Fresh from the E3 keynote, check out a sneak preview video of the new Xbox Music experience, coming soon.
More details available on Xbox.com.
(Ed. Note: When I first posted this in 2009, I had no idea how popular it would become. For 2011, I’ve updated the content to reflect updates and new options in the market.) (Ed. Note 2: Thanks to Techradar for naming our Yule Log Visualization for Windows Media Player one of the Top 60 free apps for Windows at #4) (Ed. Note 3: In 2011, I replaced the FM Transmitter with the CZH-05B from Amazon.com. This is highly recommended over the C.Crane and is worth every penny.
Seeing as we don’t have a large yard to run a Mannheim Steamroller over our neighbors, I went with something a bit more subtle and easier to set up. The unexpected side effect is that kids throughout our neighborhood now think that Santa lives at our house! Here is the result: With a few tweaks, your community can be treated to music and a message from Santa via a low-power FM transmitter. All the details are below. Project ListTo create the effect yourself, here is what you need:
Step 1: Set up the Virtual Santa Kit (or Projector) The Virtual Santa Kit includes everything you need for projection. If you’re going the homegrown route, I’m using an Optoma DS317 SVGA DLP Projector. It has a great throw ratio and at 2500 lumens should be bright enough for neighborhood outdoor movies during the summer. Don’t worry about fancy features- a standard-def projector will work with VGA input. The trick is to get one with 2000 lumens or better. Also look for ability to adjust keystone and reverse the image. I placed the setup on a small coffee table and made good use of the Windows 7 box to adjust the angle and do a quick alignment with the window: Step 2: Prep the PC (or DVD Player) As you can see above, I decided to use a PC instead of a DVD player. In this case, Windows 7 and Windows Media Player make an excellent choice if you’re going to change up your order, add custom music etc. I set up the projector via the included VGA cable and have extended Windows Media Player to run on the projector as a second display. You can set this by pressing [Windows Key] + P and choosing, “Extend” as seen below: Make sure Windows Media Player is set to run in full screen and move the mouse cursor back over to the main Windows display. This will set the player controls to hide automatically and has the added benefit of making sure any alerts/notifications will not appear on the projector. The last thing you want to do is ruin the illusion. Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner There are a number of FM tuning options available, however I strongly recommend against using a solution designed for in-car. They’re just not powerful enough. Be sure to read the comments on Amazon for the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter and you should get tips on how to boostfor cars driving up to be able to hear your music. If you’re eagle eyed, you’ll notice below that I’ve soldered a dipole FM antenna wire to the transmitter to improve the distance. To figure out which station works best in your area, I recommend Belkin’s “My Best FM Stations” service. Just tap in your City/Zip/State and it will give you a number of options. Be sure to try these out yourself. Step 4: Create a Custom Movie with your custom Virtual Santa Santa’s Symphonies is available as a digital download (MPEG-4) which plays fine with Windows 7 and Windows Media Player. For Santa in the Window, there’s no music provided, but it’s easy to add your own – just use Handbrake to rip the DVD, add your favorite holiday music tracks with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie and save. You”ll also notice that I have shuffle and repeat turned on on WMP. Be sure to set repeat so the video can play indefinitely. With Windows 7, the system is so stable I’ve let it run for an entire week without issue. If you’re going the DVD route, burn a DVD with “loop” turned on via DVD Burner or iDVD. Step 5: Set up the Window “Screen” For the projection screen, I used a two-ply of a white sheet and the black scrim material as seen below. The scrim adds a great deal of realism to the effect because it blocks out the high intensity “halo” effect many projectors create and increases the black levels in the video. I just pinned up the scrim and the sheet behind it. Take this picture to your local fabric store and they’ll be able to set you up (thank to my wife for contributing to the effort <g>). Step 6: Fire up the projector, Create a Sign for the Yard and and delight the Kids Be sure to level and center the display. You’ll also want to adjust the distance from the window so the scale of Santa is correct. I use the WMP toolbar in full screen (seen below) to help center the video, then it automatically hides: Remember to move the mouse cursor back to the main screen Be sure to put a sign on the yard with the FM Frequency you’re transmitting on and house and you’re ready to go! Looking for more project ideas? Click the “Project” link at the top of the page. Happy Holidays everyone!
This year, Americans are projected to shell out over $5.8 billion dollars on Halloween, between a costume, candy and decorations. In our household, my wife really gets into Halloween costumes but for me it’s all about the opportunity to play junior Disney Imagineer with fun effects. Based on the feedback from last year’s Virtual Santa, this year I’ve created a new How To that shows how by using a few easily obtained items, you can build a cool Halloween effect sure to delight trick & treaters. Here’s a short video of the experience:
To create the effect yourself, here is what you need:
In my case, I’m using an Optoma DS317 SVGA DLP Projector. It has a great throw ratio and at 2500 lumens is bright enough for neighborhood outdoor movies during the summer. Don’t worry about fancy features- a standard-def projector will work with VGA input. The trick is to get one with 2000 lumens or better. Also look for ability to adjust keystone (angle) and reverse the image.
Step 2: Get the Hallowindow Animations
Hallowindow is a series of Halloween-themed audiovisual effects by Mark Gervais in Canada. It’s a great solution and he’s really upped the quality of the experiences over the past few years. You can order a reasonably priced DVD or purchase individual videos for download via PayPal for instant gratification and burn your own. I opted for download and burn which I describe below. You can also follow Hallowindow on Facebook where you can learn from other users of this visual effect.
Mark did a great job with Hallowindow and I have a number of his 4 editions. A number of the videos are decidedly creepy to the point that the little kids in our neighborhood and their parents may take issue. For this reason, I edited out the scariest parts a bit with Windows Live Movie Maker, a free download in Windows Live Essentials 2011. Just use the “Snip” tool to edit down the clips to just what you want. You can even add your own title sequence such as “Happy Halloween from the Alexanders” or similar. Have fun playing with the effects:
Then save the edited video in the recommended quality. This will create a video file that you can then burn to DVD:
Last year I used a Netbook which was great, but I’m simplifying with a burned DVD $99 DVD player. Windows 7 (and Windows Vista) come with a video DVD Burning tool called Windows DVD Maker. Just type DVD into the Start menu search box and you’ll find Windows DVD Maker:
Important Step: Before burning your DVD, be sure to choose “Options” in the lower right corner and set the DVD to play in a continuous loop. Most DVD players can do this from the remote control but some (like mine) keep the on-screen display on which ruins the effect. Set it like you see here:
If you are going to use a PC to drive video to the projector, make sure Windows Media Player is set to run in full screen and move the mouse cursor back over to the main Windows display. This will set the player controls to hide automatically and has the added benefit of making sure any alerts/notifications will not appear on the projector. The last thing you want to do is ruin the illusion.
There are a number of FM tuning options available, however I strongly recommend against using a solution designed for in-car. They’re just not powerful enough. Be sure to read the comments on Amazon for the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter and you should get tips on how to boost for cars driving up to be able to hear your music. If you’re eagle eyed, you’ll notice below that I’ve soldered a dipole FM antenna wire to the transmitter to improve the distance.
To figure out which station works best in your area, I recommend Belkin’s “My Best FM Stations” service. Just tap in your City/Zip/State and it will give you a number of options. Be sure to try these out yourself.
For the projection screen, I used a two-ply of a white sheet and the black scrim material as seen below. The scrim adds a great deal of realism to the effect because it blocks out the high intensity “halo” effect many projectors create and increases the black levels in the video. I just pinned up the scrim and the sheet behind it. Take this picture to your local fabric store and they’ll be able to set you up (thank to my wife for contributing to the effort <g>).
Be sure to avoid any wrinkles in the scrim or sheet. We used push pins on the edges of the window moulding to hold it in place and avoid unsightly holes:
Be sure to level and center the display. You’ll also want to adjust the distance from the window so the scale is correct. Put a sign on the yard with the FM Frequency you’re transmitting on and house and you’re ready to go!
Happy Halloween everyone!
For years when I worked on Web video and audio technologies from Xing MPEG, to Progressive Networks and RealNetworks, Windows Media and beyond, Jan Ozer was one of the most unbiased and critical analysts of subjective video quality during his tenure at PC Magazine, and more recently at Streaming Media.com. Jan just posted his comparison of H.264 to VP8 and his results should start to refine the conversation around the future of video formats as Adobe, Apple, Google, Microsoft and the MPEG LA set their positions for the next decade. But before we get into the details, a quick primer on Video codecs, their impact on the Web and beyond.
Why do Codecs Matter?
Let me start by saying no reasonably consumer should need to think about video codecs. Video should just work and quality should be good to great depending on the screen. But for companies whose business models depend on the economics of video, the stakes are very real as you consider cost of compression in time, hardware requirements, and licensing costs. Nearly all video compression formats today use perceptual methods to compress video into a “lossy” form by throwing out information the human eye isn’t likely to notice – not too dissimilar to how MP3 or JPEG images work today. These methods are governed today by patents.
The reason we can enjoy great HD video quality and streaming video over the Internet today is really due to three things:
But to a consumer, the real value of implied or implicit standards in video is: “Just make sure I can watch it where I want, on what I want.” Put another way, “Make it good enough, make it work”. That’s where things start to break down.
A Brief History of a Decade of Web Video
A decade ago, three video formats battled it out – MPEG, Windows Media, and Real Video for postage stamped video delivery. Each was instrumental in establishing the underpinnings of delivering video over the Web. In the past 5 years, the quick maturation of Web video disrupted the marketplace with Flash promoting VP6, a technology Adobe had licensed from a smaller company called On2. Other codecs were available for Flash, but VP6 offered a better quality and cost structures. The explosion in popularity of Web video sites such as YouTube benefited from the dual ability to create their own branded video players and experiences on top of Flash and Flash Video on basic Web servers.
Meanwhile, MPEG and other codec technologies were absorbed into the emergent H.264 video standard. Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, and others announced support for H.264 which is managed by a patent pool and licensing group called the MPEG-LA, LLC of which many companies including my employer are a member. MPEG LA assembles patents for most consumer electronics-based digital video in the market today including those used in DVD and Blu-Ray, satellite and cable TV and receive royalties for their work in lieu of creating and promoting their own formats.
But others continued to work on their own format. On2 continued to plug away on their video codecs with primary licensor Adobe benefiting until being acquired by Google last year for their VP8 video codec. What is VP8 you might ask? Google also announced intent to release VP8 as WebM – an open-source, royalty free alternative to H.264 for use in HTML5 – the next-generation standard for Web browsers.
So a decade later we have H.264 (MPEG) and WebM (VP8) vying to be the de-facto video standard for the next-generation Web browser standard and beyond. For professionals, the dimensions they will evaluate on continue to be the same: Quality, Cost, and Reach.
Quality: When is it “Good Enough”?
The key value proposition for a codec provider a decade ago was who could deliver smoother, bigger, more TV-like video over the Web. Each company strived to show how their video was better than the competition at delivering VHS, DVD, and later HD quality at a fraction the size. But when does the video quality become “Good Enough”? One could argue we’re approaching these limits already. As Jan Ozer found in his recent evaluation of H.264 and VP8:
“H.264 still offers better quality, but the difference wouldn’t be noticeable in most applications.”
Based on Jan’s first evaluation, it sounds like VP8 is “Good Enough” in terms of quality. More studies will need to be done but on face-value, the key points of differentiation have already shifted away from video quality to other dimensions of cost and reach.
Cost: What is the definition of “Free”?
In the past two years, the industry has seen rapid adoption of H.264 as an HD-ready alternative for consumer electronics and web-based experiences. Many articles have been written regarding the pros/cons of the H.264 licensing terms which I won’t rehash here. What’s different is Google’s approach. With WebM they look to provide a free,royalty free route for licensing WebM and offering it up as a part of HTML5.
Reach: The Three Waves of Adoption
Next, you have industry adoption/reach. Generally speaking, video formats seen three waves of adoption:
Each of these waves are increasingly essential for any provider to play in. The latter represents maturity. Google has announced new hardware partnerships for Google TV that will offer hardware accelerated support for WebM “later”. H.264 is further along in its maturity and adoption curve.
Where the Players and Lining Up
If you look across the landscape, the top players here are Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, Google and MPEG LA – and each has expressed their opinion on the matter. So where do they stand?
Adobe – has announced they will support VP8/WebM in an undated future release of Flash Player.
Microsoft – will support choice of formats in Internet Explorer 9 and Silverlight . Dean Hachamovitch recently posted the official response:
“When it comes to video and HTML5, we’re all in. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows.”
The Silverlight team also recently affirmed their position in a recent blog post.
Apple – So where does this leave Apple? Steve Jobs recently responded to a customer mail noting:
“All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.”
Google – pretty clear considering they’re behind VP8/WebM and use H.264 today. Some in the industry ask will Google force all YouTube video to WebM, putting pressure on Apple and others to follow?
MPEG LA – MPEG LA is reportedly investigating VP8/WebM in the interest of building a patent pool.
For those of us in the industry, more interesting times ahead, but this script feels a little like a Bill Murray film where we’re the weather man. Will hardware vendors be fast or slow to adopt VP8? Will industry professionals adopt one or both, or wait and see?
What do you think? Feel free to post here or email me at sean at seanalexander.com (fixing the at).
Update (05/23/11 7:30pm) – PC Magazine’s David Murphy also has a good recap though I think he’s oversimplifying the number of profiles that would be used in real-world use.
Photo: Fight for your Mind, by just.Luc on Flickr via Creative Commons license.