Audio and Video is Easy As E-mail

In Uncategorized by tfwm

Religious broadcaster’s story

Imagine you are a pastor of a church with a broadcast ministry. Your congregation helps you raise the funds to be on a local radio station. You may even be on television. But paying for air time is expensive, requiring many donations. Fortunately, many people are willing to help retain the time for you to be broadcast, but it becomes increasingly difficult in these trying times.

You may have a youth, couples or music ministry that is important to your congregation, but the funds are not sufficient to have these ministries be on radio or television.

Facts about E-mail

The easiest form of communication today; the one that is the least obtrusive into our everyday lives ; is e-mail. We control when we get our e-mail. We determine what we open to read and what we delete. We decide how much of the message we read. And, we choose whether we want to delve deeper into the subject matter of the e-mail.

E-mail has become an important part of the entire world. In fact, e-mail is the number one reason people turn on their computers, and in 2001, over 12 billion e-mail messages a day were sent.1 Estimates are as high as over 168 million American adults now use the internet, with 91% of online usage including e-mail.2

Americans’ commercial habits have changed through e-mail. Consumers check their e-mail more times daily than they watch TV, listen to the radio or read the newspaper.3 Spending on commercial e-mail will rise from $164 million in 1999 to over $7 billion in 2005.4 In 2002, more than 50% of US consumers will purchase something online.5

Very significantly, when survey respondents were asked about receiving a personalized email newsletter with only product information that matches their profile, 50% of the people said they would appreciate getting it. And 25% said they want to receive an email newsletter from a merchant once a week.6

Isn’t it amazing that so many people want to receive advertisements? How many more people would want to receive information in e-mail from their church, or their children’s school, or their soccer team or choir?

E-mail as a communications medium is extremely important. But e-mail has its limitations, too. Today, however, those limitations just became less. Before we talk about that, though, let’s discuss where we came from to determine where we’re going.

History of internet audio and video transmission

I worked for years to try to find the best ways to send rich media (audio and video) over the internet. It all started with the goal to enable audio to be as easy to distribute over the web as a web page. Even in 1995 people had quickly gotten used to the idea that a simple click would launch them to a new web page. The metaphor of a hyperlink was fully established. But listening to audio still required one to do the much more cumbersome task of first downloading a file, and then playing it. The waiting for the file to download . . . and keeping your computer from being otherwise productive, which harmed your own productivity . . . was what really pushed the creation of something else.

So, how to remove the wait? Well, the easiest answer was streaming. Once the listener clicks on the link, a special server at the other end starts sending material. Instead of that material going directly to the speakers, however, it was caught by a particular piece of software, the player. Then the software controlled how the material got turned into audio or video and played back. If the server and player are sufficiently well designed, then the amount of data that the player needs to collect (the amount of start-up buffering) before beginning to play can be minimized. If the material the server sends is compressed sufficiently (so that its data rate is less that the transmission capacity of the connection between the listener and the server), this buffering needs to only happen once, at the beginning of the clip; otherwise the content will need to re-buffer frequently.

There were, and are, lots of challenges in streaming. The internet has never been a particularly conducive environment for streaming. Internet packets get lost. They arrive late. The connectivity between a player and a server can be great at one moment and terrible the next. All of these problems presented a fascinating opportunity to design complicated and clever heuristics to be incorporated into both player and server design.

Then, of course, there was always the issue of bandwidth. In 1995 it was clear that 14.4 modems were what most internet users had. So the server needed to send media content that was compressed down to about 8kbps.7 Once 28.8 modems became common, it was feasible to send content at 15kbps (since 28.8 modems often only send about 20kbps). Then with 56kbps modems, even higher rates became achievable. At the same time bandwidth was improving, computers were inexorably getting faster. It was an exciting time ; in 5 years we delivered 5 completely different audio solutions, and 5 different video solutions. Each of these solutions ; and the underlying compression technology (called a codec) tended to be more complex than the last. Each was designed to do a better job than the previous generation at squeezing the audio and video to the point where it could both fit over the connection, and be playable on a reasonable machine of the time. The goal was always to enable the best possible streaming experience for the bulk of the internet audience.

But, none of the advancements in modems, computer speed, or the internet in general, have really changed the fundamental characteristics of the internet.

Connectivity between the server and the player is still unreliable – and when it fails one gets re-buffering. Other, less anticipated, problems have arisen.

Due to the growth history of streaming, a plethora of codec formats were developed, resulting in many compatibility issues. Almost all of the top-tier codecs were also proprietary ; so that content streamed from a Microsoft server was not playable on a Real Networks server, or vice-versa.

The focus of streaming is to enable the bulk of the internet audience to receive the best possible experience. There will always be many media recipients who are on a slower connection, or who have a machine more that a couple of years old, or who just haven’t been willing to install this or that software application, who are left in the lurch.

Some of the issues in streaming will be resolved by the adoption of broadband (as J. Sebastian Traeger of Christianity.com indicated in his article entitled Digital Delivery: An Introduction to On-Demand Streaming in the March/April 2002 issue of Technologies for Worship). Some of the compatibility issues may be resolved if the industry consolidates. As the technology matures over the next 5 or 10 years, and as listeners and viewers start to slowly raise their expectations, it is possible that the quality of products will rise, as has happened with spreadsheet and word-processing systems.

In the mean time, fewer than 20% of homes have expensive broadband internet connections. And even on broadband connections, general internet issues cause significant problems so that the quality of streamed content is often far from acceptable. In fact, the only reliable source of high-quality, guaranteed content is still the same as it was 7 years ago ; download the file and then play it.

Regardless of the challenges that streamed audio and video present, streaming is a beneficial tool for those ministries with a technologically savvy audience.

Back to the Religious broadcaster’s story:

Let’s go back to how ministries can use the internet more effectively. Do you want to spread your message?

Enable more aspects of your church and its ministries to reach more people? Raise funds? All of the above?

Nonprofit fundraising experts insist that email is far more important than your website, and have gone so far as
to announce rules:

Rule # 1: Resources spent on email strategies are more valuable than the same resources spent on web strategies.

Rule # 2: A web site built around an email strategy is more valuable than a web site built around itself.

Rule # 3: Email oriented thinking will yield better strategic thinking overall.8

A few years ago, many people would have said that your website was all-important. You may have noticed, though, that your website is only as impactful as your ability to communicate to people so that they will visit the site.

We have seen, however, that e-mail ; another method to communicate with each other ; is much more important. But too often the printed word appears cold and impersonal. Wouldn’t your e-mail be better if it had your minister’s face and voice, or the voice of an elder spreading a message about something in your church? How can that happen for the 80+% of the people who don’t have broadband?

Today, all of this can be done through what we’ve developed called TrustCast. Certainly there will be others who will follow and create similar systems.

Audio and video can be as easy as e-mail. The technology permits the transmission of audio and video through an e-mail so that anyone who can use e-mail can get high quality sound. What do I mean by “high quality?” If your minister recorded Sunday’s sermon at AM quality, then that’s the quality it will be sent to you. If the church choir recorded the Messiah at CD quality, that’s the way the Messiah would be sent to you.

The way this technology works is through a patent-pending method that combines encrypted content, intricately created algorithms and timed notifications so that anyone, regardless of modem speed, can receive audio through their e-mail.

Here’s an example: The minister wants to make sure to get as many people in church as possible. So he prepares a brief audio or video message discussing what will happen at Sunday’s service and gets that message sent to the e-mail addresses of everyone on his list ; whether it’s 100 or 10,000. The e-mails arrive on Friday.

On Sunday, people attend the service and wish they could hear it again. Fortunately, the minister has recorded the sermon as well as the music program. On Monday, he sends the entire service to everyone on the e-mail list.

The media file gets delivered in the background in small segments each time the recipient signs onto his internet service provider. When the file has completed its download, an email from the minister arrives in the recipient’s email inbox letting you know that you have last Sunday’s service. All the recipient has to do is push “Play” and the sermon, music program and entire service starts just like it was on the radio or television.

A better aspect, though, than the radio or TV is that the recipient now has last Sunday’s service on his own computer. He can listen to as much as he wants and then “stop the tape” to go to his daughter’s soccer game. Or he can download the service and take it with him as he drives to grandmother’s house. This is unlike streaming, where the content needs to be re-streamed, at additional cost for the sender, and requiring an internet connection, every time it is played.

This technology also offers ministries the opportunity to reach the least fortunate of the congregation: those who are physically unable to get to church. But with this new system of transmission in through the use of e-mails, even those who cannot attend in person, can hear the words and music of the program just the same.

Summary

The key to effective technology is usefulness. We’ve seen much technology created in the past decade that seemed to have little utility for the public. Or it was too difficult for people to use. Too many technological advances were simply creatures of the mind of the person at the computer keyboard who didn’t consider whether people could benefit from the technology.

As internet connections improve, some challenging technologies of the past will become less difficult. Will they ever be easy enough? That is something I cannot predict.

That’s why we’ve created a simple way to send and receive audio and video through a form of communication that millions of people use everyday: e-mail. The technology is not capital intensive, requires no special knowledge and has been created to be affordable. In fact, we believe it will be another positive aspect for ministries to use that people will support with donations.

I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in making new ways for people to use technology. Whenever you hear or read about the latest innovation, ask yourself “Is this convenient for me? Will it help me?” Then keep asking that question so that those of us who create the technology will be responsive to your needs. •