced a new segment, Internet@NAB, which was designed to showcase how audio and video professionals can use the Internet.
I must admit that I was skeptical of this premise right out of the box. Many of us are still struggling with how to find information on the Information Superhighway, no less put information out onto it. The Internet has very little structure and often leads us on a wild goose chase as we try to find the information we need. How could we expect to tame this beast and put out information that would be useful to our audience?
Well, not only did NAB set records this year, but it may have actually added something useful to the show. It seems that every broadcast television and radio station is creating a site on the Internet. Production companies of all sizes are also jumping on this bandwagon. Even within organizations, distributing information through a company-wide Intranet is gaining in popularity.
The key to all of this is having information to distribute. Obviously, we aren't talking here about pictures of your kids and a list of your hobbies. However, since we are in the information business, it's probably an accurate statement to say that most of the people reading this article have some information that would benefit from being distributed to other people. Using the Internet or an Intranet allows you to "post" the information so that others can get it rather than actively distributing to people.
Not only can this turn an active process into a passive one, but it can also broaden your scope and reach substantially. For example, suppose you've created a series of videos that would be useful to other people. You can post a list of these on a Web site and let people browse that list to see if any of them are of interest. You can even create video clips that can be posted on the site for people to see. If the goal is to distribute video, it obviously makes sense to use that video as part of the sales process.
Until recently, that process involved making a file that people would download from your Web site and then view after it had been saved locally. The two problems with this are that (1) it takes a long time to download the data and (2) there is no guarantee once you get it that it will be what you want. A new alternative involves using "streaming video" tools that allow the images to be shown on the receiving computer while they are being downloaded. In this manner, someone might decide very early in the process that the information is not what they are looking for and abort the download without wasting a lot of time.
One of the companies that was at NAB demonstrating this technology was Progressive Networks Inc. of Seattle, WA. Their RealAudio and RealVideo software is designed to allow the transmission and reception of streaming audio and video data. The big news at NAB was their agreement with Major League Baseball to provide radio coverage of games, but the software has lots of other applications.
One of the nice things about this software (and its competition) is that is adjusts to the speed of the connection. So, if you're connected at 33.6 Kilobits per second (Kbps) you may see just a few frames of video per second, but if you connect via ISDN you'll see 7-10 fps of video. Faster connections yield more frames, but by adjusting the amount of data that comes across the line, you can still receive information quickly.
Another company in this market is VDOnet Corporation of Palo Alto, CA. Their VDOLive product provides scalable video streaming technology that enables "Internet Video Broadcasting," according to the company. By using one computer for capturing video and another to multiply it for output, up to 150 users (per multiplying computer) can view live video at the same time.
This opens up the possibility of using the Internet for distance learning applications, although it can get pretty expensive to do this using the VDOLive solution. It's also just a transmission product, so using it in this manner wouldn't allow for interaction with the audience. Another company, however, offers a product that seems to be more suitable for this purpose.
Cheetah Systems, Inc. of Fremont, CA demonstrated Cheetah Broadcasting at NAB. This product enables up to 3000 users to connect to a distance learning program at once. Although it doesn't allow streaming video at this time, it does provide for the transmission of text and graphics synchronized with audio.
This is also a full duplex system in the sense that all the users connected to the system can transmit questions and comments via Email. These are all received on a moderator screen at the source of the program. This could actually be considered an advantage over a true interactive teleconference as the moderator system queues up the questions automatically and eliminates the possibility that multiple people will try to "talk" at the same time.
Another advantage is that it opens up a "broadcast" to subscribers all over the world. One of the biggest issues to deal with in setting up a distance learning program is the investment in equipment that must be present at each site and the limited availability of the program based on where the equipment is located.
Using the Internet for this type of application means that anyone with access to the World Wide Web, wherever they are located, can take part in the program. In the case of military users, for example, people located at bases all over the world could dial into a program regardless of whether they have a teleconferencing facility or not. Even people who are travelling and staying at a hotel could gain access to the broadcast.
It also means that groups like South Carolina ETV, whom we profiled in February, could expand their distance learning programs to other states if a system like this is installed. For groups that produce revenue from distance learning programs, the ability to offer these programs to a wider audience can have a real benefit.
Try Before You Buy
Virtually all of the products being offered by Internet@NAB exhibitors are new and it's understandable if people are skeptical about the true benefits they can receive from these products. In this case, though, there is an absolute ability to check out the products before investing anything in them at all.
If you visit Progressive Networks (www.realaudio.com) on the Internet, for example, you can download player software for RealAudio and RealVideo at no charge and use that software to sample some of the offerings on the site. The same is true of VDOLive, which provides a good opportunity to compare these competing technologies directly before making a decision. With Cheetah Systems, you might be able to sit in on a broadcast somewhere to get a feel for how that works.
Internet@NAB was a pretty dramatic experiment this year, but based on what I saw, it was definitely successful. It will be interesting to see what direction NAB goes in next year to set new records and attract more people. Hopefully, it will be another pleasant surprise.
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