WordPress plugin for external videos updated

Over the last weeks I’ve updated my “external videos” wordpress plugin. I’ve fixed bugs and added some new functionality.

List of changes:

  • fixed a bug in attaching blog posts to videos for link-through from gallery overlays
  • allow re-attaching a different blog post to a video
  • added a shortcode that allows to link straight through to video pages instead of the overlay
  • fixed a bug on retrieval of keyframe for dotsub
  • added option to add the video posts to the site’s RSS feed
  • fixed a bug on image paths for the thickbox
  • made sure whenever a user goes to the admin page that the cron hook is active
  • changed some class names to avoid clashes with other plugins that people reported
  • turned simple_html_dom code into a class of its own to avoid clashes with other plugins that use this code, too
  • cleaning up entered data from surplus white space
  • styling fixes to the overlay on gallery
  • shielding against a bug with no videos on channels to retrieve yet

Download the new plugin version 0.13

Note: there is something weird going on with the wordpress plugins site, which still shows version 0.7 as the current one, but when you download it, it gets the latest version 0.12. If somebody knows how to fix this, that would be awesome. I think it also stops people from auto-updating this plugin, which is sad with this many improvements.
(I think I fixed it by actually changing the version number in the external-videos.php file – how silly of me – and thanks to the WordPress Forum person who pointed it out to me! Download 0.13 now.)

WebVTT explained

On Wednesday, I gave a talk at Google about WebVTT, the Web Video Text Track file format that is under development at the WHATWG for solving time-aligned text challenges for video.

I started by explaining all the features that WebVTT supports for captions and subtitles, mentioned how WebVTT would be used for text audio descriptions and navigation/chapters, and explained how it is included into HTML5 markup, such that the browser provides some default rendering for these purposes. I also mentioned the metadata approach that allows any timed content to be included into cues.

The talk slides include a demo of how the <track> element works in the browser. I’ve actually used the Captionator polyfill for HTML5 to make this demo, which was developed by Chris Giffard and is available as open source from GitHub.

The talk was recorded and has been made available as a Google Tech talk with captions and also a separate version with extended audio descriptions.

The slides of the talk are also available (best to choose the black theme).

I’ve also created a full transcript of the described video.

Get the WebVTT specification from the WHATWG Website.

Ideas for new HTML5 apps

At the recent Linux conference in Brisbane, Australia, I promised a free copy of my book to the person that could send me the best idea for an HTML5 video application. I later also tweeted about it.

While I didn’t get many emails, I am still impressed by the things people want to do. Amongst the posts were the following proposals:

  • Develop a simple video cutting tool to, say setting cut points and having a very simple backend taking the cut points and generating quick enough output. The cutting doesn’t need to retranscode.
  • Develop a polyfill for the track element
  • Use HTML5 video, especially the tracking between video and text, to better present video from the NZ Parliament.
  • Making a small MMO game using WebGL, HTML5 audio and WebSockets. I also want to use the same code for desktop and web.

These are all awesome ideas and I found it really hard to decide whom to give the free book to. In the end, I decided to give it to Brian McKenna, who is working on the MMO game – simply because it it is really pushing the boundaries of several HTML5 technologies.

To everyone else: the book is actually not that expensive to buy from APRESS or Amazon and you can get the eBook version there, too.

Thanks to everyone who started really thinking about this and sent in a proposal!

HTML5 Video Presentations at LCA 2011

Working in the WHAT WG and the W3C HTML WG, you sometimes forget that all the things that are being discussed so heatedly for standardization are actually leading to some really exciting new technologies that not many outside have really taken note of yet.

This week, during the Australian Linux Conference in Brisbane, I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to show off some awesome new features that browser vendors have implemented for the audio and video elements. The feedback that I got from people was uniformly plain surprise – nobody expected browser to have all these capabilities.

The examples that I showed off have mostly been the result of working on a book for almost 9 months of the past year and writing lots of examples of what can be achieved with existing implementations and specifications. They have been inspired by diverse demos that people made in the last years, so the book is linking to many more and many more amazing demos.

Incidentally, I promised to give a copy of the book away to the person with the best idea for a new Web application using HTML5 media. Since we ran out of time, please shoot me an email or a tweet (@silviapfeiffer) within the next 4 weeks and I will send another copy to the person with the best idea. The copy that I brought along was given to a student who wanted to use HTML5 video to display on surfaces of 3D moving objects.

So, let’s get to the talks.

On Monday, I gave a presentation on “Audio and Video processing in HTML5“, which had a strong focus on the Mozilla Audio API.

I further gave a brief lightning talk about “HTML5 Media Accessibility Update“. I am expecting lots to happen on this topic during this year.

Finally, I gave a presentation today on “The Latest and Coolest in HTML5 Media” with a strong focus on video, but also touching on audio and media accessibility.

The talks were streamed live – congrats to Ryan Verner for getting this working with support from Ben Hutchings from DebConf and the rest of the video team. The videos will apparently be available from http://linuxconfau.blip.tv/ in the near future.

UPDATE 4th Feb 2011: And here is my LCA talk …

with subtitles on YouTube:

Accessibility to Web video for the Vision-Impaired

In the past week, I was invited to an IBM workshop on audio/text descriptions for video in Japan. Geoff Freed and Trisha O’Connell from WGBH, and Michael Evans from BBC research were the other invited experts to speak about the current state of video accessibility around the world and where things are going in TV/digital TV and the Web.

The two day workshop was very productive. The first day was spent with presentations which were open to the public. A large vision-impaired community attended to understand where technology is going. It was very humbling to be part of an English-spoken workshop in Japan, where much of the audience is blind, but speaks English much better than my average experience with English in Japan. I met many very impressive and passionate people that are creating audio descriptions, adapting NVDA for the Japanese market, advocating to Broadcasters and Government to create more audio descriptions, and perform fundamental research for better tools to create audio descriptions. My own presentation was on “HTML5 Video Descriptions“.

On the second day, we only met with the IBM researchers and focused discussions on two topics:

  1. How to increase the amount of video descriptions
  2. HTML5 specifications for video descriptions

The first topic included concerns about guidelines for description authoring by beginners, how to raise awareness, who to lobby, and what production tools are required. I personally was more interested in the second topic and we moved into a smaller breakout group to focus on these discussions.

HTML5 specifications for video descriptions
Two topics were discussed related to video descriptions: text descriptions and audio descriptions. Text descriptions are descriptions authored as time-aligned text snippets and read out by a screen reader. Audio descriptions are audio recordings either of a human voice or even of a TTS (text-to-speech) synthesis – in either case, they are audio samples.

For a screen reader, the focus was actually largely on NVDA and people were very excited about the availability of this open source tool. There is a concern about how natural-sounding a screen reader can be made and IBM is doing much research there with some amazing results. In user experiment between WGBH and IBM they found that the more natural the voice sounds, the more people comprehend, but between a good screen reader and an actual human voice there is not much difference in the comprehension level. Broadcasters and other high-end producers are unlikely to accept TTS and will prefer the human voice, but for other materials – in particular for the large majority of content on the Web – TTS and screen readers can make a big difference.

An interesting lesson that I learnt was that video descriptions can be improved by 30% (i.e. 30% better comprehension) if we introduce extended descriptions, i.e. descriptions that can pause the main video to allow for a description be read for something that happens in the video, but where there is no obvious pause to read out the description. So, extended descriptions are one of the major challenges to get right.

We then looked at the path that we are currently progressing on in HTML5 with WebSRT, the TimedTrack API, the <track> elements and the new challenges around a multitrack API.

For text descriptions we identified a need for the following:

  • extension marker on cues: often it is very clear to the author of a description cue that there is no time for the cue to be read out in parallel to the main audio and the video needs to be paused. The proposal is for introduction of an extension marker on the cue to pause the video until the screen reader is finished. So, a speech-complete event from the screen reader API needs to be dealt with. To make this reliable, it might make sense to put a max duration on the cue so the video doesn’t end up waiting endlessly in case the screen reader event isn’t fired. The duration would be calculated based on a typical word speaking rate.
  • importance marker on cues: the duration of all text cues being read out by screen readers depends on the speed set-up of the screen reader. So, even when a cue has been created for a given audio break in the video, it may or may not fit into this break. For most cues it is important that they are read out completely before moving on, but for some it’s not. So, an importance maker could be introduced that determines whether a video stops at the end of the cue to allow the screen reader to finish, or whether the screen reader is silenced at that time no matter how far it has gotten.
  • ducking during cues: making the main audio track quieter in relation to the video description for the duration of a cue such as to allow the comprehension of the video description cue is important for comprehension
  • voice hints: an instruction at the beginning of the text description file for what voice to choose such that it won’t collide with e.g. the narrator voice of a video – typically the choice will be for a female voice when the narrator is male and the other way around – this will help initialize the screen reader appropriately
  • speed hints: an indicator at the beginning of a text description toward what word rate was used as the baseline for the timing of the cue durations such that a screen reader can be initialized with this
  • synthesis directives: while not a priority, eventually it will make for better quality synchronized text if it is possible to include some of the typical markers that speech synthesizers use (see e.g. SSML or speech CSS), including markers for speaker change, for emphasis, for pitch change and other prosody. It was, in fact, suggested that the CSS3′s speech module may be sufficient in particular since Opera already implements it.

This means we need to consider extending WebSRT cues with an “extension” marker and an “importance” marker. WebSRT further needs header-type metadata to include a voice and a speed hint for screen readers. The screen reader further needs to work more closely with the browser and exchange speech-complete events and hints for ducking. And finally we may need to allow for CSS3 speech styles on subparts of WebSRT cues, though I believe this latter one is not of high immediate importance.

For audio descriptions we identified a need for:

  • external/in-band descriptions: allowing external or in-band description tracks to be synchronized with the main video. It would be assumed in this case that the timeline of the description track is identical to the main video.
  • extended external descriptions: since it’s impossible to create in-band extended descriptions without changing the timeline of the main video, we can only properly solve the issue of extended audio descriptions through external resources. One idea that we came up with is to use a WebSRT file with links to short audio recordings as external extended audio descriptions. These can then be synchronized with the video and pause the video at the correct time etc through JavaScript. This is probably a sufficient solution for now. It supports both, sighted and vision-impaired users and does not extend the timeline of the original video. As an optimization, we can also do this through a single “virtual” resource that is a concatenation of the individual audio cues and is addressed through the WebSRT file with byte ranges.
  • ducking: making the main audio track quieter in relation to the video description for the duration of a cue such as to allow the comprehension of the video description cue is important for comprehension also with audio files, though it may be more difficult to realize
  • separate loudness control: making it possible for the viewer to separately turn the loudness of an audio description up/down in comparison to the main audio

For audio descriptions, we saw the need for introduction of a multitrack video API and markup to synchronize external audio description tracks with the main video. Extended audio descriptions should be solved through JavaScript and hooking up through the TimedTrack API, so mostly rolling it by hand at this stage. We will see how that develops in future. Ducking and separate loudness controls are equally needed here, but we do need more experiments in this space.

Finally, we discussed general needs to locate accessibility content such as audio descriptions by vision-impaired user:

  • the need for accessible user menus to turn on/off accessibility content
  • the introduction of dedicated and standardized keyboard short-cuts to turn on and manipulate the volume of audio descriptions (and captions)
  • the introduction of user preferences for automatically activating accessibility content; these could even learn from current usage, such that if a user activates descriptions for a video on one Website, the preferences pick this up; different user profiles are already introduced by ISO in “Access for all” and used in websites such as teachersdomain
  • means to generally locate accessibility content on the web, such as fields in search engines and RSS feeds
  • more generally there was a request to have caption on/off and description on/off buttons be introduced into remote controls of machines, which will become prevalent with the increasing amount of modern TV/Internet integrated devices

Overall, the workshop was a great success and I am keen to see more experimentation in this space. I also hope that some of the great work that was shown to us at IBM with extended descriptions and text descriptions will become available – if only as screencasts – so we can all learn from it to make better standards and technology.

Talk at Web Directions South, Sydney: HTML5 audio and video

On 14th October I gave a talk at Web Directions South on “HTML5 audio and video – using these exciting new elements in practice”.

I wanted to give people an introduction into how to use these elements while at the same time stirring their imagination as to the design possibilities now that these elements are available natively in browsers. I re-used some of the demos that I have put together for the book that I am currently writing, added some of the cool stuff that others have done and finished off with an outlook towards what new features will probably arrive next.

“Slides” are now available, which are really just a Web page with some demos that work in modern browsers.

Table of contents:

HTML5 Audio and Video

  1. Cross browser <video> element
  2. Cross browser <audio> element
  3. Encoding
  4. Fallback considerations
  5. CSS and <video> – samples
  6. <video> and the JavaScript API
  7. <video> and SVG
  8. <video> and Canvas
  9. <video> and Web Workers
  10. <video> and Accessibility
  11. audio plans

adaptive HTTP streaming for open codecs

At this week’s FOMS in New York we had one over-arching topic that seemed to be of interest to every single participant: how to do adaptive bitrate streaming over HTTP for open codecs. On the first day, there was a general discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of adaptive HTTP streaming, while on the second day, we moved towards designing a solution for Ogg and WebM. While I didn’t attend all the discussions, I want to summarize the insights that I took out of the days in this blog post and the alternative implementation strategies that were came up with.

Use Cases for Adaptive HTTP Streaming

Streaming using RTP/RTSP has in the past been the main protocol to provide live video streams, either for broadcast or for real-time communication. It has been purpose-built for chunked video delivery and has features that many customers want, such as the ability to encrypt the stream, to tell players not to store the data, and to monitor the performance of the stream such that its bandwidth can be adapted. It has, however, also many disadvantages, not least that it goes over ports that normal firewalls block and thus is rather difficult to deploy, but also that it requires special server software, a client that speaks the protocol, and has a signalling overhead on the transport layer for adapting the stream.

RTP/RTSP has been invented to allow for high quality of service video consumption. In the last 10 years, however, it has become the norm to consume “canned” video (i.e. non-live video) over HTTP, making use of the byte-range request functionality of HTTP for seeking. While methods have been created to estimate the size of a pre-buffer before starting to play back in order to achieve continuous playback based on the bandwidth of your pipe at the beginning of downloading, not much can be done when one runs out of pre-buffer in the middle of playback or when the CPU on the machine doesn’t manage to catch up with decoding of the sheer amount of video data: your playback stops to go into re-buffering in the first case and starts to become choppy in the latter case.

An obvious approach to improving this situation is the scale the bandwidth of the video stream down, potentially even switch to a lower resolution video, right in the middle of playback. Apple’s HTTP live streaming, Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming, and Adobe’s Dynamic Streaming are all solutions in this space. Also, ISO/MPEG is working on DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) is an effort to standardize the approach for MPEG media. No solution yets exist for the open formats within Ogg or WebM containers.

Some features of HTTP adaptive streaming are:

  • Enables adaptation of downloading to avoid continuing buffering when network or machine cannot cope.
  • Gapless switching between streams of different bitrate.
  • No special server software is required – any existing Web Server can be used to provide the streams.
  • The adaptation comes from the media player that actually knows what quality the user experiences rather than the network layer that knows nothing about the performance of the computer, and can only tell about the performance of the network.
  • Adaptation means that several versions of different bandwidth are made available on the server and the client switches between them based on knowledge it has about the video quality that the user experiences.
  • Bandwidth is not wasted by downloading video data that is not being consumed by the user, but rather content is pulled moments just before it is required, which works both for the live and canned content case and is particularly useful for long-form content.

Viability

In discussions at FOMS it was determined that mid-stream switching between different bitrate encoded audio files is possible. Just looking at the PCM domain, it requires stitching the waveform together at the switch-over point, but that is not a complex function. To be able to do that stitching with Vorbis-encoded files, there is no need for a overlap of data, because the encoded samples of the previous window in a different bitrate page can be used as input into the decoding of the current bitrate page, as long as the resulting PCM samples are stitched.

For video, mid-stream switching to a different bitrate encoded stream is also acceptable, as long as the switch-over point adheres to a keyframe, which can be independently decoded.

Thus, the preparation of the alternative bitstream videos requires temporal synchronisation of keyframes on video – the audio can deal with the switch-over at any point. A bit of intelligent encoding is thus necessary – requiring the encoding pipeline to provide regular keyframes at a certain rate would be sufficient. Then, the switch-over points are the keyframes.

Technical Realisation

With the solutions from Adobe, Microsoft and Apple, the technology has been created such there are special tools on the server that prepare the content for adaptive HTTP streaming and provide a manifest of the prepared content. Typically, the content is encoded in versions of different bitrates and the bandwidth versions are broken into chunks that can be decoded independently. These chunks are synchronised between the different bitrate versions such that there are defined switch-over points. The switch-over points as well as the file names of the different chunks are documented inside a manifest file. It is this manifest file that the player downloads instead of the resource at the beginning of streaming. This manifest file informs the player of the available resources and enables it to orchestrate the correct URL requests to the server as it progresses through the resource.

At FOMS, we took a step back from this approach and analysed what the general possibilities are for solving adaptive HTTP streaming. For example, it would be possible to not chunk the original media data, but instead perform range requests on the different bitrate versions of the resource. The following options were identified.

Chunking

With Chunking, the original bitrate versions are chunked into smaller full resources with defined switch-over points. This implies creation of a header on each one of the chunks and thus introduces overhead. Assuming we use 10sec chunks and 6kBytes per chunk, that results in 5kBit/sec extra overhead. After chunking the files this way, we provide a manifest file (similar to Apple’s m3u8 file, or the SMIL-based manifest file of Microsoft, or Adobe’s Flash Media Manifest file). The manifest file informs the client about the chunks and the switch-over points and the client requests those different resources at the switch-over points.

Disadvantages:

  • Header overhead on the pipe.
  • Switch-over delay for decoding the header.
  • Possible problem with TCP slowstart on new files.
  • A piece of software is necessary on server to prepare the chunked files.
  • A large amount of files to manage on the server.
  • The client has to hide the switching between full resources.

Advantages:

  • Works for live streams, where increasing amounts of chunks are written.
  • Works well with CDNs, because mid-stream switching to another server is easy.
  • Chunks can be encoded such that there is no overlap in the data necessary on switch-over.
  • May work well with Web sockets.
  • Follows the way in which proprietary solutions are doing it, so may be easy to adopt.
  • If the chunks are concatenated on the client, you get chained Ogg files (similar concept in WebM?), which are planned to be supported by Web browsers and are thus legal files.

Chained Chunks

Alternatively to creating the large number of files, one could also just create the chained files. Then, the switch-over is not between different files, but between different byte ranges. The headers still have to be read and parsed. And a manifest file still has to exist, but it now points to byte ranges rather than different resources.

Advantages over Chunking:

  • No TCP-slowstart problem.
  • No large number of files on the server.

Disadvantages over Chunking:

  • Mid-stream switching to other servers is not easily possible – CDNs won’t like it.
  • Doesn’t work with Web sockets as easily.
  • New approach that vendors will have to grapple with.

Virtual Chunks

Since in Chained Chunks we are already doing byte-range requests, it is a short step towards simply dropping the repeating headers and just downloading them once at the beginning for all possible bitrate files. Then, as we seek to different positions in “the” file, the byte range of the bitrate version that makes sense to retrieve at that stage would be requested. This could even be done with media fragment URIs, through addressing with time ranges is less accurate than explicit byte ranges.

In contrast to the previous two options, this basically requires keeping n different encoding pipelines alive – one for every bitrate version. Then, the byte ranges of the chunks will be interpreted by the appropriate pipeline. The manifest now points to keyframes as switch-over points.

Advantage over Chained Chunking:

  • No header overhead.
  • No continuous re-initialisation of decoding pipelines.

Disadvantages over Chained Chunking:

  • Multiple decoding pipelines need to be maintained and byte ranges managed for each.

Unchunked Byte Ranges

We can even consider going all the way and not preparing the alternative bitrate resources for switching, i.e. not making sure that the keyframes align. This will then require the player to do the switching itself, determine when the next keyframe comes up in its current stream then seek to that position in the next stream, always making sure to go back to the last keyframe before that position and discard all data until it arrives at the same offset.

Disadvantages:

  • There will be an overlap in the timeline for download, which has to be managed from the buffering and alignment POV.
  • Overlap poses a challenge of downloading more data than necessary at exactly the time where one doesn’t have bandwidth to spare.
  • Requires seeking.
  • Messy.

Advantages:

  • No special authoring of resources on the server is needed.
  • Requires a very simple manifest file only with a list of alternative bitrate files.

Final concerns

At FOMS we weren’t able to make a final decision on how to achieve adaptive HTTP streaming for open codecs. Most agreed that moving forward with the first case would be the right thing to do, but the sheer number of files that can create is daunting and it would be nice to avoid that for users.

Other goals are to make it work in stand-alone players, which means they will need to support loading the manifest file. And finally we want to enable experimentation in the browser through JavaScript implementation, which means there needs to be an interface to provide the quality of decoding to JavaScript. Fortunately, a proposal for such a statistics API already exists. The number of received frames, the number of dropped frames, and the size of the video are the most important statistics required.

State of Media Accessibility in HTML5

Today I gave a talk at the Open Video Conference about the state of the specifications in HTML5 for media accessibility.

To be clear: at this exact moment, there is no actual specification text in the W3C version of HTML5 for media accessibility. There is, however, some text in the WHATWG version, providing a framework for text-based alternative content. Other alternative content still requires new specification text. Finally, there is no implementation in any browser yet for media accessibility, but we are getting closer. As browser vendors are moving towards implementing support for the WHATWG specifications of the <track> element, the TimedTrack JavaScript API, and the WebSRT format, video sites can also experiment with the provided specifications and contribute feedback to improve the specifications.

Attached are my slides from today’s talk. I went through some of the key requirements of accessibility users and showed how they are being met by the new specifications (in green) or could be met with some still-to-be-developed specifications (in blue). Note that the talk and slides focus on accessibility needs, but the developed technologies will be useful far beyond just accessibility needs and will also help satisfy other needs, such as the needs of internationalization (through subtitles), of exposing multitrack audio/video (through the JavaScript API), of providing timed metadata (through WebSRT), or even of supporting Karaoke (through WebSRT). In the tables on the last two pages I summarize the gaps in the specifications where we will be working on next and also show what is already possible with given specifications.

Upcoming conferences / workshops

Lots is happening in open source multimedia land in the next few months.

Check out these cool upcoming conferences / workshops / miniconfs…

September 29th and 30th, New York
Open Subtitles Design Summit

October 1st and 2nd, New York
Open Video Conference

October 3rd and 4th, New York
Foundations of Open Media Software Developer Workshop

January 24/25th, Brisbane, Australia
LCA Multimedia Miniconf