Yesterday Adobe released a beta version of its Flash Player browser plugin capable of decoding H.264 video, AAC audio, and associated rich metadata. Web browsers utilizing Flash 188.8.131.52 or higher will now be able to playback content encoded for digital television, iPods, and high-end mobile phones using international standards. Adobe’s support for these standardized audio and video codes will streamline the production process for desktop and web video, hopefully reducing time-to-market and opening more video catalogs to online viewers. A beta version of the new player, Flash Player 9 Update 3 Beta 2 “Moviestar”, is available from Adobe Labs.
Flash video sites such as MySpace or YouTube currently encode video content using the On2 TrueMotion VP6 codec and MP3 audio built-in to Flash 8 and above. Some sites also output content in H.264 with AAC audio for playback on handheld devices such as the iPod, iPhone, or Nokia N-series handsets. The new Flash Player lets publishers skip the extra step of VP6 encoding and pipe in H.264 content using their existing web players. Flash programs rely on the same NetStream method used for existing Flash video with a few new optional callbacks for metadata and encoding types.
Adobe licensed core codec technologies from MainConcept for x86, PowerPC, and ARM processor architectures. The new media technologies will be bundled with the next major Flash Player release and Adobe AIR (formerly code-named Apollo), both expected this Fall. The new technology will also power Adobe Media Player (formerly code-named Philo), expected in early 2008.
AAC and H.264 are ISO standards introduced in 1997 and 2003 respectively. Over the past 4-10 years hardware manufacturers have introduced specialized hardware encoders and decoders for the professional video industry to speed-up the production and presentation process. Like most new hardware technologies initial solutions cost thousands of dollars and were beyond the reach of most consumers but we’re finally starting to see low-priced hardware optimized for multimedia encoding and decoding. The recent acceleration in hardware encoding and decoding solutions is partially driven by the large data processing requirements of high-definition H.264 video on Blue-ray and HD-DVD media.
Current H.264 hardware sampling
- Graphics cards
- Video cameras
- Elgato turbo.264 USB stick
Enhanced metadata support
Flash Player now supports 3GPP time text tracks, iTunes metadata (“ilst” atom), and chapter listings for easy-to-navigate playback and searchability. Flash developers will need to listen for and handle each format but publishers may choose to output a full transcript or keyword markers with every video.
Chapters technology lets publishers addressable parts of a movie. The nightly news might contain a chapter marker for each story or a music video countdown might list the start of each new video as a distinct chapter.
Timed text is a closed-caption format for audio and video. A content producer might sync a full transcript to audio or video input to improve the parsing abilities of search engines, foreign language translations, or persons with disabilities.
The new Flash player decodes Base, Main, and High H.264 profiles and Main, LC, and HE AAC profiles. Sound is mixed down to two-channels and resampled to 44.1Khz according to Adobe developer Tinic Uro. This downmixing is a limitation of the current Flash sound engine, which dates back to 1996 and will likely need to be rewritten for the current publishing environment and ActionScript 3 architecture.
There is currently no support for third-party streaming services. Media companies who would like to stream H.264 and AAC content to the new Flash Players need to use the upcoming Flash Media Server 3.
Web video and its production process just received a major upgrade with Adobe’s latest decoders in Flash 9. New opportunities for hardware acceleration, streamlined encoding, and multiple device support will increase the amount of video available for playback within web pages. Media companies have a new level of archival confidence this week as well, with one major international formatting option delivering quality video for the foreseeable future.
We will not see a change in online video overnight. Once Adobe releases the final version of this new Flash 9 player users will need to upgrade, either automatically through the Player’s built-in update system or through a separate download, before publishers can feel confident switching their Flash video players to H.264 sources.
One big story that has yet to play out is Flash Lite and AIR on mobile systems. Adobe would like to compete with Microsoft and Sun in this application space and already has a major proving ground in Japan. Flash Lite 3 is based on Flash 8 and already shipping on devices such as Chumby so it may be too late for the ActionScript 3 player paired with the underlying ARM codecs. Adobe AIR may be bundled separately with mobile carrier contracts and is expected to have Flash 9 features such as H.264 and AAC included.