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Time shifting a Conference: Video Formats August 31, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, Conference.

I got a few interesting comments when I wrote about discoverability of conference video the other day. I’ve been away for a week so instead I thought I’d write a whole new post. But I wanted to change the topic a little bit – motivated by two things: Lepton/Photon and a comment by chimpanzee. And sorry if this gets a little technical… I’m on a rant here!

First Lepton/Photon. The conference is over now. Check out the agenda:

image This got me very excited! Look at that – a link to the video! Yes! Finally! This is what I’d been hoping for in the last post – making it easy to find video for talks! Woo hoo!

Click on it and… they require the RealPlayer to be installed. Bummer. The RealVideo format is a proprietary video format. You have to have RealPlayer installed in order to use it. There are some open source implementations of RealVideo out there, but I think they do an older version of the RealVideo format (for example, VLC claims to know what to do with the RealVideo streams, but falls over before it plays anything). For most people that may not be a big deal – just install RealVideo. I personally have a problem with the RV software. But for the purposes of this post my problem is I can’t download the video stream and pack it up into my mp3 player (I have a Zune). For $40 bucks, I might be able to do it for an iPod (not clear from their website).

If anyone knows a way to play those above files without having to use the RealPlayer software, I’d love to know!

Second, there was the comment by chimpanzee. I recommend reading the fully thing – I’m going to cherry pick for this post and stick with video formats:

For those who love “competition” when it comes to codecs – the competitive war just heated up. Google, just bought On2/VP8 and apparently is going to Open Source VP8.

I know nothing about VP8 other than what is on on2’s web site. It is currently a proprietary video codec. And chimpanzee says in his comment it seems reasonable that Google would open source it. For any of you that have downloaded video files from the internet (Bad! Bad!) you already know there are a plethora of video formats out there and one often needs to install lots of different codecs to get them all to play. VP8 will not solve this, at least not in the near term (<5 years). But this got me thinking – we can solve this now, can’t we?

So, I have a modest proposal. Physics conferences should archive the video of their conferences in a format that plays natively on the n most used operating systems out-of-the-box (where n is > …):

  • Linux – this is funny. In HEP we mostly use Scientific Linux. This is not optimized for watching video. So choose the most popular distro – Ubuntu I think? I used to have a distro of that running on my laptop but had to delete it for space reasons, so I couldn’t test it…
  • Mac – A recent version of OSX running on Intel Mac’s.
  • WIndows – this is tricky. XP is the most popular version out there, however the OS is quite old and plays almost nothing modern out of the box. Plug-ins are available (including my favorite – wow I hate the new sourceforge) that will allow it to play almost anything. So that isn’t good. Vista, I think, is in the same boat – it doesn’t have much in the way extra codecs. W7, however, supports most formats I’ve seen out there (I couldn’t find the docs on microsoft site, but I did find this which matches my experience with the release candidate). So, I think we are almost forced to pick Windows 7 for the Windows branches.
  • iPhone/mobile – this I’m not too worried about. Usually if the host system can play it (iTunes, Zune, etc.) then it can be transcoded and placed on the moble device.
  • Others?

Given all this, it strikes me that MP4 is the only video format that comfortably fits into this. There are plenty of open source tools – heck, tools in general – that allow you to manipulate it to your hearts content. Play it on your mobile player, your TV, heck, most modern burner software can burn it to a DVD if you want. Further, if you are like me, and want to manipulate the video for whatever reasons, well, you can because there are so many tools.

So, that is my modest proposal for archiving.

Streaming is more complex. I don’t know as much about streaming. I’d be inclined to vote for MP4, but I’m not sure how well it works in a streaming protocol.

I have to sneak one vacation picture in… 🙂 The French countryside is pretty amazing… This is near the salt-flats out side of Rochelle.




1. chimpanzee - September 1, 2009

There has been a recent development in web browser protocol (HTML5), which may cut through all the compatibility issues out there (various brand-name codecs/players):

from video-blogging group:

All the discussions around HTML5 have been abstract around here. Not many good examples to point to its promise. We did say it’ll take the big boys to start adopting it…so:


With Google buying On2 (the codec company who open sourced
Ogg/Theora)…this could be a good sign.
“The app shown in the video is coded in javascript and html and runs in a web browser.” NO FLASH!?

From what I understand, if web browsers adopt the standard of
HTML5…then you could get around the incompatibility issues. Youtube would play on the iPhone because it would not use Flash. You could make an iPhone-like app on a webpage…and not worry about being accepted to through the Apple store. It all just goes back to the web…versus what software you have installed on your computer.


Note that most of the online video delivery is with embedded Flash video players. Blip.tv (& other video services) take your video submissions (like .mp4, which is my preferred video export format) & automatically convert them to Flash for the purpose of embedded video players.

Another interesting take, from the QT (Quicktime) users group:

On Aug 11, 2009, at 4:33 PM, Frank Fulchiero wrote:

From: Harry
Subject: Re: Google Buys On2/VP8

Is Google going to use HTML5 (with an open source VP8) as a vehicle to drive their dominance? Last thing that M$ or Job$ or Adobe/Fla$h wants. As you likely know Apple and Google both took off their “kid gloves” with each other a few days ago. [ Eric Schmidt of Google resigned from Apple’s BoD ] Be interesting to see how M$ or Job$ or Adobe/Fla$h realign themselves over the next few months (friend or foe?). Of course I could be all wet (again)

I would expect that most universities and NGO’s would appreciate a
“cheaper, quicker and better” method of delivering video – either to
campuses and/or to the web in general.

Over 12 years ago I had this sign on my desk:
Choose two out of three: cheap, fast and good.
Can you now have all three?


I love the above phrase. It’s a fantastic sales tool to use when trying to get more money out of a client. I often tried to use it when I did house construction – to convince a client that they would have to pay more if they wanted to rush a job. And in the latter case more staff had to be hired but the job didn’t take anymore “man” hours; unless overtime salary was involved. As well most of the world operates on a tendering process by bidding on contracts; and low bid always wins. So “cheap, fast, good” isn’t even a consideration in the “real” world. My father, the best house builder in Canada, spent 72 years building homes (til he hit 86 years); he was typically 50% lower than everyone else on a tender.

When it comes to tech, for example Open Source software/Oss; more often than not (not always), it’s as good as or better, cheaper (free), and often faster (in development).

It also comes down to the fact that if you want to play with the big boys (Adobe, Apple, Microsoft) you better have some good toys (and big balls) in the video delivery area. That was missing until now with Google.


As we all know, Google is after “eyeballs” (that’s how it makes it’s money) ; if Google plays it’s cards right it could Open Source every server side application needed for any business/organization/home. M$ is now hoping that Yahoo’s eyeballs will bring M$ back from the edge of the abyss.

– Harry Pasternak

He is saying the Google’s Open Source strategy could trump the existing brand-name solutions (responsible for all the incompatibility mess). However, how has Open Source been doing? There was a recent article about how Linux hasn’t “taken over the world”, in competing against the brand-names like Windows & Mac OSX. Even an article about how Google’s open-source phone (T-Mobile G1) hasn’t taken off like wildfire (like Apple’s artsy-fartsy iPhone, nice form as part of the Form/Function model)

So, the bottomline is: Can Google pull off an open-source solution that the masses will “buy into”, to combat brand-names with slick marketeering (like Apple) or the established Flash player (Adobe)? Just like the PC sh*t box displaced the higher-end workstations (Silicon Graphics & SUN, both went down) for CGI (computer graphics imagery), maybe an open format solution will revolutionize online video.

2. Gordon Watts - September 1, 2009

So – what I don’t get is the following: if HTML5 adopted MP4 with 264 as their codec rather than VP8, wouldn’t everything above also be true? No browser, etc. And we are back to plug-ins anyway – it is just a standard plug-in (to play the video).

3. chimpanzee - September 1, 2009

This was noted by someone else on video-blogging group:


I am returning due to these technologies sparking my interest, along with the looming release of Snow Leopard which Im sure will give me something to talk about.

That youtube demo is interesting, especially when I compare CPU use. The html 5 example uses way less CPU than the flash version of youtube. With a busy site like youtube, this has the capacity to reduce waste of electricity in quite a big way.

Im not quite sure about your compatibility example, because the work was already done on that issue when youtube started using h264. They can serve the h264 via flash on the desktop, but on the iphone they can use the video tag to point to the same h264 file without using flash.

When I tried that youtube test on Safari on Mac it was using a h264 video with the html5 video tag, not sure if it uses a different format when it detects firefox. These codec choices for html5 are going to remain messy and get in the way of things. If the 2010 h264 licensing details turn out to suck then I suppose that will encourage people to look at alternatives more.

It will certainly be interesting to see what Google do with On2. I would not get my hopes up too much about theora though, even if Google plan to use it on youtube or in Chrome browser, its still not going to work on the iphone and things. So at the very least h264 versions of the videos still need to be made for iphone & other hardware devices, and I doubt Google want to have to host and encode lots of different versions of all their videos. Now that h264 is pretty much everywhere, it will be a lot easier for all concerned, from viewers to producers, if the h264 new licence terms dont suck much, and we just stick with this format.

Despite my complete lack of enthusiasm for Theora, I still get very excited about html5 video tag, and some other things that are proposed for html5. Recently nightly builds of Webkit on Leopard, and Safari in Snow Leopard, feature hardware-accelerated transformations of web page elements whih are really lovely and smooth. Combine these with video and there are some lovely possibilities. All sorts of fancy stuff that could be done in Flash already, but this way it looks nicer, is smoother, doesnt eat the CPU and the tools to make the stuff dont cost loads money. I am looking forward to Flash losing ground, all the things it can do should really be part of web standards and handled by the browser, for numerous reasons I have already hinted at.

Here is the demo that impressed me, but you will only see the magic if on a recent webkit nightly on Leopard or Safari in Snow Leopard:



Steve Elbows

4. Gordon Watts - September 1, 2009


Two points. First, yes – just go with x264, it seems like it is good enough. I had no idea there were licencing problems, however.

Second, for what I’m talking about here, this is mostly irrelevant. This will take between 1 and 5 years to shake itself out. What I’m proposing is for now.

This does point out something else. I’m not like most people – I don’t really watch video online. I tend to download it to my mp3 player and watch it on there. So I don’t like flash much either because it doesn’t play well (and often doesn’t allow downloading).

Finally, I wish Flash, Sliverlight, etc., would be allowed on all cell phones. I’m not so concerned about video, but then I could write a small program/tool/etc. once and it would run everywhere – in the browser, on my moble device, etc.

5. chimpanzee - September 1, 2009

About downloading Flash videos: there is a neat plugin for Firefox browser called Download Helper. I use Youtube like a jukebox (for music) & VCR (for documentary videos): the interesting videos get downloaded to my computer, for later viewing on VLC player.

Right now, it’s a mess (pot pourri of solutions).

I’m reminded of my conversation with John Doyle (Caltech Nonlinear Dynamics & Control prof) when I asked about a summary for his field:

“It’s SCATTERED..among journals, conference papers, books”

If an outside researcher wants to study his field (for the purpose of Interdisciplinary crossover), then there should be a SINGLE reference to look up. Similarly, there should be a SINGLE unified video solution the various physics conferences have agreed on. I have experience with a couple of physics-related conferences:

– attended SUSY ’06
doing multimedia tests, with permission of conference chair

– remotely assisted Strings ’07
donwloaded & converted their .mp4 ‘s to iPod compatible .mp4, setup a Blogspot videoblog at http://strings07.blogspot.com where videos could be viewed online & distributed as embedded videos on other websites, setup a corresponding iTunes video-podcast where videos could be viewed on iPod/iPhone/AppleTV

Plus, unsuccessfully tried to collaborate with other conferences (Strings ’08, SUSY ’07, Lepton-Photon ’09. Emails went un-answered (!)

Each conference has its own “personality”. Some are really “with it” in terms of communication (prompt response to my inquiry emails) & Technology (Web, video, etc). I get the feeling some organizers view Technology (video delivery) as a chore, & want something “turn-key”. “Good enough is the enemy of excellent”. Others, like Strings ’07, are really “with it”: they were on top of the game, using QTSS & hired a web-designer to do a nice site http://www.uam.es/strings07. Emails were promptly answered (by TWO people!!). We even collaborated on getting Apple to write an article about how Technology is changing the way Physics conferences are delivering content. I still have to followup on that (I don’t do this whole multimedia thing professionally).

After SUSY ’06 I decided to cruise by Caltech (who use Real Player for live video webcasts) & talk to their multimedia people. Found a tiny office with a sign “out to lunch”. That sound about right (sarcasm). Their website implies they are just using off-the-shelf solutions (turnkey Real Player, & others). You are talking about establishing some “order” (agreed upon universal solution), which is an Infrastructure/Management issue.

It could be a frustrating exercise, which could be described as “trying to herd cats [ which scatter like crazy ]”. Actually, I found a market who agreed upon a unified solution: Big 10 Sports. The universities apparently got together, to deliver a COGENT web solution (college sports is big $$, so they want to have their act together: deliver videos seamlessly to the Public). See


Back in 2007, they were using a Windows Media solution (for web video). Now they are using Brightcove (video sharing service, which delivers Flash based embedded videos). The point is they “put their heads together” (an uncommon thing for the human condition), & got it right.

The question is why the Physics (or Science community in general) doesn’t do this. Maybe Money (lack of) is part of the problem. Or, is it because there is a culture of dissonance. (there are an amazing # of professors, who have TERRIBLE amateurish unprofessional looking websites. Like Steven Chu/Stanford, now DoE secretary). Which is mind-boggling, since the HTTP protocol came out of CERN (Tim Berners Lee), whose task was to develop communication among the large population of researchers. Similarly, NCSA Mosaic (see below) was a spinoff of a large Supercomputing research consortium.

“Assumption is the Mother of all screwups”

maybe this is the state of affairs in science conferences, just assuming existing off-the-shelf turnkey solutions (multiple en masse) is sufficient.

“Necessity is the Mother of Invention”

Maybe your “cry in the forest” could lead to something beyond existing technology.

I have some contacts which can push the research envelope, on developing New Technologies to better communicate the “lecture” virtually to remote locations (via Web). Like CALIT2 (http://www.calit2.net), which is into Communications Technology. It is run by ex-computational astrophysicist Dr. Larry Smarr (founder of NCSA concept, formerly with NCSA @UIUC..which created NCSA Mosaic the 1st multimedia browser & had another spinoff: Spyglass Software. Which led to Internet Explorer browser), who was a nearby researcher at the time I was doing my PhD. This was the same time Martin Eberhard was an officemate of mine (who co-founded Tesla Motors, the revolutionary electric car mfr which has a cross-over to HEP in terms of “marketing Science/HEP”: Energy Transfer = chemical energy/battery to kinetic energy/transportation). My old research area (Signal/Image Processing) is where all the video codecs get developed.

6. watchweedsseason - September 1, 2009

Second, for what I’m talking about here, this is mostly irrelevant. This will take between 1 and 5 years to shake itself out. What I’m proposing is for now.

7. gordonwatts - September 1, 2009

Did you mean to say something more? All I got was the quote of my text.

8. How To Choose A Voip Phone? | Intro to SIP Systems - September 3, 2009

[…] Time shifting a Conference: Video Formats « Life as a Physicist […]

9. Gordon Stangler - September 3, 2009

While I like the idea of a single open source format for all content delivery that works across multiple devices, I am not so sure I want google in charge of it. Don’t get me wrong, I like google, but I know that after their format becomes quite dominant, we will see ads, and popup comments vis-a-vis Youtube.

I wonder if this means that Flash will go away?

10. gordonwatts - September 3, 2009

I don’t know about flash going away – but I definatly agree with chimpanzee’s theme: one of the goals of HTML5 is to get rid of flash. And plug-ins in general (Flash/Sliverlight).

11. gordonwatts - September 3, 2009

Actually, I consider this a bit too bad. Programming in HTML is horrible (to me) as compared to a real programming language (like the ones you can use for Sliverlight).

12. chimpanzee - September 4, 2009

An .mp4 solution? I like the Apple solution: iTunes/iPod/iPhone/AppleTV which can distribute from cross-platform (PC or Mac) iTunes .

[ Setup an analog to iTunes U, like iTunes Conference) ]

to: AppleTV (living room set top box), iPod/iPhone (portable media devices), web (iTunes). At Strings ’07, I took their .mp4 videos (they were using Apple’s QTSS) & converted them to iPod compatible .mp4 (halfway across the world), uploaded to Blip.tv (video-sharing service, which automatically converts uploaded videos to Flash). So, the videos could also be played back over web-browser, via embedded video (using Flash). See http://www.strings07.blogspot.com

If one can get Apple to be a sponsor (over all the conferences), this could happen.

You mention your .mp3 player, do you mean the Zune? (or is it an audio player)

About video-streaming. With the recent release of Snow Leopard OS X (which introduces Quicktime X) by Apple, video-streaming has been simplified:

====from video-blogging group
hi all

from the blurb:

QuickTime X takes Internet video streaming to new levels with support
for HTTP live streaming. Unlike other streaming technologies, HTTP
live streaming uses the HTTP protocol — the same network technology
that powers the web. That means QuickTime X streams audio and video
from almost any web server instead of special streaming servers, and
it works reliably with common firewall and wireless router settings.
HTTP live streaming is designed for mobility and can dynamically
adjust movie playback quality to match the available speed of wired or
wireless networks, perfect whether the video is watched on a computer
or on a mobile device like iPhone or iPod touch.

This relates to conversation here recently able multiple bit rates,
the above is a great idea as RTSP uses odd ports and causes firewall
hell. On the other hand the usual problems will remain, if I want high
quality but have low bandwidth these sorts of solutions give me no

Adrian Miles

THis opens up a new dimension.

I think now, it may be possible for certain tech-savvy conference attendees (at talks) to stream live video from their laptops (using WiFi or existing cellphone networks, the latter is what I was playing with at SUSY ’06 for uploading downloadable-video..not streaming video). Instead of trying to get all conferences “on the same page”, you can do it yourself! (however, an attendee won’t be in the position to get the best video: you need decent camera with USB or firewire out, good location, etc. This is best done by the conference organizers)

Gordon Stangler - September 4, 2009

The only problem I have with a dominant standard is that the company that runs it will charge for the use of the standard. People like me, whom can’t afford to use it, will be left out of the loop; and in the cold.

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