Call me Nostradamus

When Meerkat and then Periscope had the tech world buzzing about live video streaming through mobile phones, I wrote a piece on how the live video streaming space would play out. One bullet in that timeline:

27. Facebook adds a live video streaming button to its app, then shortly after that spins it out into a separate app altogether. They name it Live, and some other company that launched an app called Live that did the same thing a year earlier complains that Facebook stole their name, but no one really pays any attention.
 

From TechCrunch:

Before Periscope and Meerkat jumpstarted the mobile live-streaming craze, Facebook was already quietly working on its own way to let public figures broadcast live videos to their fans. Today, Facebook is launching “Live” as a feature in its Mentions app that’s only available to celebrities with a verified Page.
 
VIPs can start a Live broadcast that’s posted to the News Feed, watch comments overlaid in real-time on their stream, and then make the recording permanently available for viewing. Stars like The Rock and Serena Williams will stream today.
 

Okay, so maybe no one is giving Facebook guff about the name, but I'm still going to give myself a partial high five.

In a post about Venmo and payments as a social network in April, I wrote:

Speaking of the pile of poop emoji, it seems only a matter of time until someone releases an app that allows you to broadcast when you are taking a poop. It should be a mobile app just called Poop. I leave it to the design geniuses at Apple to figure out what type of haptic feedback a poop notification should emit on the Apple Watch.
 

From Mashable this past Friday:

A new chat app called Pooductive aims to create a miniature social network specifically for anyone who gets bored while they are doing a number two, and want to talk to people in the same position.
 
Created by two student developers, the free iPhone app, which began life as a failed Kickstarter, facilitates one-on-one or group chats based on your location. You can choose to message people nearby or be connected with users in other cities or countries.
 
"The fact that there is only little to do whilst tending to ‘number two’ is common knowledge, and truly a first world problem," the developers write on Pooductive's website.
 

Poop is clearly a superior name to Pooductive, so the only reason I didn't nail the name yet again was poor branding instincts on the part of the developers. The sample screenshots of the app in the iTunes App Store are something for the archives, someone actually dreamt up this imaginary chat between two people sitting on the toilet.

I honestly don't know which prediction I'm prouder of.

Vertical video

The shift also shows off the way that opinions of tech elites can be rendered moot by mainstream preferences. So, whether you are shooting a home video or something for work, you can safely ignore the puppets. To shoot vertically isn’t to be exposed as a tech ignoramus or a lazy philistine who cares little for the creative process. Rather it is to be on the vanguard of a novel and potentially far-reaching artistic trend.
 
The arguments against vertical video all seek to find something inviolable about images that play out horizontally before our eyes. “We live in a horizontal world, and most action happens from left to right,” said Mr. Bova, one of the men behind the puppet P.S.A. He added that “vertical videos feel claustrophobic,” because often they feature one or two people occupying the full frame, and not much of the landscape to show what lies beyond. Finally, Mr. Bova said, “our eyes are horizontal,” by which he meant the human field of vision is wider than it is tall, so it is only natural that our videos match that shape.
 
There is a simple rejoinder to his argument: Our eyes may be horizontal, but our hands are best suited to holding objects vertically, which is why phones, tablets and, in the predigital age, our books and other documents were usually oriented in portrait mode. Watching horizontal video on a phone’s vertical screen is a minor annoyance. With a horizontal video, you have to awkwardly flip your phone sideways so the entire image fills the screen, or you can keep your phone vertical and tolerate the huge black bars displayed above and below the picture.
 

So writes Farhad Manjoo in the NYTimes. Let's throw this in the category of contrarian pieces that are actually just wrong.

Just like professional photographers will turn their camera vertically from time to time, the lens orientation should match the subject. I would not want to watch a mumblecore movie in a Panavision 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio, but for Lawrence of Arabia, the Super Panavision 2.20 to 1 widescreen aspect ratio was crucial to the feeling of the feeling of people against the open expanse of the desert (and it amplifies Lawrence as a great man to see him wield his force of personality against such a broad canvas).

Sure, sometimes shooting vertically on your phone allows you to get closer to your subject, like the baby's first steps mentioned in the piece. However, for most subjects, horizontal is better. Human field of vision is horizontal, and it feels claustrophobic to watch vertical video for long period of time, it's like looking through the vertical slats in a fence.

For a Snap or a Vine, sure, I don't really care that much, neither do most people. Most of those are shot spontaneously, without much regard for the background, and it actually feels more unnatural or artificial if the video is horizontal since you know people usually hold their phones vertically. The vertical orientation suits the casual, disposable nature of those videos and subjects. The rise in vertical video reflects the rise of those networks and the rise of the mobile phone, but it doesn't signal some fundamental change in the difference between the suitability of horizontal versus vertical video.

Yesterday I watched this remarkable eyewitness video of the explosion in Tianjin China. It's stunning, but I couldn't help thinking two things watching it. One: stop filming and get to safety! Two: I wish it was shot horizontally.

Elmo's arrival points to HBO's future

Sesame Street announced a new five season deal with HBO. The seasons will be available exclusively on HBO for nine months before dropping at PBS.

This is HBO pursuing the Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu strategy instead of the reverse, the latter three all offer or plan to offer original children's programming. HBO has never had kids programming, and this move is a clear acknowledgment that they view themselves as a mini-bundle in and of themselves, more so than a channel carried by the traditional cable bundle.

HBO was once content to be a brand that stood for movie titles from the Warner Bros. catalog and boxing. Then it offered some comedy, and then original series, most of it targeted towards an adult demographic. HBO has had some great original series over the years, but it's fair to characterize their house style as having a fair bit of sex and nudity along with a fair dose of profanity and violence. They told us “It's not TV. It's HBO.” but if you watched any of their series you weren't likely to confuse the two.

What they didn't offer was family or children's programming. The money was coming in by the truckload, especially during the heyday of DVD, so it wasn't as if HBO felt a great sense of urgency to diversify its subscriber base.

Then came Netflix, which doesn't have a house style. Rather, they have more of a technology companies approach to content and growth: why put artificial limits on your own growth? The limit on entertainment subscription service growth is a function of the diversity and quality of their content portfolio. To acquire a subscriber, you need enough content to entice that person to become a subscriber. Then you need enough interesting content each month to keep them from canceling (that's the main reason subscription services like HBO don't release all their series at the same time of the year).

Once you have enough content to acquire and keep one type of subscriber, the marginal return on your next dollar of content is higher if you produce content that appeals to another type of subscriber. That's the Netflix strategy. If you look at all their original series, they are all over the map in genre, style, tone. They want to offer something for everyone so their subscriber base can include anyone.

[Amazon Prime is an even more bizarre subscription because it includes not just video but free expedited shipping, Amazon music, unlimited photo storage, e-book lending libraries, Amazon-branded everyday essentials, cheaper shipping on groceries, and a personal drone for dropping your kids off at school. I made one of those up, but it might be part of Prime next year.]

And now HBO is following suit. The next step for HBO is to let its original series spill out from Sunday night. If you read the Hollywood Reporter or another industry rag, you'll no doubt have heard of HBO passing on quite a few original series recently. Some of that could be creative differences, but if any of it is HBO limiting themselves to what they can fit in their Sunday night time slots, they're imposing yet another artificial limit on themselves that makes no sense in this streaming, time-shifted age. If HBO Now is the future, at some point it shouldn't even matter if some content on HBO Now never airs on their cable channel, especially if it's something like Sesame Street which would seem out of place on a cable channel chock full of mature content. The MSO's wouldn't love that, and perhaps HBO would just tack on another channel like HBO Family, but they should be willing to consider any concessions to their linear channel to be a strategy tax.

...

Since Twitter has largely replaced late-night talk-show monologues as the joke factory on the day's news, I enjoyed this roundup of humorous tweets riffing off of the HBO and Sesame Street deal.

Information previews in modern UI's

[I don't know if Facebook invented this (and if they didn't, I'm sure one of my readers will alert me to who did), but it's certainly the service which has used it to greatest effect which I suppose is the case for anything they put to use given their scale.]

One problem with embedded videos as opposed to text online has always been the high cost of sampling the video. Especially for interviews, I'd almost always rather just have the transcript than be forced to wade through an entire video. Scanning text is more efficient than scanning online video.

Facebook has, for some time now, autoplayed videos in the News Feed with the audio on mute. Not only does it catch your eye, it automatically gives you a motion preview of the video itself (without annoying you with the audio), thus lowering the sampling cost. To play the video, you click on it and it activates the audio. I'm sure the rollout of this UI change increased video clicks in the News Feed quite a bit. Very clever. I've already seen this in many mobile apps and expect it to become a standard for video online.

[It's trickier when videos include pre-roll ads; it's not a great user experience to be enticed to watch a video by an autoplayed clip, then to be dropped into an ad as soon as you act on your interest.]

Someday, the autoplayed samples could be even smarter; perhaps the video uploader could define in and out points for a specific sample, or perhaps the algorithm which selects the sample could be smarter about the best moment to select.

It's not just video where sampling costs should be minimized. Twitter shows a title, image, and excerpts for some links in its Timelines, helping you to preview what you might get for clicking on the link. They show these for some but not all links. I suspect they'd increase clickthroughs on those links quite a bit if they were more consistent in displaying those preview Twitter cards.

Business Insider and Buzzfeed linkbait-style headlines are a text analogue, albeit one with a poor reputation among some. Given the high and increasing competition for user attention at every waking moment, it's not clear that services can leave any such tactical stones unturned.

High Maintenance gets second season courtesy of Vimeo

The acclaimed web series High Maintenance got picked up for a second season with funding from Vimeo. This is Vimeo's first foray into an original web series.

Everybody in tech is getting into the original content game. That's the nature of video and TV: licensing is expensive and usually not economically attractive (see wholesale transfer pricing), so eventually players of sufficient audience look upstream, into financing their own content so they can capture the lion's share of profits available in the first window.

Seems tough to do with a one-off series of niche appeal like this, however.

High Dynamic Range Imaging

4K TVs don't excite me much, you really have to be sitting close to notice much difference, but Dolby's High Dynamic Range Imaging technology, which they call Dolby Vision and which they demoed at CES 2014, sounds amazing. To understand why, I turn it over to the folks at Dolby:

At Dolby, we wanted to find out what the right amount of light was for a display like a television. So we built a super-expensive, super-powerful, liquid-cooled TV that could display incredibly bright images. We brought people in to see our super TV and asked them how bright they liked it.

Here’s what we found: 90 percent of the viewers in our study preferred a TV that went as bright as 20,000 nits. (A nit is a measure of brightness. For reference, a 100-watt incandescent lightbulb puts out about 18,000 nits.)

You may be thinking, “Wow, I don’t want to look at a TV that bright. Looking at a 100-watt bulb would hurt my eyes!” And you’d be right if the TV was displaying a full-screen, pure-white image. That would be uncomfortable.

But real TV images, like scenes in the real world, include a mixture of dark and light. Only small parts of real-world scenes are very bright, and we have no problem looking at them. In fact, one of the secrets to producing TV images that look like real life is having that mix of true brights and darks.

If viewers want images of as much 20,000 nits, guess what the industry standard is for the brightness of current TV images. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.)

If your guess is more than 100 nits, you’re wrong. It’s true—most viewers want TV images that are 200 times brighter than today’s industry standard.

Does that difference really matter? You bet it does. Today’s TVs simply can’t match the depth and detail of a display that can produce far brighter images. And conventional TVs can’t recreate all the colors found in the world around us. It’s a classic case of “you don’t know what you’re missing until you see it.” When you experience a display with much higher brightness, you never want to go back to a conventional display.

This is just a JPG being viewed on a computer screen, but it gives a rough sense of the potential difference in contrast and color fidelity that is possible with higher dynamic range displays.

Free-dimensional cinematography

We saw a glimpse of this with Bullet Time in the Matrix movies and with Microsoft's Photosynth, but now a company called Replay Technologies has come up with the next evolution in what they call Free Dimensional Video.

Our technology works by capturing reality not as just a two-dimensional representation, but as a true three-dimensional scene, comprised of three-dimensional “pixels” that faithfully represent the fine details of the scene. This information is stored as a freeD™ database, which can then be tapped to produce (render) any desired viewing angle from the detailed information.

This enables a far superior way of capturing reality, which allows breaking free from the constraints of where a physical camera with a particular lens had been placed, allowing a freedom of viewing which has endless possibilities.
 

Essentially, you can choose any camera angle in post and the software can recreate it even if there was no camera shooting from that vantage point.

You can see an example of this in the tennis replays in the video below.

Amazing, and also refreshing, for once, to see a video technology debut in sports broadcast coverage instead of pornography.

Einstein's Camera

This is an old one, but it's still wonderful.

He remained fascinated, however, by the notion of capturing different parts of a person or of people at different times, constructing a still image out of “little pieces,” he says. This matched his growing interest in what he calls “the ever-changing nature of the present,” the constant flow of life that defied easy visual representation.

In 2006, during a months-long stay in Shanghai, he had an epiphany. “I had this feeling that I would, like, scan the flow of people. I began looking for the right kind of spaces where I could find a monotonous flow.” Magyar first studied escalators in Shanghai shopping malls. Then his gaze shifted to city streets—particularly major intersections or bus stops with a continuous procession of humanity. Once he had the concept in his head, he set about to develop the technology to realize it. “It was continuous research,” he says. “It took me a few weeks to figure it out.”

The answer, Magyar realized, was a modified version of the “slit scan” camera, the type used to determine photo finishes at racetracks and at Olympic sporting events by capturing a time sequence in one image. Such cameras were rare and cost many thousands of dollars, so Magyar set out to build one himself. He joined a medium-format camera lens to another sensor and wrote his own software for the new device. Total cost: $50. He inverted the traditional scanning method, where the sensor moves across a stationary object. This time, the sensor would remain still while the scanned objects were in motion, being photographed one consecutive pixel-wide strip at a time. (This is the basic principle of the photo-finish camera.) Magyar mounted the device on a tripod in a busy Shanghai neighborhood and scanned pedestrians as they passed in front of the sensor. He then digitally combined over 100,000 sequential strips into high-resolution photographs.
 

To more easily comprehend what Adam Magyar's modified camera enabled, watch one of the gorgeous videos he shot.

Some more of his videos here and also at his website. Stunning.