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Vlog: Not-Yet-Primitive Vlogging Techniques

I felt it to be in the spirit, and interest, of the Web to do what I could to make interactive vlogging as easy to learn as possible. Although this educational vlog took a lot longer than I'd have liked, it really is simple, and I hope that this vlog can act as a useful resource. Because the vlog is pretty long, I broke it into two parts; part 1 addresses file types and management, and part 2 explains the basic techniques for creating links. I'll begin general-interest vlogging in earnest next week.

Please don't hesitate to comment or email with any questions or problems so that I can work toward enabling the largest numbers of viewers and vloggers possible. Click the picture for the interactive RealOne version (you'll need the RealOne Player, which is available for free on the right side of this page).

Non-interactive video is also available for Windows Media Player for broadband (Part 1, Part 2) and dial-up (Part 1, Part 2).


Movie Making

See that picture there? That's the cover of the album from which I took my introductory music. It's also a hyperlink. Go ahead and click on it; I'll wait. You can tell there's a link because your mouse pointer will change from an arrow to a pointing finger. From now on, that's how I'll handle links to background music.

Whenever I want to link to a Web site or some other file, I'll put an indicator up here. And whenever I give a specific name or Web site to identify someone or something like this [points to "Justin Katz" at bottom of screen], or like this, I'll link to that.

A temporary convention that I should note is that, on the rare occasions that a vlog becomes long enough that I break it into separate files, as I did with this one, you can click the forward and backward buttons below to move between them. Someday, I'll learn how to make such functionality part of the movie itself.

Now, I'm not going to go into how you make the actual video. But I will advise that you save your movies in a standardized format, such as MPEG or AVI. That way you can convert easily to any specialized streaming format. For RealMedia files, you can use Helix, which is free in a limited version. For Windows Media, you can use the free Windows Media Encoder, which gives you the added ability to screen capture the activity on your monitor, a feature that I used for this vlog, as you'll see.

If your movie-making software will only save in, say, the Windows Media format, then you may have to do some searching and experimenting. I do know that the Movie Maker program that comes with Windows XP can import a wide variety of files and save them in standardized formats.

Once you've got the video, the secret to linking is an S-M-I-L file. That's pronounced "smile file." Essentially, a SMIL file places a layer of interactivity and manipulation between the video file and the player. Such code can get pretty complicated, but so can HTML. And as blogging requires only limited knowledge of HTML, vlogging requires even less knowledge of S-M-I-L. For now, the pictures that I use as cues for links will be part of the video. I'm pretty sure that SMIL enables other methods, but I'm not there yet, and I want the images to be visible to those, without RealOne players, who watch the videos without the interactivity.

Real Networks was kind enough to provide a complete production guide for writing SMIL, but I've put up a standard template text file for new vloggers to use for linking to Web sites from a video.

Once you've made your video, you would just open the template in any text editor, ignore the boilerplate at the beginning and the end, and change the video source to the URL, or Web address, of your video file; until other companies catch up, that file will have to be a "dot-rm" or RealMedia file. Then you insert an "area" tag for each link. When you're done, you just save it with the extension "dot-smil."

SMIL Attributes

Bloggers will immediately recognize the href attribute. That's where you insert the address of the Web site to which you want to link. The first new thing to learn is setting the beginning and ending times for when the link is active within the video.

The two ways to write times are a descriptive format using hours [h], minutes [min], and seconds [s] or a clock format [00:00:00]. With the descriptive format, you can't mix units, so I think the clock format ends up being easier. To save effort, you don't have to include zeroes for large units that you don't use, like hours. In other words, you would type 1.5h or 1:30:00 for an hour and a half and 1.5min or 1:30 for a minute and a half. Milliseconds are always decimals; for example, 1:30:30.5 would be one hour, thirty minutes, and thirty-point-five seconds. One important thing to remember is that the end time is the time on the clock when the link disappears, not the length of time that it's there.

Unless specified, the link will cover the entire movie. If you want to restrict the link to portions of the movie, you must add coordinates. First, set the shape: rectangular [shape="rect"], circular [circle], or polygonal [poly]. I'm just going to use rectangles for now. You can define the coordinates either by pixels or by percentage of the image. Because people watching your video might resize the movie during playback, I advise using the percentage method. You can mix coordinates, however, between pixels and percentages. The first number is the distance from this side of the screen, the viewer's left. [shows locations] 0, 25%, 50%, and so on. The second coordinate is from the top: 0, 25%, 50%. The third and fourth coordinates are also measured from this side [points to viewer's left] and the top, respectively, but they define the endpoint of the "hotspot." So this side [points to viewer's right] of the screen is 100%. If you wanted a box like this, it would be 25%, 25%, 75%, 75%. Go ahead and click that.

The last step is to create the RAM file, which tells the browser to stream using a Real Player. All a RAM needs to be is a text file with the Web address of your SMIL file saved with the extension "dot-ram."

Of course, the technology hasn't completely caught up with its potential. For example, RealOne won't play Windows Media files as part of a SMIL presentation, even though it will play them directly. The Windows Media Player, on the other hand, won't touch a Real file. This means that vloggers will have to choose between functionality and potential audience. Myself, because the goal is to benefit you, dear viewer, I'm going to continue to make files available in the various formats and hope that the tech companies move quickly to relieve the burden.

This is just the beginning. Pretty much every facet of a video can be manipulated using SMIL, including picture in picture as well as opening up the player window to show other media, such as pictures, text, or Web sites in other panels. As I come across reasons to learn these techniques, I'll create instructional vlogs. But I'm still skeptical enough about vlogging's near-term potential to think it'll be a while before it becomes a pressing issue.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 09:59 AM EST


Your hyperlink to your "standard template text file" comes up blank.

Gary Goldstein @ 01/10/2003 01:44 PM EST

Mr. Goldstein,

I had meant to make a note about that, but I was sidetracked. Thanks for the reminder; I've added the note above the screenshot of the vlog.

Justin Katz @ 01/10/2003 01:56 PM EST

Note to readers: the text-file problem has been "worked around."

Justin Katz @ 01/11/2003 01:01 AM EST