The increasing popularity of multimedia content on the Web and in corporate multimedia presentations has complicated the job of content providers everywhere. Beyond the additional hardware and bandwidth requirements that adding multimedia content to your Web sites and corporate networks brings, multimedia presentations also require you to choose a proprietary media format. RealNetworks' RealMedia maintains a significant lead (a ratio of 4:1 according to some analysts) in the streaming media market over Microsoft Windows Media, the number-two player. However, many Web sites provide streaming content in both RealMedia (.rm) and Windows Media (.asf) formats.
RealNetworks and Microsoft offer tools to assist users in content creation. But the proprietary formats require you to learn both tools and perform the content creation steps twice for all streaming media content that you want to make available in both formats.
Sonic Foundry's Stream Anywhere provides an easy-to-use solution to the problem of creating streaming media in both RealMedia and Windows Media formats. This application can simultaneously create files in both formats at a variety of bit rates.
I installed Stream Anywhere on two different machines: a Dell Precision WorkStation 410 (550MHz dual-Pentium III processor with 128MB of RAM) running Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 5 (SP5), and a custom-built system (533MHz Celeron-based processor with 128MB of RAM) set up to dual-boot Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) and Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE). The Celeron-based system also had ADS Technologies' PYRO 1394 adapter, which provides video capture. The PYRO card supports Windows 2000 (Win2K) and Win98 but didn't support NT at press time. I used Win98SE, the PYRO card, and the IEEE 1394 (FireWire) connector on a Sony DCR-TRV8 miniature digital video recorder to capture the video. Although Stream Anywhere supports video capture, I was unable to use the software and the camera's FireWire connection to capture video. To capture an example video, I used the Ulead VideoStudio 4.0 software, which the PYRO card provided, running under Win98SE. To manipulate the captured video, I used Stream Anywhere running on NT 4.0.
My source video file was a 3-minute video of a racing event that I shot from inside a car. I captured the video as a 15 frames-per-second (fps) AVI file, then I compressed it using a Cinepak compressor/decompressor (codec). The source file was slightly larger than 20MB. The same video captured as a 30fps AVI file without compression was larger than 600MB. This size makes the video hard to manipulate and shows the importance of capturing your source video in an appropriate fashion. Even a 20MB file is too large to stream conveniently across the Internet, although it's small enough to stream across a LAN. I achieved my goal to produce file versions that were suitable for download at both dial-up and broadband Internet connection speeds after I edited the source file and saved it at different bit rates.
Editing the Video
To edit the video, I opened a new Project and loaded the source AVI file into the Stream Anywhere application. After I loaded the source video, Stream Anywhere's Full Mode displayed all the frames, as Screen 1, page 111, shows. You edit the video by cutting from these frames.
To test the software's video-capture features, I used the timeline feature to crop the video to slightly less than 3 minutes so that the car started and finished at the same point on the racetrack. I added markers and comments to the timeline to show which track the car was on, and I added links to a URL that contained a text description of the lap (e.g., the long sweeper at the back end of the front straight).
To make the video flashier, I faded in the beginning and faded out the end so that the picture gradually appeared and disappeared. To individualize the video, I added a transparent version of the racing event's logo to the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Stream Anywhere lets you place a watermark on your video and gives you full control over the size, opacity, and location of the image. I could have added a title to the video but thought that the logo was less intrusive.
Next, I decided to test the audio equalization to make sure viewers could hear the cockpit conversation over the noise of the high-performance car. I selected the Audio tab and tweaked the audio controls to my satisfaction. Then, I selected the Video tab and slightly brightened the image so that the video was clearer.
After I went through the editing process once, I felt confident that editing future videos would take only a few minutes. The controls you use to edit, enhance, and add items to the video are clear-cut; the complex part of the process is deciding where and what you want to add or cut. A longer video will take more time, but the product's ease of use is high, regardless of the video length.
Creating Streaming Media
Now that I was satisfied with my video, I needed to render the video in RealPlayer G2- and Windows Media Player-compatible files. None of my editing was necessary to create these files; you can take a professionally prepared AVI file and use Stream Anywhere merely to create the RealMedia and Windows Media files.
From the File menu, I selected Save as Streaming Media and received the Save as Streaming Media dialog box, which Screen 2 shows. Then, I selected the destination directory for the media files and configured the bit rate that I wanted to encode the RealMedia and Windows Media files at. I selected multibit-rate formats for both the .rm and .asf files because a streaming media server will serve a multibit-rate file to a viewer at the appropriate connection speed. The multibit rate for the Windows Media format that Screen 2 shows lets a server provide a file at 28.8Kbps or 56Kbps for dial-up connections and at 112Kbps or faster for ISDN, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and T1 connections. Because Windows Media files when encoded at a single bit rate can use HTTP (without a streaming media server) to stream, I also chose to encode the Windows Media files in single 28.8Kbps and 56Kbps bit-rate formats. After I selected OK, Stream Anywhere created the files. Whether I used the low-bandwidth single format or the high-bandwidth multiformat, encoding the file took only a few minutes. Although I created file versions as small as 800KB, the multibit-rate .rm file was about 12MB and the multibit-rate .asf file was about 6MB.
After I encoded the streaming media, I selected the Create a Webpage option on the File menu and used the software to quickly create a Web page that held my content. Next, I edited the page to add links to my other Web pages and to my site graphics. The page-creation tool lets you offer the video, embed the player controls on the page, and launch the video as a separate application. Other options give users about 15 Web page templates that they can use to display their streaming video presentation.
For $179 to $199, Stream Anywhere is an indispensable tool for Web masters who need to create streaming media content in both RealMedia and Windows Media formats. Using the software doesn't require any special knowledge of video editing or streaming-media creation. The product would have been perfect if the video capture had worked. (At press time, I hadn't received a call back from the vendor.) I still have to give Stream Anywhere an outright recommendation because of the product's reasonable price and ease of use.
Contact: Sonic Foundry * 800-577-6642 or 608-256-3133
Price: $199 packaged; $179 as a download
Pros: Creates RealMedia and Windows Media files simultaneously; doesn't require extra tools; is easy to use
Cons: Video capture feature didn't work