South Park characters have been brought to the Web by Smashing Ideas Animation, using RealFlash. © Comedy Central.Let's say you've got a great piece of animation that you want to post on your web site. You advertise. You get your audience excited. They go to your site, and then...they wait. As incredible a tool as the Web is, its "instant communication" feature is obliterated if your audience has to wait ten minutes to download a file. More often than not, a viewer will become frustrated and leave your site before seeing the piece you've worked so hard to create.
Enter Streaming Media When...
Let's say you've got a great piece of animation that you want to post on your web site. You advertise. You get your audience excited. They go to your site, and then...they wait. As incredible a tool as the Web is, its "instant communication" feature is obliterated if your audience has to wait ten minutes to download a file. More often than not, a viewer will become frustrated and leave your site before seeing the piece you've worked so hard to create.
Enter Streaming Media
When a file is streamed by a user over the Internet or a corporate LAN (local area network), it starts to play instantly without the wait associated with downloading large files. Until recently, only audio and video files could be streamed over the Web, using applications like RealNetworks' RealAudio and RealVideo.
There is a strong case for entertainment programming on the Net today:
- There are more than 600,000 RealPlayers being downloaded from RealNetworks' web site weekly to view RealAudio, RealVideo and RealFlash content such as news, music, entertainment, education and training.
- Some of the more popular RealFlash clips on the site are playing over 8,000 times daily. With over 240,000 viewings monthly, that's close to the size of a television audience.
- More than 100,000 hours of live RealAudio/RealVideo programming are available each week over the Internet.
Just as the technical quality of radio and television content improved during its development period, so shall streaming media. The Internet as a new mass medium is still developing and new innovations in streaming media are driving it further. Sound quality has been improving steadily since RealAudio was introduced in 1994. Currently audio works so well with a 28.8 Kbps modem that more than 35 record labels are using the Internet as a promotional tool for their artists and over a thousand radio stations broadcast over the Net.
Internet video, although superior to what was available just a year ago, still faces limitations. The experience is far from full-screen. Most Internet video over a 28.8 Kbps modem is presented in a small window and the video can be grainy and jumpy. While the quality of video continues to improve, the challenge is to identify new "datatypes" that will work well with audio, and that deliver rich multimedia experiences over low bandwidths.
Advantages of RealFlash
RealFlash is a big leap forward in delivering high-quality multimedia. Jointly developed by Macromedia and RealNetworks, RealFlash is a combination of vector animation technology from Macromedia, and streaming technology from RealNetworks. Specifically, it's a Flash file synchronized with a RealAudio file, and played back in a RealPlayer. It's the first of a few applications that RealNetworks is adding to its client/server RealSystem to improve the end user experience.
Authoring is done in the Flash Tool from Macromedia where animators can edit the animation and synchronize it with audio. To publish to the Web, the final production must be hosted by a RealServer, which is available from RealNetworks.
Vector-based animation is well-suited to streaming media. The animation software defines a shape, and uses x-y coordinates to move the shape from place to place on the screen. Since it doesn't save images of each frame, the file size is substantially smaller than frame-based animation. Maintaining a small file size is essential to stream animation effectively, as most viewers use 28.8 Kbps modems.
Another terrific feature of RealFlash is presentation size. Gone are the days of the two inch screen. RealFlash allows content creators to display animation in a 320 x 240 pixel box or larger, depending on the system. Also, you can embed RealFlash animations in a HTML page. The RealPlayer 5.0 can be implemented as a stand-alone player, a Netscape Plug-in and an Active-X Control. Given the ubiquity of these applications, a RealFlash animation can run on any machine.
These two qualities combine for an extremely powerful Internet application. Authors benefit from the most advantageous features of streaming media: the instant and random access of a media clip, while preserving the detail of the illustrations in a large window, with great audio quality and a high frame rate.
Putting It To Use
This presents a great opportunity for animators and producers of original content on the Internet. RealFlash is well-suited for storytelling, cartoons, music videos, advertising, and training and marketing presentations:
- Storytelling because producers can have detailed storyboards while letting the quality of RealAudio drive the experience.
- Cartoons because of the ability to stream compelling artwork over a 28.8 kbps modem to an audience of millions.
- Music videos and movie trailers because the image handling, transitions, effects and color capabilities of Flash can deliver television-quality productions with RealAudio.
- Advertising because companies can create dynamic "infomercials" using compelling graphics and audio.
- Training and illustrations because of the powerful drawing capabilities of Flash.
Animation companies such as Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM have already demonstrated uses of RealFlash in the entertainment realm, as have numerous design companies. You can check out RealFlash animations by downloading RealPlayer from the Real Networks web site. Then, visit our animation showcase for a mix of productions ranging from movie trailers to cartoons to product training.
There are many more innovations to come for producers as streaming media continues to evolve. RealNetworks is developing new features for existing products, as well as new products for Internet programming, such as streaming images and text. RealFlash is the first step in bringing high quality animation and audio to the Internet.
Pat Boyle is the Product Manager for RealFlash at RealNetworks. Shelley McIntyre is the Project Coordinator for the RealFlash Animation Festival.