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Vodcasting: Exploring the Future of Syndicated Media

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Programming

Vodcasting: Exploring the Future of Syndicated Media

Finding, Viewing and Creating Vodcasts on the Mac - Your 15 minutes of fame are coming right up!

by Emmanuel Stein

Editor's Note: Apple's recent announcement of native video support for iPod makes the future of Vodcasting even more certain... and more significant. Read on!!

Podcasting: The Next Generation of Radio? or Something more...

During his keynote address at WWDC 2005, Steve Jobs introduced podcasting as a time-shifting TIVOesque technology aimed at revolutionizing radio. Interestingly, no announcement was made of video support within the podcasting specification, not to mention iTunes playback of syndicated video feeds (e.g. vodcasts). Nevertheless, one is hard pressed to find more than a token sampling of extant vodcast content available for subscription via Apple's iTunes Music Store (ITMS). This strategy is consistent with Jobs' recent statement that "we also offer video podcasts, but will people buy a video device just to watch this video? So far they haven't. Nobody has been successful with that yet." It seems, at least for the time being, that Apple is content with offering basic support for vodcast content and letting the third party developers behind DTV and FireAnt innovate the medium in concert with the growing community of video bloggers. This situation is not likely to change until Apple develops a portable video solution, capable of higher quality video playback. On the content aggregation front, both DTV and FireAnt have been working with content providers and popular directory services like Del.icio.us, Yahoo, MeFeedia and many others to provide end users with a rich array of vodcast content.

Whether you call it vlogging, video blogging, Internet TV, or simply vodcasting (Video On Demand-casting), the idea behind podcasting, whether using video or audio, is certainly nothing revolutionary. Rather, podcasting is an evolutionary extension to the RSS 2.0 (Real Simple Syndication) standard, with support for media enclosures (e.g. audio, video, or pdf files). Nonetheless, Apple's announcement of podcasting and the related, though not well advertised, support for video enclosures certainly represents a shot in the arm for the burgeoning syndicated video crowd.

I would not be surprised if Apple were currently in talks with major media outlets to offer something like the ITMS, only with a focus on video content. However, at this point, Apple's strengths are their QuickTime 7 technology, with support for H.264 video compression, and their suite of video editing and content production applications like iMovie and Final Cut Pro. These tools will prove essential to Mac users in the pre-publishing phase of vodcast creation and will be used in the accompanying tutorial that covers turning your videos into vodcasts!

For the purposes of the article, the term vodcast will be treated as synonymous with more historical terms for the publishing of Internet-based video (vlogging, video blogging, vidcasting etc.), the bulk of which is vodcast compliant anyway. In tests, I have found that even RSS feeds made without reference to the podcasting specification work flawlessly with iTunes and integrate into the iTunes database as podcasts. The essential dependence, so far as iTunes is concerned, is RSS 2.0 compliance and iTunes support for your content type.

Although we will not weigh in on the debate surrounding nomenclature for this new medium, I would tend to agree with Michael Verdi, of http://www.michaelverdi.com/, whose rant on the subject (http://ia300026.us. archive.org/0/items/MichaelVerdiVlogAnarchy/vloganarchy.mov) is among the most lucid commentaries on this debate I have come across. His main thesis is that to define such a new and dynamic medium at this early stage would only serve to limit further experimentation and evolution within the medium. For my part, I couldn't agree more.

Anatomy of a Vodcast

Vodcasting is simply an instance of podcasting in which the target media is video. Therefore, the podcasting specification, as published by Apple at http://phobos.apple.com/static/iTunesRSS.html, is equally valid for several media formats (e.g. mp4a, mp3, mov, and pdf). If iTunes support is not required, you may use additional content formats like Flash, WMV, DivX, XviD, and others depending on which players you are targeting. Both DTV and FireAnt offer support for media formats beyond what is currently available in iTunes and employ plug-in architectures to facilitate the development of wider support for emerging and existing video formats.

Whichever approach you take to vodcasting, the steps remain the same:

  • Compress your video in one of many available formats depending on your playback solution of choice (e.g. iTunes, DTV, FireAnt, etc.)
  • Edit a simple XML file (iTunes compliant vodcast example provided in Listings 1 and 2) that details your vodcast metadata and may reference one or more media enclosures
  • Upload your XML and media files to a server, iDisk, or other hosting solution
  • Fire up iTunes, DTV or FireAnt and subscribe to your vodcast via reference to your XML file


    Figure 1. A simple vodcast workflow diagram

    Lights, Camera, Compression!

    Once you have created a video, open it in QuickTime Pro and go to File > Export and select a video format compatible with iTunes and other players, such as mp4. Optimize the export by clicking on the Options button in the export window and tweaking the compression parameters in the MP4 Export Setting dialog (Figure 2). Feel free to experiment with the various settings or just go with the defaults. With playback support from alternative players like FireAnt, you can syndicate flash content like http://happytreefriends.atomfilms.com/index.html to great effect. However, if you want to retain iTunes 5.01 compatibility, you need to stick with either mov, or better still, mp4-based content. Depending on several factors (e.g. cpu speed, video format, data rate, image size, et alia) the export may take a few minutes or quite a bit longer.


    Figure 2. Sample settings for video compression using QuickTime 7 Pro with H.264

    For this example, we will test the feed using your local web server. Therefore, you need to place the video and XML files into your Sites subfolder and enable Personal Web Sharing in the Sharing preferences pane (Figure 3).


    Figure 3. Turn on Personal Web Sharing to host your feed on your local machine

    Feed your Videos

    For the sake of simplicity, we will stick with Apple's podcasting specification, which works fine with virtually all-available playback solutions. Although tools exist for creating vodcast feeds, I find it easier to just edit the file directly in a text editor (e.g. TextEdit or vi). Listing 1 and 2 provide you with a template upon which you may base your own vodcast XML file. Notice that the vodcast.xml file may be conceptually broken down into two main sections, the first of which is populated with metadata that is consistent across vodcast episodes. In other words, this initial section remains the same for each instance of your vodcast, since, in principle, vodcasts refer to several media files. The second part of the file is specific to each edition of your vodcast as represented by a media enclosure. Therefore, the data used for Listing 2 will change for each added video enclosure you integrate within your feed.

    In a perusal of the sample file, you will see that the tags are filled in with descriptive placeholder metadata that serves as an example of what each tag is meant to communicate. For a detailed discussion of tag definitions, please refer to http://phobos.apple.com/static/iTunesRSS.html. It is especially important to avoid illegal characters within your tags (e.g. &, >, <, ', ", (c), and (TM)) as they will render an otherwise well-structured feed unusable.

    Listing 1: vodcast.xml (Section 1)

    <?XML version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> 
    <rss XMLns:itunes="http://www.itunes.com/DTDs/Podcast-1.0.dtd" version="2.0">
    <channel>
    <title>MY VODCASTS</title>
    <itunes:author>YOUR NAME</itunes:author>
    <link>http://www.sitename.com</link>
    <description>Put any description about the Vodcast channel you desire here
       </description>
    <itunes:subtitle>Put any subtitle about the Vodcast channel you desire here
       </itunes:subtitle>
    <itunes:summary>Put any summary about the Vodcast channel you desire here
       </itunes:summary>
    <language>EN</language>
    <copyright>(c) 2005 your name</copyright>
    <itunes:owner>
    <itunes:name>yourname</itunes:name>
    <itunes:email>youraddress@yourcompany.com</itunes:email>
    </itunes:owner>
    <category>Technology</category>
    <itunes:category text="Technology"></itunes:category>

    Listing 2: vodcast.xml (Section 2)

    <item>
    <title>MY FIRST MOVIE</title>
    <itunes:author>yourname</itunes:author>
    <description>Put any description about this first movie here
       </description>
    <itunes:subtitle> Put any subtitle about this first movie here 
       </itunes:subtitle>
    <itunes:summary> Put any summary about this first movie here 
       </itunes:summary>
    <enclosure url="http://www.yoursitename.com/moviename.mp4" length="1024" 
       type="video/mov" />
    <guid>http://www.yoursitename.com/moviename.mp4</guid>
    <pubDate>Sun, 24 July 2005 10:00:00 GMT</pubDate>
    <itunes:explicit>no</itunes:explicit>
    <itunes:duration>00:01:10</itunes:duration>
    <itunes:keywords>keyword1, keyword2, keyword3</itunes:keywords>
    </item>
    </channel>
    </rss>

    Putting it all together

    Once you have populated your XML file and enclosed a link to your video file, we can begin testing your vodcast. The main thing to remember is that your feed is represented by the XML file you created for your vodcast. Therefore, whether you are using iTunes, FireAnt, or another syndicated video player, all you need do is insert the URL pointing to your vodcast.xml file, which, if you are using the supplied template and Personal Web Sharing, should be http://127.0.0.1/~YourUserName/vodcast.xml. Using iTunes, you may test your vodcast by going to Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast and then entering your feed URL in the resulting dialogue box (Figure 4). The subscription process is almost identical for DTV and FireAnt, both of which have an Add Channel button allowing you to enter your feed URL.


    Figure 4. Subscribing to a locally hosted test vodcast in iTunes

    DTV and FireAnt: Cures for the iTunes Vodcast Blues

    Currently, iTunes (version 5.01) represents a poor viewing and browsing experience for the wealth of video feeds available. The ITMS also falls short with a fair, yet poorly organized sampling of syndicated video content, which one can only get to through extensive searching. What is more, iTunes version 5.01 plays vodcast content, by default, in the miniscule "album art" pane located in the lower left corner of the iTunes interface (Figure 5).


    Figure 5. Default iTunes vodcast playback

    To Apple's credit, you can click on the movie in the newly renamed song-artwork-video viewer to open a separate and resizable window (Figure 6). This solution is less than ideal inasmuch as the floating video playback window obscures the iTunes interface and is easily lost in the background. As you can imagine, this can be annoying and is entirely unnecessary as the music video playback model, seen in Figure 7, demonstrates that Apple has already developed a better playback solution. iTunes also has the option for full-screen playback, but this is not too well suited for shorter videos that tend to be highly compressed.


    Figure 6. The iTunes disembodied playback window


    Figure 7. The way vodcast playback should be--Default ITMS music video playback.

    Both DTV (http://participatoryculture.org/download.php) and FireAnt (http://getfireant.com/) present better alternatives for those wishing to get the full experience of vodcasting with accompanying directory and community resources. Both support a wider range of media formats relative to iTunes and also come with a nice selection of content or "Channels" to get you started.

    FireAnt grew out of the video blogging community at Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/videoblogging/) and was developed in tandem with the nascent community of video bloggers. Furthermore, their solution was in the works before podcasting was adopted by iTunes. It is therefore not surprising that FireAnt has several unique community oriented features such as Comment and Mail Post URL to a Friend. Support for tag-based searching of directory content from Yahoo, FireAnt, Del.icio.us, and MeFeedia directories represents another unique feature of this application. FireAnt even offers the option of syncing your vodcasts with iTunes. Under the hood, FireAnt boasts a plug-in engine, allowing various additional media formats like Flash to be used as vodcast enclosures. The only drawback to FireAnt is that, unlike iTunes and DTV, you have only three sizing options (small, large and maximum) for playback and switching between them restarts the video being played. Otherwise, FireAnt offers a rich viewing and browsing platform for vodcast media and is a must have for anyone serious about vodcasting.


    Figure 8. Nancy Sinatra does FireAnt with tag-based searching!

    DTV is another excellent vodcast platform for the Mac and offers a more pared down, but very functional set of features relative to FireAnt. First off, tag-based searching and community-oriented functionality are not available as of this writing. Nonetheless, DTV has a simple and intuitive interface that allows for real-time video resizing. As an open source project, DTV benefits from the rapid and robust development cycle associated with this development paradigm. Further, Participatory Culture Foundation, the organization behind DTV, offers a server-based Broadcast Machine (http://participatoryculture.org/bm/)-a scalable solution for both individuals and larger workgroups looking to automate or otherwise streamline their vodcast production. Future versions of DTV will be based on VLC, a great open source video player that comes with all the codecs needed to view the wide range of vodcast content.

    Content is King

    Many of today's popular content producers like Steve Garfield, of http://stevegarfield.blogs.com/, were pioneering Internet-based video media as early as 1997! Steve's Vlog Soup is highly recommended as an introduction to the community of video bloggers. Using a format similar to Comedy Central's Talk Soup, Vlog Soup offers hilarious excerpts of various extant video blogs with equally humorous commentary by Steve. Another star of the indie vodcast scene is RocketBoom (http://www.rocketboom.com/vlog/), a daily news program with correspondents all over the globe, which features classic comedic performances by host Amanda Congdon. XOLO TV (http://www.xolo.tv/) is another news-style vodcast, with particularly compelling interviews done by Gabe, the host of the 'cast. Mac-Heads (myself included!) will enjoy the MacTV vodcast (http://live.watchmactv.com/) with content ranging from OS X software tutorials to techno-lusty advertisements of Apple products.


    Figure 9. Previewing RocketBoom episodes in DTV

    Vodcasting and associated syndicated video technologies are nothing, in and of themselves, if people don't use them. There is a wide range of video content available and just wadding through it can be quite a job in itself. Not to worry, though, since both DTV, FireAnt and to a lesser extent the ITMS, offer an aggregation of content to get you started. However, to really get a sense of what is out there, you will want to explore the wide variety of directory services and community oriented forums.

    Directories

    http://del.icio.us/

    Del.icio.us bills itself as a social bookmarks manager and is one of the most popular directory services for vodcasting content. It allows users to create a personal link collection and add metadata to characterize their content. Also available are social features that enable you to browse the collections of other users and otherwise share information. Further, their API (http://del.icio.us/doc/api) allows developers to better integrate their content with del.icio.us specific tags as demonstrated in FireAnt (Figure 8).

    http://www.mefeedia.com/

    With the claim of being the first video aggregator, Mefeedia certainly has lots to offer with a robust set of social features, custom tags for content and instructional information. What is more, they even help you host your vodcast, all for free. Like Del.icio.us, Mefeedia's tag-based searching is integrated into FireAnt and is available to developers.


    Figure 10. Surveying the damage of hurricane Katrina as I browse popular vodcasts at Mefeedia.com

    http://video.search.yahoo.com/

    Yahoo has long played host to many in the vodcasting or video blogging community and, not surprisingly, offers a capacious selection of content. Additionally, Yahoo offers a tagging system, which like the last two directories detailed, is integrated with players like FireAnt. Perhaps more interesting, is the Yahoo Groups community for video bloggers that will be detailed in the community links section to follow.

    http://vlogdir.com/

    This directory offers a nice selection of vodcasts with some of the social elements that have become so popular among video blog directory services.

    http://getfireant.com/directory.php

    One of the most active groups developing solutions for vodcasters, FireAnt also offers a tagging system and directory service that has drag and drop subscribing functionality with their player.

    Community, Hosting and Instructional Sites

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/videoblogging/

    This is one of the oldest and largest online communities of vodcasters on the Net and is definitely worth a look. FireAnt, as well as, many of today's top bloggers got their start here.

    http://blip.tv/

    Not unlike some of the directory services covered, blip.tv allows for sharing and viewing of vodcasts, along with free hosting.

    http://videoblogging.info/

    This site offers unique content such as a world map of video bloggers, in addition to instructional articles, support, and an array of useful community links. If you need a hosting solution, look elsewhere as this site does not offer any such services. However, the site does supply useful information gleaned from the major video blogging communities and is therefore worth a look.

    http://www.ourmedia.org/

    Ourmedia is a great site for obtaining all types of content, including vodcasts, and represents another hosting solution for sharing your videos and other media. Further, links to tutorials and support are also available. Ourmedia is a great overall solution for users wishing to explore, create and publish multi-media content and share it with a growing community of users.

    http://www.freevlog.org/

    A wonderful and fun resource, freevlog.org represents the heart and soul of the vodcasting community with its rich array of instructional material and links to free hosting space to boot. If you plan on doing any vodcasting, I highly encourage you to visit this site as it really does a wonderful job in guiding you through the whole process, from content creation to hosting.


    Figure 11. Freevlog will help you to become a vodcast kung-fu master!

    Say you want a Revolution...

    Whether you call it vodcasting or video blogging, there are certainly no signs of this new medium and paradigm for media syndication ebbing anytime soon--quite to the contrary. Expect iTunes to further integrate vodcasts into their feature set and provide additional categories in the ITMS, so as to offer better browsing and differentiation of vodcast content from audio podcasts. Given the fact that Apple has recently updated their iPod patent filing to add coverage of a video player, it is likely that, in the secrecy characteristic of the new Apple, Jobs and company are working on a video iPod and an accompanying content aggregation and distribution scheme, possibly with larger and more traditional broadcast companies.

    Either way, it is certain that vodcasting will increasingly blur the lines between TV and Internet-based media. With a trend toward more niche content, we may indeed see a phenomenon akin to the explosion of print news outlets in the 1900s (between 1910-1914 the number of U.S. periodicals peaked with 2,600 dailies and 14,000 weeklies!), but with a 21st Century twist. Unlike traditional broadcast media, vodcasters tend to aggregate themselves into a community and use the medium not only for production of mainstream content, but also for interaction with friends and family. This type of personalized approach is refreshing and a boon in an age of globalization with little social and inter-group contact. With the barrier to entry quickly receding, alternative syndicated media technologies, like vodcasts, will be well poised to compete with "mainstream" media as an interactive populist force that may well overtake or force a major paradigm shift among the old guard of today's media conglomerates. With little differentiation among the major content providers, the chorus of fresh new voices among the independent vodcasting set is sounding sweeter by the minute!


    Emmanuel Stein has been an avid Mac user since 1984 and has honed his cross-platform skills while working at France Telecom, Time Magazine and Reed-Elsevier. He has recently started his own Mac-centric consulting company, MacVerse, which offers implementation, system administration and development services geared towards the enterprise market. As a diehard GNU/Linux geek, he enjoys hacking open source software and experimenting with new open source projects on OS X. You may reach him at macverse@mac.com

 
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