June 29, 2009

Open Video Conference report

An increasingly rare event for me - a blog post!

The Open Video Alliance

The inaugural Open Video Conference was held June 19-21. I was one of over 800 people who converged on NYU from around the world for two days of conference talks followed by an unconference-style 'hackday'. Such a special weekend, I have to report on it.

The Open Video Alliance, a loose consortium of universities and open source software and free culture organisations and individuals, put on the event. As expected the event felt pretty momentous. A lot of these ideas have been around for a long time but they have taken a long time to coalesce. The conference was a telling sign that there is growing momentum behind "open video" - a call for transparency, interoperability, and further decentralization. It was very interesting to see the degree with which the Mozilla Foundation featured as a thought leader.

Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, gave a talk entitled "Open Video is the future". He spoke of the need for a three point approach - helping people to make the right technology choices, the right content choices, and to work more transparently.

Chris Blizzard showed off an impressive demo of the HTML5 features of the new Firefox beta 3.5. It is now possible to play open video in the browser without any plugin (using the open source Ogg Theora codec). The highlight of the demo was a video/Twitter mashup that performed rudimentary video tracking (in a web worker thread) and displayed the latest tweet above each person as they entered the frame in the video. Another Firefox demo showcased the interoperability between different media sources using SVG, the canvas and Theora video. Indian site pad.ma (an offshoot of Oxdb) is already using the new features to offer an annovated film archive with an open standards-compliant browsing by transcript service.

Open video emerged as a key issue when MPEG LA, a reseller of the MPEG patent portfolio, clarified the licensing situation around H264. License fees for this market-leading video codec will apply beyond the end of 2010. The cost of producing and serving online video are set to skyrocket. Many people, myself included, felt that any abitrary distinction between video and other forms of online media when it comes to transparency can only harm the development of the Internet and digital society.

Software patents remain a highly controversial area of the law given their potential to stifle innovation and development online. In the mid-90s the owner of the GIF (image file format) patent Unisys started to charge software developers to include GIF file saving in their applications. Overnight the usage of GIF dropped away in favour of JPEG. FOSS (Free Open Source Software) developers quickly produced a new open PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format.

Both open source video contenders were represented at the Open Video conference - Theora and Dirac. Theora appears to have the greatest penetration at the moment thanks to the efforts of the Xiph not-for-profit consortium in developing the Ogg container format (an equivalent to Quicktime or AVI). Ogg Theora (think Flash video) and Ogg Vorbis (think MP3) may sound like Klingon but expect to hear much more about them going forward. Dirac, originally created by the BBC R&D division, has had some penetration into the broadcast media technology industry but nothing like Theora as yet. Neither these video codecs have anything like the penetration of commercial codecs.

Eclectic Method, the UK AV duo showed the conference how they have developed their act, being led by the software. Their 'clip-pop' aesthetic is a direct result of the beat quantization feature in Sony Vegas, the main software tool they use for their live sets. "I've seen people trying to do what we do with Final Cut Pro and Avid. Bless. They're good people...". Eclectic Method have built up a large collection of multi-track masters (not currently available for others to use) and are sponsored by Panasonic and Sony.

Wikipedian Erik Möller explained how Wikipedia licensing is now compatible with Creative Commons. It looked like a lot of work behind the scenes with CC, GNU and the Wikimedia Foundation, involving the notion of a 'Massive Multiauthor Collaboration Site'. Kaltura showed off its video content management plugins for Mediawiki, Drupal and Wordpress. From Australia the Kaltura CDN has been too slow for any practical purposes so far but the demos looked impressive - aimed at a mainstream audience. Working with Kaltura, a collaborative editing pilot on WikiEducator is underway. No doubt we will see this kind of experience available on Wikipedia before too long.

The Brazilian contingent provided a welcome perspective on developments in Latin America. Ronaldo Lemos I recognised from his contribution to the film Good Copy Bad Copy. I hadn't really twigged that the emergence of remix practice like tecno brega (literally 'cheesy techno') said very little about the take-up or prospects for Creative Commons. As one Brazillian developer put it, "if you are already mixing why would you bother with additional restrictions?"

Out of the four featured films at the conference, three of them were about copyright itself. Steal This Film (1 &2), Good Copy Bad Copy, and RIP: A Remix Manifesto are all recommended but I must confess I was far more interested in seeing what non-copyright themed work was around. Nina Paley's Sita Sings The Blues was a very colourful addition to the programme. Authored in Flash, the animated feature drew a strong response at its Sunday afternoon screening. Paley licensed the film under a CC BY license, allowing anyone to commercially re-use the material. She seemed happy with the results so far, claiming "It's great. I don't have to do anything. It markets itself!" Ironically at least 50K of the budget of Sita went towards clearing publishing rights. Producing open video is rarely straightforward.

Jonathan McIntosh's politically-aware Buffy vs Edward mashup went down well with the conference goers and has since gone rather viral.

Lizz Wistead, the co-creator of the Daily Show spoke of her simultaneous pride and sadness at satire replacing news gathering. She played a couple of low budget clips to reinforce her point about DIY media - a strong influence on her new show Shoot the Messenger. She uses a green screen setup at home to make video with friends.

Matt Mason, pirate radio DJ and the author of The Pirate's Dilemma gave perhaps the most illuminating of the keynotes with an excellent overview of why piracy is nothing new. His book suggests that the term 'Yankee' is derived from a Dutch slang term for pirate. "Your whole society is based on piracy" he told the largely American audience.

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! spoke at a hundred miles an hour, relaying the history of her pioneering radio, and now video, channel. She probably attracted the largest applause, giving a passionate call-to-arms to the home crowd to re-energise the US. I found myself watching YouTube clips of Amy being arrested as she spoke. "It should not be necessary for me to get a record, to put something on the record".

Lance Weiler and Ted Hope spoke about the evolution of storytelling. I asked the two a question related to my film (Sanctuary)'s difficulties engaging with the post production community. While some of my friends at the conference felt their collective reply was a bit glib, I thought otherwise. Lance said it's all about 'phasing delivery' and Ted repeated the oft-heard line at the conference 'It's all about collectivism'. It really is. If the conference was to be defined by anything, it was confirmation that social capital is of far greater significence for the attendees than any one business model. Many of these folks in the room are making money in parallel but that is not, and cannot, be the primary driver.

Bassam Kurdali, film-maker and Blender artist, showed preliminary work on his new film Tube and demonstrated the quirky but vast feature set of the opensource 3D modelling/animating/compositing/editor/game engine tool. He previously worked on the first wholly open film Elephants Dream.

I was really looking forward to the Purefold talk. A Blade Runner prequel involving Ridley Scott and Friendfeed sounded very intriguing. However the talk did nothing to live up to the hype. A number of tweeters expressed disappointment with the focus on a branded content play rather than any particular narrative. As one put it, "PKD would not have been amused." Or would he? Either way, I look forward to seeing what this turns out to be. I've certainly been in the position of trying to describe a project at the start without having anything to show for it yet.

Peter Sunde, one of the founders of The Pirate Bay was the surprise final guest, being interviewed from Sweden via Skype. He had the floor in stiches with glib responses to questions regarding his ongoing court battle.

Jean Baptiste-Kempf, creator of the cross platform VLC multimedia framework previewed some of the new features of its upcoming 1.0 release. It seemed rather momemtous for a software application that has reached global circulation already.

On the hackday Dan Winckler presented the FOSS GUI for game emulators, Open EMU. Dan is a VJ and demonstrated a nifty way in which actual video gameplay can be incorporated into live video performances. Open EMU is build in Quartz Composer. It also turned out that Dan was also involved with This Spartan Life - by far my favourite game show to emerge from the Halo FPS.

I hosted a session on 'Adapting traditional media to remix culture' which generated a good discussion and food for thought. It was a rare opportunity to have a frank discussion between content and software creators without having to wade through the preliminaries.

All in all, an excellent way to spend a couple of days in the Big Apple. If anything, there was too much content! On the Saturday, four parallel threads meant there was no chance of keeping up with the volume of presentations. I managed to completely overlook several must-see sessions. I was a bit miffed at having my own session bumped from the conference but in hindsight it made perfect sense from the organisers' perspective. Open Video Conference 2009 was all about framework and they did a great job of getting the balance more-or-less right. There is a lot of work to do in the community before the focus shifts to what content creators are doing with open video.

Hopefully there will be more active female participants next year. I had to agree with someone who tweeted mid-conference "Too many dudes". The conference was still dominated by the usual suspects - white guys (with optional facial hair). If the open video alliance represents the same old crowd - those that dominated the electric guitars, the DJ turntables, the VJ mixers, and now the open video debate, then we will have lost the point.


20090530 OpenEMU demo was in fact by Dan Wickler, not Dan Fincher. Sorry Dan!
20090530 Truncated sentence cleanup on Electic Method and Brazil paragraphs

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