Flash Video Demo at the BBC's Digilab

 by Martin Belam, 16 September 2005

At the BBC we have a small unit called Digilab which looks at emerging technologies in the broadcast sphere, and they often invite guests and companies in to give presentations to staff about new products and technologies. Euan is one of the key players there, and has done a lot to drive the uptake of social software within the BBC itself. Today they had a presentation team in from Macromedia talking about Flash 8, and more specifically about the video capabilities of the player. A couple of things impressed me.

Firstly the claimed reach figures of Flash. When we are using Flash we are always careful to take care of the user-experience for people either without the plug-in or on very slow connections. Since the demo was focused on video the comparison was between the penetration of Flash and formats like QuickTime, Real and Windows Media. Macromedia were claiming from an NPD Online Survey in September 2004 that they had 98.2% penetration against QuickTime's 59%, Real Player's 58% and Windows Media Player's 42%. I couldn't help thinking that the Windows figure looked a little on the low side, and I should also add that this penetration figure isn't specifically for the Flash 8 Player that has all the nifty video features embedded in it.

The second thing that impressed me was directly related to that - the way they intend to roll-out the upgrade of the old Flash plug-ins that make up that 98% to version 8. Flash 7 had a phone home upgrade awareness built into it, so users should get prompted, and they have also done deals to get the upgrade included in both Microsoft's and Apple's OS update notification programmes. They are hoping to reduce the time taken to get everybody upgraded down from 12-15 months to less than 9 months, although they admitted they also rely on content providers to start making content that drives people to make the choice to upgrade when asked.

The Flash Video format also supports the concept of cue points, which allows timestamps in a movie to be tagged with information, and this was demonstrated to be a useful way of providing caption overlays onto video. The most visually impressive part of the demo was layering alpha-channeled video on top of another video stream to produce desktop special effects that looked superior to the efforts that the TV industry was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on less than 20 years ago.

They also did a demo of a Macromedia built site called "Experience Media" which utilised the Flash Media Server to deliver not just an embedded video player and mp3 player, but to enable the recording and posting of video clips in front of us. It also facilitated a strange hybrid video/IM/chatroom environment which looked very impressive, but an absolute nightmare if someone decided to impose it on your office - no more late unshaven morning appearances for me if my presence is being relayed around the building via webcams streaming flash video to everyone's desktops. (Although at least everybody would know instantaneously if I was wearing a different coloured shirt*)

One thing made me laugh inwardly a lot - when showcasing sites that used Flash 8 they used an example which featured clips from TV shows and movies. In the top right-hand corner was a poster image promo for the "Penn & Teller's Bullshit". Just in case it offended any of our sensibilities the Macromedia presentation had discretely blurred the text to make it illegible.

*  Private joke, sorry

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