January 31, 2011
Yes we did!

This past week, I was fortunate to be part of a great collaboration between Mozilla and the PBS Newshour team, creating an annotated version of Barack Obama’s State of The Union Speech using popcorn.js. While the demo itself is fairly humble, its actually quite an accomplishment given that we had only met the Newsroom staff the day of the speech during a meeting at the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. I think the Newshour team experienced the power of the open web first hand - a talented group of developers were able to collaborate quickly and produce something of high quality (not unlike a tv newsroom). So much so that we’ve begun a conversation on PBS to use popcorn.js in all of their future analysis.

The whole experience was a great example of the kind of innovation that we’re trying to foster with Web Made Movies: video producers come up with new use cases for technology , and the resulting code is put in a repository for future use. It’s proof that HTML5 video is a great space to be exploring.

David Humphrey and PBS Newshour recently blogged about their experiences. I thought I’d provide a blow by blow.

January 25th, 2011
Washington, DC: Ben Moskowitz, Nicholas Reville, Geoffrey MacDougall and myself are pacing around a presentation room at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We’ve come to express why we think there is natural alignment between public media and the open web.

10:00
A little bleary from travel, a previous day of meetings, and bad breakfast joint coffee, we meet a room full of people involved in American public media - PBS affiliate stations, the PBS Newshour team, National Public Radio, and others.

We had created some demos over the previous 2 weeks - including this popcorn treatment of a PBS Newshour piece on Hait (only the first several minutes are annotated). We also experimented with the WGBH Open Vault, creating a parser for their metadata schema that would translate into popcorn data (due to mp4 video, works only in webkit browsers. Ben and his cousin created this example video report, based on lesson plans in the PBS Newshour piece on Haiti. Nicholas at PCF also showed the results of a translation party that Universal Subtitles had hosted with PBS Newshour.

We felt the presentation went well - the room was definitely thinking about the possibilities present in popcorn, and immediately grasped the advantage of adopting Universal Subtitles.

11:30
After the speech, PBS Newshour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan remarked how they wished they had it for the State of The Union address. “Isn’t that tonight? Someone asked” Hari nods. A wireframe is sketched out.

3:00
We’re with Travis Daub, the Newshour’s digital producer. He’s on the phone getting the run down on when the video of the president’s speech will be on Youtube. He says midnight, and analysis will come in throughout the evening These news people stay up all night, too!

We hop on the popcorn irc channel (link). I ask David Humphrey at CDOT if he is up for bringing popcorn.js to the State of The Union. He laughs, of course he is. He asks if Anna Sobiepanek and Scott Downe who are co-op students at Seneca if they are in - you bet. Rick Waldron, a javascript ninja at Bocoup picks up on what is happening and starts writing code immediately based on the spec. Ben Moskowitz and I rush to keep up, posting wireframes, and communicating with Dean Jensen at PCF / Universal Subtitles who is co-ordinating the transcript that will be instumental in timing the analysis. Travis logs into IRC from his iphone in a cab.

7:00
Robert Bole for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting orders some Chinese food.

9:00
75% of the code necessary to convert PBS’ annotation system to popcorn. The wireframes are posted. Its gonna pull in twitter, have chapter selectors, wash your car, and email Obama. This is going to be easy. Lets watch the speech.

10:30
Travis starts uploading the video.

11:00
Snag. The encoded video doesn’t have audio. Travis will have to start again, and do it twice for browser compatability. Ouch. The video is so long that the encoding process is painful.

11:15
New snag. Servers seem to be failing.

1:00
Multiple snags. Grumpiness sets in. Travis valiantly posting new versions. Popcorn hackers have the analysis working with a dummy video - just waiting for the pieces to come together.

3:00 
The pieces are not coming together. The night is called.

The next day
A snow storm, a train travel, multiple taxis and subways, a hamburger at a breakfast spot - next thing you know its midnight again. Is it working yet? No, it is not. Inconsistencies in the transcript. Hotel Wifi killing us. Must sleep.

With a final push, and additional work in the morning, the bugs are ironed out. Vanessa Dennis at PBS Newshour adds styling and pushes to their blog on the front page. My favourite quote from theirblog:

“The Web is changing, and we at the PBS Newshour are changing with it through experiments like these.”

Experiments like these can be exhausting, but the thing I love about working with Mozilla is that we make change by building things. It feels great that Web Made Movies is really starting to accomplish this.

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