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Streaming Video Made Easy

Video distribution software and a USB digital camera

This month, as part of my ongoing research into video solutions for the Windows NT platform, I take a look at Microsoft's NetShow 3.0. NetShow is a full-featured product and promises to keep Progressive Networks on its toes. And because NT 5.0 Beta 2 supports Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, I hooked up Eastman Kodak's USB-based DVC323 digital video camera and gave the camera a run for its money. Keep reading, and I'll tell you what you can expect when working with the new USB interface and the OS that isn't--­yet.

I like so many features in Microsoft's third version of NetShow, the company's video broadcasting and distribution software, that I can't bring myself to single out just one. On a level from 1 to 10, with 10 being virtually unattainable, I'd give NetShow 3.0 an 8.5.

NetShow 3.0 includes NetShow Services, a software suite Microsoft designed for video distribution over the Internet or an intranet. NetShow Services consists of two parts: a server component and a tools component. You install each component separately. Depending on how many clients you serve and the performance you desire, you might not want to put NetShow's server components and tools on the same system.

The server component contains all the utilities and documentation necessary to distribute content over a variety of networks in different ways, depending upon available bandwidth and desired performance. The tools component includes three utilities for producing and editing content: NetShow Encoder, NetShow T.A.G. Author, and NetShow Indexer.

NetShow Encoder is a powerful tool for capturing, compressing, and converting multimedia data to a format acceptable for NetShow streams. NetShow streams use Microsoft's proprietary Advanced Streaming Format (ASF) codec. NetShow T.A.G. Author and NetShow Indexer edit and organize content (an Adobe Premiere plug-in lets you save the content you created or edited as an .asf file). Currently, you can view an .asf file's content only by using Microsoft's freely distributed Windows Media Player.

The ASF codec offers variations that let you tailor your stream to the content and bandwidth with which you are working. Depending on the quality of video and audio you want, the amount of motion in the video, whether you include slides, and how the majority of your client systems will view the content (i.e., via Internet or intranet), you can choose from up to 28 ASF variations. If you're not sure which codec variation is best for your needs, the NetShow setup wizard includes detailed dialog boxes that explain the advantages of each format.

Installing the NetShow software wasn't difficult. Configuring the software, although a complicated task, wasn't too difficult either, thanks to superb documentation and wizards that worked so easily and quickly they gave me whiplash. As with most new Microsoft products, you must have or install Internet Explorer (IE) 4.01 to run the NetShow software.

When you open the server-based NetShow Administrator window, a list of possible operations displays. Selecting any operation (e.g., Start Here, Configure Server, Monitor Server) calls a list of options and features, including various Quick Start wizards with integrated descriptions of the features and options available when you configure content for network delivery. For example, selecting the Start Here option initializes a guided text tour. The opening text block runs through a brief introduction to the software, defines key terms, and provides links to appropriate wizards. Selecting the Configure Server option, as Screen 1 shows, gives you the information you need to completely configure a NetShow server to transmit content across a network. Selecting Monitor Server enables tracking of the activity of NetShow servers and clients through an event log.

The first step in implementing a video distribution solution for your network is deciding whether you want to deliver the content by unicast or multicast. In unicasting, a server broadcasts one stream of content to one viewer. Unicast streams usually let viewers pause, rewind, or fast-forward the stream. NetShow delivers unicast streams from a folder on the server called a publishing point.

In multicasting, a server broadcasts one stream of content to a station, and multiple viewers can pick up the stream from the station. A station is a file on the server that contains the location of ASF content. Because multicasting transmits only one outgoing source stream that multicast-enabled routers replicate across the network, multicasting uses much less bandwidth than unicasting uses and reaches a larger audience. Because multicasts are available to all network viewers simultaneously, one viewer can't control the stream's progression. Multicast is best suited for live content and can also present prerecorded material that many viewers access at the same time, such as a CEO's address to stockholders.

Whether you choose to unicast or multicast your video content using NetShow, a wizard exists to help with setup and configuration. The NetShow Administrator server configuration interface includes Unicast Publishing Points, Multicast Stations, Multicast File Transfers, and Server Properties options. Selecting any of the first three options activates corresponding wizards; selecting Server Properties lets you enable security and authentication and set limits on the number of concurrent connections, bandwidth utilization, and bit-rate transfer.

NetShow Administrator's wizards are exceptional in the high degree of customization they make available to users. If you are unsure what a particular selection will do, you can almost always access an onscreen explanation or a link to explanatory text. NetShow has the best-documented and most flexible wizards I have seen in any software product to date.

Opening the Unicast Publishing Points wizard calls a screen displaying two options: On-Demand Unicast Publishing Point and Broadcast Unicast Publishing Point. When you select either of these options, you can create a new publishing point or modify existing publishing points. When creating a new publishing point, you must choose a source for your content from options such as NetShow Encoder, Remote Publishing Point, or Remote Station.

I selected the NetShow Encoder option on my test network in the Windows NT Magazine Lab. Using an Intergraph TDZ 2000 with a Winnov Videum video capture card and a Toshiba MK-128 video camera, and a Compaq WS6000 and Intel's ProShare video camera and video capture card, I had no trouble linking live video streams to a publishing point on my Toshiba Tecra 780CDM server using the NetShow wizards. In fact, the entire process took less than 5 minutes.

I didn't just create a link to the site: The wizards let me dictate exactly what formats to produce the video connection in. My choices included the following: create an .asx file that points to the ASF stream; create an .htm file with an tag that links to an .asx file; create an .htm file containing and tags for Windows Media Player (this .htm file is compatible with standard browsers); and copy , , and syntax to the Windows clipboard. I found the clipboard copying ingenious. This functionality is exactly what I see most Web developers looking for--­the ability to quickly paste the video tag into whatever HTML editor they're using.

An .asx file (or ASF Stream Redirector--­ASX--­metafile) is NetShow-specific. An .asx file is a redirector file that directs a browser or Windows Media Player to the source of an ASF stream.

As much as I like NetShow, the product lacks an important capability: distributing content between smart servers during off-peak network hours to optimize performance and limit network traffic. Multimedia content requires efficient management tools. Fortunately, Microsoft engineers told me such functionality will appear in a future NetShow release.

NetShow 3.0
Microsoft * 425-882-8080
Price: Free with Windows NT Server 4.0, with no per-stream restrictions
System Requirements:
166MHz Pentium processor, NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3, 64MB of RAM, High-throughput Ethernet NIC running TCP/IP, 21MB of hard disk space, Internet Explorer 4.01

Not one to be left out of PC-based video solutions, photographic giant Eastman Kodak has developed the DVC323 digital video camera. Without its detach-able base, the DVC323 is approximately the size of a cellular phone. A focus wheel just behind the 6.2mm, f/2.5 aperture Kodak lens adjusts for images as near as 5" and as far away as you care to go.

Whenever I'm working with PC-based video cameras, I always seem to want to move the camera to show objects that aren't directly in front of the lens. Because of this habit, I found the DVC323's 9.8' (3-meter) cable particularly handy. At the end of that cable is what makes the DVC323 video camera different from other digital video cameras you've read about in this videoconferencing series--­this is the first USB device we've tested in the Windows NT Magazine Lab.

How am I testing a device that uses USB when everybody knows NT 4.0 doesn't support USB? Easy. I hooked up the DVC323 to a system running Beta 2--­the first beta release of Windows 2000 (Win2K--­formerly NT 5.0) to support the emerging USB standard. Officially, the DVC323 doesn't support Win2K. However, the good engineers at Eastman Kodak have developed a driver that works with Beta 2.

I'll tell you up front that the DVC323's USB-based device beats dinking around with parallel ports and capture cards, hands down. With Beta 2 running, I simply reached around the back of my test system and plugged the camera into the dime-sized USB port. Immediately, a window opened on my monitor and initiated a search for the drivers. Cool.

Of course, the system couldn't find the drivers and prompted me for a Kodak-specific disk, which I inserted. Then I received a prompt for the Beta 2 disk, which I inserted. Then, I received another prompt for the Kodak disk before the program got going. But the DVC323 did get going, with no rebooting, no IRQ hassles, no cover removal, and no printer-cabling futzing.

Removing the DVC323 from the system was just as easy. By clicking a device icon in the system tray, I shut down the USB port and removed the DVC323 from the system without having to shut down the computer. Unfortunately, when I reinstalled the DVC323, the system again prompted me for the manufacturer's disk and the Beta 2 disk. I hope the final release of Win2K won't have such a short memory.

The DVC323 comes bundled with many useful and just plain fun software utilities, including Microsoft's NetMeeting, Kodak's PictureWorks Live, and MetaCreations' Kai's Power Goo SE. In particular, I found the PictureWorks Live software interesting, because it lets you capture time-lapse video. Not that I can think of a reason I'd want to capture time-lapse video; I just haven't seen that option before and it sounds fun.

The DVC323 can capture and display either a 160 * 120- or 320 * 240-resolution video, or a 640 * 480 24-bit still image. A feature you won't see on a lot of PC-based video cameras that you will find on the DVC323 is a 1X or 2X digital zoom.

Perhaps best of all is that the DVC323 doesn't eat up as much processing power as its competitors do. Recording a video stream with the DVC323 used roughly 30 percent of my two 333MHz Pentium II processors' capacity. Performing the same task with the same system configuration using parallel port-based devices has taken up as much as 83 percent of my processing power. Fortunately, the DVC323 doesn't compromise picture quality for performance. The image stream this camera produces is as good as any I've seen and is exceeded only by those devices that connect to a dedicated video capture card, which can typically produce image streams at a much higher resolution with even less CPU overhead.

Overall, the DVC323 performs well, and the camera gives you some nifty features, too. Expect to see other videoconferencing vendors follow Kodak's lead. But perhaps the big winner here isn't so much the DVC323 as it is USB ports in general. USB ports greatly simplify adding peripherals to a system or removing peripherals from a system. I can get used to that.

Eastman Kodak * 800-235-6325
Price: $169.95
System Requirements:
Pentium-class processor, Windows 98 or Win95 with Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2, 13MB of hard disk space, USB ports
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