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Part II: Creative Possibilities
Part III: Is Anybody Out There?
Part IV: Jazzing up the Banner
Part V: Branding Beyond Intuition

Streaming Media 101, Part I: Bare Bones Technology

by Pamela Parker
Managing Editor of ChannelSeven.com and Internet Advertising Report
7/11/01

Amid the dreary doldrums of the online advertising business, a few bright spots do exist -- arenas in which there's seen to be great potential for development and growth. Among those areas is streaming media, which can wow consumers with audio and video advertisements that arguably pack the emotional wallop of comparable radio and television spots.

Streaming media, then, is like radio or television. Then again, it's not. As part of TurboAds.com's everlasting quest to demystify the latest online marketing vehicles -- their capabilities and the technology behind them -- we present Streaming Media 101, an exploration of this emerging form of rich media aimed at getting newcomers up to speed. Today, in part one, we get down to the bare bones -- the basics of the technology.

Don't be scared. We're not going to make you learn super-techie terms that you'll never use, but understanding the difference between a server and a sniffer script might just make your job a little easier. Or, if all of this is old hat to you, this might be the ideal opportunity to educate your boss, co-worker, employee, or client about streaming.

Let's start at the beginning, with the stream itself. In the beginning -- and instances of this still exist -- there was the file download. If you wanted to watch a video or listen to a song, you had to download the entire file to your hard drive, and then play it locally. Some still advocate this type of experience, because the playback is usually smoother -- you don't have to concern yourself with the vagaries of net congestion.

But downloading an entire file just takes so darned long, hence the development of streaming -- a technology whereby the audio or video can be played as the file is downloaded. That content can be either live or pre-recorded, just like radio, television, or cable. Coincidentally, streaming is a big hit with people concerned about digital rights management, because the audio and video isn't actually stored on the user's computer. People have access to the content, but they don't actually own it and they can't copy it.

To make all this work, the audio or video content is first compressed using what's called a codec (short for compressor/decompressor) which makes it small enough to travel over the Internet. Then, when a consumer, using a streaming media player -- the most common being Real Player, Windows Media, and QuickTime -- requests that file, the appropriate file (that is, the one compressed in such a way to be decompressed by the user's particular type of player) is sent out across the Internet. The person's player decodes the file on the fly, and, voila, the audio or video plays.

An important thing to remember is that each stream is served up in response to an individual's request. That means it costs more -- in terms of computer power -- for each person who is listening or viewing. It's a very different proposition than radio or television, where you have the initial technology investment and then it doesn't matter how many people are receiving the signal.

There are advantages, though, over broadcast radio and television. As on the Internet, advertisements can be targeted to the individual that receives them. Different ad serving systems have differing capabilities, but it's technologically possible to deliver an ad to that one individual that you know is dying to buy your product. Of course, you may not want to come up with creative for all of those particular individuals, but that's beside the point.

The other main advantage, of course, is interactivity. Once the prospective buyer receives the ad, he or she can click to buy the product or to seek more information.

So, now that you know the basics, let's dive into the jargon.

  • bit rate: a measure of bandwidth, which tells you how fast data is traveling from one place to another on a computer network. Bit rate is usually expressed in kilobits per second or kbps.
  • broadband: the term used to describe a connection that delivers a relatively high bit rate -- any bit rate at or above 100 kbps, usually. Cable modems, DSL, and ISDN all offer broadband connections.
  • client: the client is the software application that requests and interprets data -- the audio or video file -- from the server. RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and the QuickTime Player are all client applications.
  • codec: short for compressor/decompressor. Codecs are algorithms that are used to compress the size of audio, video, and other large files. Codecs are continually improving, enabling larger and larger files to be transmitted successfully over the same bandwidth connection.
  • frame rate: the frame rate is the number of frames of video displayed during a given time. The higher the frame rate, the more high-quality the image will be. The number of frames displayed per second on television is 30, while films use 24 frames-per-second.
  • QuickTime: Apple's multimedia software, used to create and deliver audio, video, and animation over the Internet.
  • RealPlayer: RealPlayer is RealNetworks' multimedia software.
  • sniffer script: a program that "sniffs" out what type of media a computer can use. The sniffer script can determine whether a computer has a certain media player or not, so that the proper type of media can be delivered.
  • streaming: the continuous delivery of small, compressed packets of data so that they can be interpreted by player as they are received.
  • Webcasting: the delivery of audio, video, or animation over the Internet, whether live or pre-recorded.
  • Windows Media: Microsoft's streaming media platform.
Next week, we'll look at how advertisers are using streaming to deliver their marketing messages.

Part II: Creative Possibilities

Part III: Is Anybody Out There?
Part IV: Jazzing up the Banner

Part V: Branding Beyond Intuition


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