March 10, 2011

PC Video: From Postage Stamp to YouTube HD

Greetings. In 1992, just less than 20 years ago, Microsoft released their original "Video for Windows" (VfW) system. Does the word "MSCDEX" ring a bell -- perhaps cause a little shudder of memory down your spine?

Included with the VfW distribution was a sample video file, originally entitled:


On many typical CRT displays of the day, it appeared around the size of a postage stamp, but as the first such live action, full motion video most of us had seen on a home computer, it was still immensely cool -- all 11 seconds of it.

Here it is on YouTube (including its original soundtrack). As you can see, I've tried to more or less approximate the relative size you would have seen back then (when displayed now in a standard YouTube playback window). Anyway, it was small. Really small. And we watched it over and over again in fascination.

Fast forward almost two decades.

Over on the Official YouTube Blog today, YouTube has announced that they're hiring in a range of positions (not a big surprise). But they also mentioned in passing that they've almost reached the ripe old age of ... six.

Hard to believe that YouTube isn't even quite six years old yet? It feels like a lot longer, huh? This seems especially true given the way that YT has been in the middle of so many technical and nontechnical Internet-related issues, from home entertainment -- to people's revolutions -- to censorship battles -- to insanely gigantic lawsuits -- to Internet infrastructure to ... well you get the idea.

One rather interesting way to look at these incredible YouTube developments on the purely technical side over this period, is to inspect my record of uploaded YT videos.

My first logged YT upload was in January 2007, so I wasn't among the earliest YouTube adopters. By the time I began, the 10 minute per clip upload limit was in force (now 15 by default for "normal" accounts -- unlimited for many normal accounts with good reputations, nonprofits, various YouTube partners, etc.)

Even though I always uploaded with quite high resolution and generous data rates, those earliest videos of mine on YT are only at 240p resolution (standard 4:3 TV aspect ratio, of course).

Over the few years since then, the available resolutions have gone from 240p, to 360p, to 480p, to 720p HD and even higher. The standard YouTube video display aspect ratio has expanded from 4:3 to 16:9. Speed of processing has vastly improved, to the point that shorter videos are often pretty much through "first pass" processing within seconds of uploads finishing.

Then there's the YT auto-captioning system, various social communications tools, and a wide variety of other aspects that make up the entire YouTube/Google ecosystem.

The improvements in resolution and processing speed over time have allowed me to standardize my YT video uploads at 720p, 8 Mbits/sec, 16:9. Even when working with old archival materials, I always bump everything up to this level (either zooming/cropping 4:3 assets to fill the 16:9 window, or much more commonly centering those clips within the 16:9 window -- I refuse to distort aspect ratios by stretching!)

In a way, it seems like only the blink of an eye between that tiny video windsurfing demo of years ago, and the 16:9 HD videos that stream in today via a little black Google TV box onto my LCD TV.

For YouTube, it's not even six years yet. What will the next six bring? The answers won't only relate to technology, but also potentially to new legislation and laws, as various powerful parties have made it clear that they'd very much like to destroy YouTube's relatively egalitarian DMCA-compliant operational model, in favor of a much more restricted modality, dictated largely by traditional entertainment industry interests at the expense of most ordinary YouTube uploaders and viewers. The battles in this sphere have yet to really get underway.

So stay tuned. And keep your eyes on the screen ...

It's definitely not going to be boring.


Posted by Lauren at March 10, 2011 07:51 PM | Permalink
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