18 Jul, 2020

Before YouTube: Streaming the World’s First Flash Based Video

18 Jul, 2020

At the very turn of the century, the year 2000, I was in the middle of my ‘Flash Developer’ heyday. Inside of Silicon Valley, if there was a project that required the use of Macromedia Flash, chances are I was working on that project. Our client list was every big name tech and telecom giant in the USA. From Apple to Microsoft to Time Warner to Mad Magazine, we had a lock on the Flash industry, and it was great.

Because we were at the forefront of development in this area, we could almost do no wrong. I remember for particular gig for the conference phone manufacturing giant, Polycom, where we created a fully realized, virtual store where customers could walk around and look at different models of phones. That was the same job that saw the conceptual invention of the 3D rotating product which became ubiquitous soon after. Such projects that required the user to interact so heavily with the content would be laughed at in today’s “one-click” ruled world, but back then it generated interest and millions of dollars in revenue for the companies who hired us.

Another interesting job was for HP in support of a “Ever-connected” application platform called HP Chai. When we got the job all we knew is that we wanted to do something different. My partner at the time, who also worked heavily with traditional film and video, suggested that maybe we could do something that incorporated some sort of motion video. This was completely unheard of at the time because internet speeds up to this time just couldn’t support this type of content. Regardless, we decided it would be a great idea and if we could make some small design concessions, we might be able to pull it off.

Since the programming and development was all in my hands I began to come up an approach that would utilize three rules to pull this off. First I would make the video size smaller than full screen. In this case I designed the layout into 4 quarters and only one quarter would have motion video at one time – the other corners would have some sort of supporting graphic in them.

Secondly, I would go for a lower frame rate than 30fps. At first we started around 22 frames per second, but then moved down to 18, then 16, finally setting on around 12 frames per second. Less frames means less data, but 12 fps was enough to keep the illusion of motion.

The last thing was the programming. I honestly don’t remember if it was ActionScript 1 or 2 that was in use back then, all I can remember is that we outputted all of the frames as still images from something like QuickTime. I then would create text files that listed each file name in an array, and then I would load those arrays into flash using it’s call functions.

Surprisingly, this worked fine but we did find a few weird bugs along the way. First, we had to use .PNG files rather than .JPG files. Even those JPGs are smaller in size they needed to be decompressed in real time and computers back then just had a hard time doing this. So, even though the file size was larger with PNG files, there was little or no decompression needed so it played back faster. Another weird bug was that the ActionScript documentation stated there were functions that could clear ram – this was important because almost all computers at that time maxed out around 128 ram at best. Unfortunately for us, that specific clear ram function did not work at all and therefore you had to have a computer with about 256 megs of ram to even play our flash movie back.

This was our most worrying factor, and when we unveiled it to our HP team we bracing for the inevitable, “This is asking too much, change it.”.

Interestingly, that never happened – they loved it! It was such an amazing showcase of media being presented in a way that no one had never seen before that they felt it was worth keeping as-is with it massive 256mb ram requirement. They loved it so much that it sat and played at it’s own Kiosk in their lobby.

When you stop and think about it, we accomplished streaming full motion video nearly 5 years before another little company, called YouTube, would do the same. And while we certainly haven’t made millions off of our out-of-the-box idea for Full Motion Video, we couldn’t have been more proud of the work that we did to make it a reality. It will always stand out as one of my most favorite jobs I’ve ever worked on.

You can watch a restored, fully rendered HP Chai video here


Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published.