Analysis: The Dawn of Visual Networking

I remember years ago my astonishment when I began to understand “meta-reality,” the concept that with nothing other than key taps, mouse clicks, and lit pixels, people were changing reality far beyond their physical presence. Today, people take for granted that you can buy a Hobie Cat with a few clicks on eBay. 


As the Internet comes of age, we have begun to see many new institutions forming in the potent nexus of social and technological development. Recently, the rise of Internet video with sites such as YouTube, Digg, and VideoSift demonstrates that people have accepted short-form, low-production-value video for its relevance and immediacy. Such sites allow users to upload video they make or capture while others download it for viewing. 


Part of the reason that this distaff cousin of video has taken off is that video in general is a resource hog, but the short form of it is less so. A compressed digital music file might run 2-6 megabytes. By contrast a high-definition (HD) video file may gobble 13 gigabytes per hour or about 20GB for a feature-length movie. Thus, an HD movie file could easily be 10,000 times the size of a track you’d download from iTunes.  So, for now, we mostly have to be content with small grainy videos on the Internet. That’s the bad news. The good news for the computing and communications industries is that the entire infrastructure, at the endpoints as well as in the network, will need upgrading to experience great video. 

Meanwhile, on the social side, people have been aggregating in ever greater numbers on generalized networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Orkut or specialized venues like Plaxo (business), Geni.com (genealogy), and Playahead (Scandinavian teenagers). Social sites can trace their lineage from the old bulletin boards, which were geographically limited by the cost of long-distance phone calls, through AOL, which opened up the geography by allowing people to dial in to a local number but connect to everywhere over AOL’s backbone, to finally a true Internet-based system that allowed many sites to bloom as virtual, rather than a physical, networks.

 The convergence of these two trends – social networking and video exchange – is occurring on sites like Stickam, a chat- and posting-oriented site on which people present themselves via Webcam, and imeem, a site on which people exchange various types of multimedia files, particularly video.


This rapidly growing cache of video content creates a particular challenge, however. Most files in the past were based on text, which could be searched and indexed for easy finding. But video typically has only its title as a clue to what’s in it. So, how do you decide which video to view at any given time? You don’t wake up saying, today I’m going to watch that kid blow himself up by hitting a gas can with a baseball bat. You find that video through discovery.


Discovery is becoming a more popular way to navigate Internet content. The idea is that you may or may not start out searching for something, but pretty soon you’re reacting to things you find, exploring links on pages you stumble upon and taking cues from fellow surfers about where to go. Instead of the old, passive, lean-back style of watching video, viewers are activity seeking content through discovery. People interact with each other, posting comments on what they just saw. Many sites now allow people to vote on videos, ranking and rating them. Ranking is the result of one of a number of algorithms that measure how many people have watched something or how many sites link to it. YouTube is a famous example of how ranking works. Rating is more specific, involving math that averages individuals’ assessments on some scale. When you give something four stars instead of five, that information is aggregated with others’ opinions to form a general rating that is visible on the page somewhere near the video’s link. People also pen verbal opinions in the space provided near video links, giving even more specific feedback on the content. Viewers tend to discover videos that are highly rated and ranked. They also click on links emailed or instant-messaged to them by friends. 


Video is better than any other medium for communicating ideas and emotions economically. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video may be worth a thousand pictures. In fact, from a data perspective, a video IS a thousand pictures – one run after the other in rapid succession, a digital flip-book.

 But video differs from music and pictures in important ways. Because video files are big, users will not likely store many of them on their computers. By their nature, videos are mostly viewed once or twice and then never again, as opposed to music, which fans listen to over and over. So, video is better stored in the network and streamed to end users on demand. Also, you may want to watch a video on your TV, computer, or portable media player, depending on convenience and lifestyle. Again, video is better stored in the network because transcoding a file for a particular device is compute- and time-intensive. If the transcoding is done in the network by powerful servers, the bits can be streamed down to any device from there.  

Two companies with a keen interest in visual networking are Cisco, the king of “data in flight,” and EMC, the king of “data at rest.” Cisco, which supplies, among other things, networking equipment, stands to gain as the network is built out to accommodate this giant heap of video content, and EMC benefits from the demand for not only disks on which to store it all but also for information management systems that decide intelligently where to keep it. 


Stay tuned for further developments: we’re right at the beginning of the visual networking era. 

Roger L. Kay is the founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates (http://www.ndpta.com/ and partner in TechnologyPundits.Com