December 2002:
We are in the process of upgrading our RealServer.  You may have to upgrade your RealPlayer to the "RealOne Player" in order to access the sample files mentioned in this and related documents. There is still a truly free RealOne player, but you need to look for it carefully and it takes several clicks to get to the actual download from the Real home page. Currently, the first link to click from there is in the upper right corner -- very easy to overlook.

Manfred Kuechler (Hunter College)
Version 1.8.3 (February 22, 2000) -- version history

Multimedia contents for course web pages: 
Preliminary Explorations

Welcome
A brief video in "streaming" format; requires the Real Player G2 which can be downloaded for free

The file is served in Real's "surestream" mode, i.e. what is served is adjusted to actual connection speed. If traffic is slow, you may see a 12 kbps version with only a few video frames, but no continuous motion. In that case, try again later. Your connection needs to support 20 kbps at minimum for somewhat decent video quality. This particular file is optimized for modem connections; a T1 connection will not render better results than a well working 56K modem connection.

I gratefully acknowledge the support provided through a "New Teaching Initiatives" grant by the Office of the President.
Advisory for people planning to do similar explorations
RealNetworks.com announced a number of changes in "branding" and pricing in connection with the final release of version 7 in December 1999. The "Basic Server" is now called "RealServer Basic" and is still free; the "Basic Server Plus" is now the "RealServer Plus" and sells for $1995 (rather than $695). In addition, the new version 7 requires a minimum of 512 MB memory (according to the installation instructions) though the sales material on the company web side currently does not say so. It may be possible to tweak the installation to make do with less memory.
So, moving on to the current version 7 requires a significantly higher investment in server hardware as well as Real software license fees. 
Overview and Table of Contents

If you want to see examples first rather than finding out what it takes to produce such material and how to make it available via the Web 

  • Check an associated page with links to video clip from the 1999 Commencement  at Hunter (available at any time) or
  • check another page with various multimedia contents based on the 1998 German elections or
  • check the schedule of live broadcasts on the Hunter Live! page
  • As this has become a fairly long document, here is a section overview with internal links to jump ahead

    Introduction

    Background. For a while, the development of multimedia presentations and course web pages has run along different tracks -- with powerful and (relatively) user friendly software tools becoming available in each realm. Now, surfing the Web, one easily finds many commercial sites that provide multi-media contents over the Web. The question, then, is what can be done with limited resources and very limited technical support at a public institution of higher learning like Hunter College to enrich course pages with multimedia contents. In each area, faculty have easy access to convenient tools In theory, these tools can be easily combined since ERes can accommodate any format, web servers can easily be configured to accommodate additional file types, and a free Powerpoint viewer is available to amend web browser (Netscape, MS IE) capabilities on the user side. No extra cost is involved. The drawback, however, is that Powerpoint and other multi-media files tend to be rather large, so that load times become rather long -- especially over a slow modem connection and using less powerful work stations. (The options for delivering Powerpoint presentations via the Web are explored in more detail in a related document.) With the advance of "streaming" technology, however, it is possible to start displaying a large multimedia (or single media video or audio) file while the download process from remote server site to user work station continues.

    Streaming technology is still in its early stages, but no longer in its infancy. Though there are different products and approaches, the RealSystem emerged as an industry leader eclipsing early competitors like VDOlive. However, both MS (Windos Media Player) and Apple(especially with the "preview" release of Quicktime 4 in April 1999) also offer their own streaming solutions. One of the largest web sites using streaming video (CNN) offers all clips in two versions, for the RealPlayer and for the Windows Media Player.

    In 1998, Real Systems launched its G2 series (I trust G2 stands for 'second generation') and a multitude of products have become available -- some for free, some for modest cost, some for real money. This page documents my start into exploring these (low cost) products for their potential of generating multi-media contents for college courses and distributing it over the web (via course web pages).

    Call for exchange of ideas and experiences. This is a start. While I have used web course pages since fall 1995, my experience with multimedia contents/presentations is still limited. So, most examples of multimedia contents you see on this page are rather crude, quickly put together to test the interplay with web distribution. As other colleagues are beginning to take in interest in these issues I am getting better material to experiment with, and I invite such collaboration.

    Real Products Overview. I am not going into any details here, check their web site if you want more detail. However, it is important to realize that these products fall into three categories and to understand the relevance of each category for the purpose discussed here:

    Starting with the last, the RealPlayer G2 is available for free, a fancier version RealPlayer Plus G2 cost about $30. The latter offers an option to record a streaming media presentation -- if the generator (faculty member) has not protected the contents against recording. Unlike regular web files and images that can be easily downloaded by the user (student), Real contents cannot be easily captured (especially when a RealServer is used). Using the Real tools thus provides much stronger copyright protection and strengthens a "fair use" claim. Of course, there will be never be absolute protection for still images. As a still image is displayed on the user's monitor, the screen can be captured (by simply pressing the "Print Screen" key), pasted into any graphics or photo editing program, and the screen shot cropped to the image it contains. But this does not work with audio and video contents.

    A number of production tools are also available for free, more elaborate versions as well as related products sell at reasonable prices (like RealProducer Plus at $150) or for real money (like RealProducer Pro for $500) . Another useful tool is the Real Presenter  (about $40) which allows to convert a Powerpoint presentation into Real format; but it is useful for Powerpoint presentation with audio only and any animations are not preserved (details).

    As to servers, Real contents can be served by a regular web server (only minor adjustments in terms of specifying additional "mime types" -- a five minute job for the system administrator -- are needed). All demonstrations in this page are served from both a standard web server (Apache 2.5 running under Linux kernel 2.0.32 on an i686; in October 1999 upgraded to Apache 3.1.6 running under Linux kernel 2.2. [Redhat Linux 6]) and -- initially -- from the free basic server from Real Systems. In March 1999, the Real Basic Server G2 Plus (which then sold for $695) was installed and the links on this page were changed accordingly. The
    Real Basic Server was upgraded to version 6.1 (beta 2) on October 22, 1999.

    With modem connections you are likely to see better connections via the RealServer. I will keep the comparison with the regular server, because setting up the RealServer requires the cooperation of the system administrator. While refusing to add a few mime types would be sheer obstruction, some system administrators may be balking at the suggestion to install the RealServer. Unfortunately, not all computer support professionals are so helpful like Andrew Blaner, David Gallagher, or Bill Gruber -- to name just a few outstanding people I have had the pleasure to work with. So, settling for a regular web server is a workaround for faculty at locations with an obstinate computer support unit.

    Final note: The G2 player and production tools are available for Win9x platforms as well as for Unix and Mac (final release of the latter in spring 1999).

    Sample Contents

    Below are several samples of multi-media (audio, video) contents that were produced without any extra cost involved, simply using free Real products and using the standard web (httpd) server on the "maxweber" box. The latter makes it necessary to pick a single rate for streaming contents:  28.8 as a low modem standard was chosen.  In order to view these file, you need to have the RealPlayer G2 installed. Older RealPlayers will not work properly. If you don't have this player installed on your computer, click on the button below to download the free software. And, obviously, to experience audio contents you need to have a sound card in your computer and speakers or headphones attached. Finally, I have developed this contents using a monitor set to 800x600 resolution and 16-bit (=high, =64000, =thousands) color. I am not sure what you will get using other monitor settings -- some of the images will certainly look pretty weird with lower color settings.
     
     
    If you experience problems with viewing any of the examples below, go to the troubleshooting page.
    But keep in mind that all material is available from two different servers, always try both. 
    However, since March 1999, both servers reside on the same box ("maxweber").

    Example 1:

    This is an audio-only file with an excerpt from a Bach fugue of some 100 seconds in length. Web server -- RealServer. Production note:

    Example 2:

    This is a slide show, but not a straightforward one (one image simply replacing the next, maybe with a fade over). Rather, it allows for zooms, pans, overlays, etc. This has important didactic advantages in that details can be brought out more clearly, several details can be superimposed, etc. I think this is useful for a wide variety of courses; any course were still photos are an essential visual aid. The moving of still photos allows to add emphasis and to direct attention to specific details. Again, never mind the imperfections of the contents, I just want to demonstrate the principles. Web server -- RealServer. Production notes:

    Example 3:

    The same slide show but with a brief voice greeting added. Web server -- RealServer. Production notes: [added 2/3/00]

    RealSlideshow

    Another product -- not available at the time of the first explorations -- RealSlideshow simplifies the process of producing slide slows with audio (narration and/or music), but it is more limited in its presentation of the images (no pans or zooms) and no adding of text. It comes in both a free and a "plus" version. The latter sells for $30 in early 2000; additional features of the "plus" version include the ability to add text annotations to each image. Here is a very first exploration of free product, the result of my first hour of checking out this product. It is a slide show of some of our departmental faculty and the narration simply reflects my personal opinions. This is produced for 28/56K modem connections only. With a bit more time investment, the slide show could look better; also, the background music is hardly audible. Though it may surprise you, the audio part is usually more difficult to handle than the video part. Here, one has to balance the level (volume) of the two separate recordings (the narration and the music) which use different input channels (mike for narration, CD player for music). Anyway, have a look. The slide show is served by the RealServer.
    [added 2/22/00]
    I now have moved on to RealSlideshow Plus 2.0 which offers some significant additions and improvements. These include: Though Real's marketing strategy for this product is focused on hobbyists showing off their vacation or baby pictures, there is important use for it in education -- as an alternative to video clips and "screencam" movies to reduce the demand on the server (storage, memory) and to better deal with slow off-campus connections (56K modems): Screen shots are easy to produce (see separate guide) and require no investment whatsoever, all necessary tools are already on any Windows 9x computer (and I guess on Macs as well, though I don't know this for a fact). However,  ScreenShot Deluxe 2.0 (which sells for $30) does make it more convenient and offers some additional functionality. The screen shots used for the demo RealSlideshow below were produce with ScreenShot. In particular, I used its option to overlay a text caption on the screen shot with control over placement and appearance (background and font color, font style and size). The alternative is to add the text caption in RealSlideshow. Then, however, the placement of the caption box is fixed for the whole slide show -- which may work fine for some presentations and which is largely a matter of taste.
    Let's assume now that you have your "slides" (images, graphic files) ready with or without text caption. RealSlideshow Plus accepts both .gif and .jpeg format as source input. The most important thing to ensure decent quality of the end product is to avoid resizing of the images. Make sure that the source images all fit into the image area defined in the RealSlideshow layout. The default RS layout is an image area of 320x240 pixels on top with a text caption area of 320x40 beneath. However, this layout can be customized. In the demo below, the text caption area is eliminated (as text captions are already contained in the images) and the image area is slightly expanded to accommodate the original size of the screen shots. Again, check the size of your screenshots: any graphics program will provide you with this "image property"; I recommend to use pixels as measurement unit. 320x240 is a quarter screen under basic screen resolution. You can go larger, but this will also increase the size of your screen shots (image files). For the demo below, I stayed close to a quarter screen.
    Other than making sure that none of the source images is larger than the image area (thus avoiding a need for resizing) the production of a slide show is pretty straightforward. The tools have much improved in contrast to what I had available when I first started with this (see older parts of this document). In particular, the sequence of slides can be easily rearranged by "dragging" as can the "time line" (the amount of time each slide is shown). A voice caption can be added to each slide individually and rerecordings are easily done, if you don't like the technical quality of the audio or the contents of what you said. This is a very cool tool, at a very reasonable price, with great potential for instructional use.
    To view the finished slide show locally (on your own computer), you simply need the RealPlayer installed (to be on the safe side, make sure that you have RealPlayer 7). To make the slide show available to others (your students) you need to put the whole set of files on a server. It is possible to use a regular web server, but a RealServer is the much better solution. As noted before, to use all features (like the very efficient .png format) you need have RealServer 6.1 beta 3 or better. Unfortunately, I discovered too late that currently --  as of February 2000 -- I have 6.1 beta 2 only installed and my very compact slide show did not show. So, as a work around I switched to jpeg format, and this is the version you can view: Check my basic tutorial on how to use Lexis-Nexis for finding newspaper articles on "college bookstores". To accomodate the larger file size caused by the switch to .jpeg, I had to increase the bandwidth requirements; this file requires a 56K modem connection, it will not (properly) work with a 28.8K modem. The same holds for a companion piece on how to use InfoTrac for finding the full text of articles in scholarly and other journals. This InfoTrac slide show uses larger screen shots (480x360) and makes uses of the text caption feature within RealSlideshow. While the placement of the caption box is fixed, it is much easier to edit the text -- if or when changes become desirable. Overall, I would recommend this second approach. However, with larger screen shots the lack of RealServer 7 becomes more consequential. PNG (portable network graphics) is a very efficient format and the lack of support for it in earlier versions of RealServer is a major drawback.

    Note, that both tutorials require that your monitor is set to "16-bit color" (also referred to as "thousands of colors" or "65K colors). With just 256 colors (or "8 bit color") the text comes out as blue against black (almost impossible to read) and the screen shots look decidedly "psychodelic". This happens no matter what format (jpeg or png) RealSlideshow uses for the presentation. All my source graphics (screen shots) were saved as 8-bit color .gif files. There is no work around. On the other hand, only ancient video cards/monitors restrict a user to 8-bit color. However, some "broadcasting software" like LANSchool (used in lab settings to "broadcast" the contents of the instructor station to all student stations) cannot handle more then 8-bit color -- though all individual stations are capable of displaying higher color resolution. So, the problem is most likely to occur in a lab setting.
    [end]

    Example 4:

    The same slide show but with music added. Web server -- RealServer. Production note:

    Example 5:

    The same slide show, no audio, but with a text marquee added. Web server -- RealServer. Production note:

    Example 6:

    An animation , originally in Quicktime format, no sound track. Production note:

    More Examples:

    This leads to another page with a series of multimedia material related to the 1998 German Campaign -- to give you more of a taste what can be done in substantive terms. This page will expand as I get materials ready and should be of special interest for faculty in German Studies, Political Science, and/or Communications.
    For starters, the page links to a video clip with background music of 1:30 min from the SPD. The original .mov file is almost 8 MB. You can compare the video quality difference between 28.8 and 56 K modem connections. Note that the video quality is determined at production time, not by your actual connection speed at viewing time. So, a streaming clip for 28.8 will not look any better over an ISDN connection. Of course, your actual connection speed must be at least as high as the intended speed -- otherwise you will experience pauses and delays. Using the RealServer, one can produce so called sure stream files where the video quality is adjusted to the actual connection speed. Production note:

    Input via video capture card

    In addition to using (digital) video files as in some of the examples above, one can produce such video material (digital or analog) and transfer it to the computer via a video capture card. Such cards accept input from both digital cameras and (regular) video recorders. In addition, there are TV tuner cards with capture capabilities which allow to hook up a regular TV to one's computer. Capture and tuner cards are not enormously expensive (they start under $100), but one needs to pick careful so that the capture card works well with the video card and the sound card already installed on the computer. (The "video out" jack of a VCR gets connected to the "line in" jack of the video capture card; the "audio out" jack of the VCR to the "line in" jack of the sound card. And as they are quite a few different jacks/plugs around, the basic hookup can be quite a headache. Many thanks to Greg Crosbie for providing me with all the right cables.)

    I took advantage of a limited time offer by Real Systems which bundled the Basic Server Plus with a digital camera, a video capture card, and some other goodies -- all for some $1000. Now, this is not the fanciest camera around, but it does its job (example). As to input of VHS tape via standard VCR, this works quite well, too. Obviously, as there is some quality loss in the conversion to the "streaming" format, it is good to start with a high quality recording (good lighting, clear sound). Greg Crosbie and his crew from the AVS division of OICIT have shot some really good video of President Caputo delivering a greeting to visitors of the Hunter web site which I converted to RealFormat (example). A link to the clip may be added to the Hunter home page or the web page of the Office of the President in the future, for now President Caputo has agreed to have a link to this clip on this page. Production notes:

    Live Broadcasts

    So far I have discussed "on demand" multimedia (audio, video) contents only. The RealSystem allows for live (audio or video) broadcasts as well. At this point, live video broadcasts via the Web (a RealServer) are not a real alternative to dedicated video conference delivery systems as in used synchronous distance learning -- given the relatively small image and, more general, bandwidth problems with slow modem connections. However, they are worthwhile considering as a "better-than-nothing" complement  to make a presentation accessible to people not able to be present at a dedicated remote video conference site. Audio quality, however, is quite good and at least at level with what I have experienced with dedicated video conference systems.

    To clarify the terminology, live broadcasts start and end at specific times and users join the broadcast in progress -- like switching on a regular TV; if a viewer is late for the start of a program he/she missed the beginning. In contrast, all "on demand" material is played from its very beginning at the time a viewer requests it. As with regular TV, such live broadcasts may not genuinely be live (even most live TV shows are shown tape-delayed, sometimes by hours, sometimes by weeks and months). However, here is one important distinction:

    Simulated live broadcast and live broadcasts of taped contents are intermediary steps to reduce the complexity of producing and sending a genuine live broadcast. These are logical preliminary steps in preparing for the real thing. As of October 1999, my explorations have extended into these important steps. Under low load, no problems have become apparent.

    However, I expect that a memory upgrade of the physical box will be necessary to serve even relatively small audiences effectively. The current license of the Basic server allows for 40 concurrent viewers, but even this may be beyond the current memory limitations. With the investment of some $200-300 for additional memory (bringing it to near 256MB), this problem should be easily solved. A serious problem may lie in limitations of the Hunter college backbone and/or Hunter's connection to the Internet. Only practical tests will tell -- and these have just started. So, check back in a month or so, for more details. If you want to play a more active role, consider being a test viewer, check out the live broadcast program schedule and tell me about your viewing experience. Thanks!

    Call for exchange of information and experience

    In terms of academic teaching, we see an increasing overlap between or convergence of in that the technologies have become more much similar and compatible. Multimedia contents can be efficiently distributed via the Web and "on-demand" and live delivery are just two options within one unified technology.

    If you are interested in the material presented here, especially if you have done similar explorations in the past or are about to engage in such, please get in touch, preferably via e-mail.



    Version history
     
    Version Date Modification
    1.0 Nov 27, 1998 original release
    1.1 Nov 28, 1998 minor adjustments, example 6 added
    1.2 Nov 30, 1998 Example 7 and corresponding page expanded (some more additions in the week of Nov 30)
    Dec 1, 1998 Connection troubleshooting page added
    1.3 Dec 4, 1998 Links utilizing the Basic RealServer added
    Dec 9, 1998 minor editorial changes
    1.4 Mar 7, 1999 Basic Server Plus installed and links updated accordingly; both Basic Server Plus and regular httpd (Apache) server now reside on the same box
    1.5 Mar 20, 1999  Video Capture card plus digital camera (Osprey-101) installed; the greeting on top of the page is the first production attempt
    1.6 Mar 25, 1999 Link to document summarizing explorations of the Real Presenter, a plugin for MS Powerpoint, has been added; minor editorial changes in the intro section (Powerpoint discussion)
    1.7 May 24, 1999 Segment on using various video input added; general information update
    1.7.1 July 10, 1999 Link to page with extended video coverage of 1999 Commencement added
    1.8 Oct 24, 1999 Section on live broadcasts started; editorial changes, TOC added
    1.8.1 Dec 16, 1999 Note about changes in branding and prices at Real added
    1.8.2 Feb 2, 2000 Links to various pages on the Real Networks web site updated (after the restructuring of their site);
    first exploration of RealSlideshow added
    1.8.3 Feb 21, 2000 More discussion on RealSlideshow Plus 2.0 and more examples added



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