Hyperlinking video with Popcorn: improving the show or creating noise?

Hypermedia looks set to transform the way we interact with video. Iguanasan

A new web technology is promising to do for video what the internet did for text. Called Popcorn, it brings interactivity to video so that, as the video is playing, other things can be synchronised with it such as explanatory text, links to Google maps, photos, other videos …

The possibilities are endless. Although similar functionality could be partially achieved using a closed environment such as Flash, Popcorn uses a new standard called HTML5, which is built directly into the browser.

To explore the potential of the technology, Canadian director Katerina Cizek used Popcorn.js together with a 3D graphics technology called Web GL to create a new documentary.

Called One Millionth Tower, the film explores how two high-rise towers in Toronto could be “re-imagined” by the tower residents, architects and animators – as illustrated by the video below.

The web-based documentary allows the user to explore a simple 3D environment and click to view one of six narratives. The environment you see is linked to the weather in Toronto at the time you are watching – so if the sky is overcast there, it will be overcast on your screen.

The narrative segments are linked to Wikipedia articles and Flickr photographs that update as people upload more photos.

The documentary itself was made without much video, relying instead on photos provided by the residents of the tower and recordings of their comments. The photos are brought to life through animations and their incorporation into the virtual environment. Most of the video is used for the supporting material about the project and how it was made.

Because the documentary is essentially a 3D virtual environment, the viewer gets to control aspects such as the camera (viewing) angle.

The project was built using entirely open-source tools. The code for the documentary is available for anyone to browse, re-use or re-purpose.

Hypermedia

In considering the significance of the technology, it’s worth stating that all that has been done in the above example could have been (and has been partially) done before using other platforms.

We are used to the idea of multimedia environments, especially those based on the Adobe Flash platform. Multimedia documentaries have been created using Flash, but invariably they are static: all of the resources are stored and accessed when the documentary is viewed. Multimedia released in the past as CDs became less popular because the format could readily be achieved using regular web pages.

The problem with Flash is that it’s a proprietary environment and the development tools are expensive. Most importantly, it is an environment that is not supported on mobile platforms such as the iPhone and iPad. The problems Adobe had with gaining acceptance for Flash on the mobile platform led it earlier this month to announce it was ceasing development of the mobile Flash Player.

In the same way hypertext changed the way we interact with text, hypermedia has enormous potential in extending this around video. Video will account for 50% of internet traffic by 2012. Some 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute on YouTube alone. This equates to more video being uploaded every 60 days than the three major US television networks produced in 60 years.

Yes, most of the video is probably porn. But the ability to mark-up video and provide context through interactions with other applications and information sources is a significant advance, and will provide substantial tools for research collaboration.

One of the key applications that can be integrated into video is social media. Sites such as SoundCloud integrate people’s comments as a recording is playing, synchronising to time points in the playback. The same can be achieved with video using Popcorn. This would be especially useful for news reports (professional or citizen-generated) where a Twitter commentary could be synchronised to the events unfolding on screen.

Turning point

The real power of this technology, providing the tools are developed to make authoring and hosting content seamless, will be for the general public who upload their own videos and want to enhance that experience.

Unfortunately, even though there is a tool called Popcorn Maker, it still requires a basic knowledge of layout and some web programming. I experimented with a short video of a skateboarder – which you can see here – adding links to Wikipedia, Google Maps and Twitter.

The programming interface is very straightforward but I had to craft the page by hand in the end.

Having said that, this is a new evolution in web technology and Popcorn makes it extremely easy for web developers and designers to use. The capacity for researchers to upload multi-dimensional visualisations of their data and to interact with collaborators and other researchers, who can interrogate, manipulate, and comment upon those data, will greatly increase the rate of advances in areas such as crystallography, genetics and astronomy, to name a few.

The use of this technology in a documentary such as One Millionth Tower is a turning point for other filmmakers, professional and amateur alike.

One Millionth Tower is screening at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.