By Brian Boyko
Four students crowd into a small office packed with television recording equipment and computers at noon every day. They usually stay until 2 a.m. to work - unpaid - at developing computer technology and content for a project that could potentially beat multimillion-dollar conglomerates to being the first to broadcast DVD-quality video on the Internet.
"There's not enough good stuff on television!" Brandon Wiley, co-director of ACTLab TV explained to me. "And so, we thought, we should start a television station that's all awesome stuff. So I can watch it more."
The four University of Texas students at ACTLab TV are attempting to broadcast a twenty-four hour live video stream in DVD quality that anyone with broadband Internet access can watch.
Previous attempts to broadcast Internet video tended to hit the same problem - the relative lack of bandwidth.
When you broadcast over the airwaves or via cable TV, it costs the same amount whether you have 3 people or 3 million people watching. With the Internet, however, each additional person who watches the same program at the same time adds to the strain - one hundred people watching an Internet video requires one hundred times the bandwidth.
There were some early attempts at providing extensive video coverage on the web, but so far only the largest media companies, like Fox News, BBC, and CNN, have been able to do so. Early in the Internet's popular development, Real Networks came out with a program called "Real Video" which allows people and companies to live-stream video. But the video itself was compressed so much that the pictures were fuzzy and small, and that was no comparison for a television. Before DVD-quality video would come to the Internet, there needed to be two separate innovations.
The first was the development of video compression that created very small file sizes without sacrificing much quality. The ACTLab TV team uses H.264, a type of digital video format that is almost indistinguishable from DVD quality, but takes up only one-eighth of the size.
The second - and perhaps the reason that four college students are beating the big media companies to the punch - is the development of peer-to-peer technology.
While peer-to-peer has been associated with copyright infringement, this is mostly because the first popular technology to make use of peer-to-peer Internet was the original Napster, which allowed students to share audio files with one another. Since then, however, peer-to-peer technology has been refined and developed so that you can use it to exchange any type of file - not just song files - and it cuts down on bandwidth by sharing the load with many users.
The way the typical Internet works is that content is hosted on a computer called a server. That computer "serves" the file to every person who wants to download it. The way that peer-to-peer, and ACTLab TV works, is that the server doesn't broadcast to everybody - it broadcasts to a few "peers." These peers start sending the file to other peers, so the server doesn't have to send as many files. Whie it uses up the same amount of bandwidth over the entire network, the load is shared between a number of different computers. Which means that you can put out higher quality video.
On a university network like the University of Texas at Austin, you can put out video at 720 pixels wide by 480 pixels tall - as sharp and clear as a DVD.
ACTLab TV started as a project for ACTLab, an academic research group and course at the University of Texas College of Communication's Radio-Television-Film department. The goal of the ACTLab course is to make films - and one of the requirements of the course is that the projects must be published - usually by digitizing them and uploading them to the Internet. But this was hard to do - the digital files were both hard drive and bandwidth hogs and they were scattered on a number of different servers, difficult to find.
"We've got all this great content, but no idea how to distribute it," Joseph Lopez, ACTLab TV's technologist said.
Then Wiley remembered a program he had written to broadcast radio through peer-to-peer networks called Alluvium. He thought that that program could be configured to broadcast video with a few tweaks.
With fellow ACTLab TV members Greg Hazel, Sandy Stone, and interns Robert Fancher and Randy Kelley, Wiley and Lopez are working on the finishing touches for the program. They soon plan to release a program that will allow Microsoft Windows users to tune in to the broadcast.
In order to encourage people to put up their own television stations as well, they plan the technology behind ACTLab TV available through "open-source" which means that anyone will have the ability to download and use the program for free, and they'll be providing guides to digitizing your own video into the H.264 format. That means that anyone who wants to put up a television station on the Internet will be able to do so. Large companies and bigger non-profit organizations with access to a steady supply of high bandwidth will be able to publish in the full-DVD quality format, while people with cable or DSL internet access will be able to publish with roughly the quality of a VHS tape.
The examples ACTLab TV gives are pretty broad. For example, you could digitize and stream video to show family members in far-off places. Activists could use it to disseminate information to other groups. And of course, there are the commercial ventures.
Better yet, ACTLab TV is just one of a handful of projects that aims to put high quality video on the Internet in the hands of the average user. While ACTLab TV broadcasts a streaming - or "live" - video player, a similar project at the Participatory Culture Foundation plans uses a different model called Broadcast Machine/DTV to achieve many of the same effects. Unlike ACTLab TV, Broadcast Machine isn't it's own TV station - it relies on users hosting video on their websites. Those videos are uploaded to a central database where users who download the client - called DTV - can then choose which episodes they want to download. While ACTLab TV is much like a live television broadcast from a central studio, Broadcast Machine is more like a personal digital recorder - which allows people to select "channels" of independent broadcasters uploading from separate Web sites.
Google also has it's own program which allows people to upload and store video on Google's servers, though it's less of a broadcast model, and more a video-hosting service.
The closest project to the ActLab TV idea is a service called PeerCast which uses peer-to-peer streaming. The quality of peercast feeds, however, is very low, and it requires other people's content. What sets ACTLab TV apart is that they not only provide the program - they provide the content as well, at higher quality than any other program.
Those who tune in those first 24 hours will be treated to a variety of programs, from music videos, to mystery suspense, sci-fi, narrative stories, animation, comedies, experimental film, and documentaries.
Some of the programs include, "The Chill Files," a murder-mystery sci-fi story, "Dome: A love story" about some of the work of Buckminster Fuller.
"We have really weird stuff. It's pretty out there - streaking projects, women vampire movies," Lopez said. He explained that while some of the material put out there was pretty embarrassing, the group pressured each other not to back out from airing the material - in order to encourage other people to submit video.
One of the submissions they've received so far a collection comedy of puppet shows from puppeteer and animator Dano Johnson.
"Anyone who is promoting independent media on the Internet - we say, Awesome! Go for it!" Wiley said.