Video codecs, cameras and internet streaming

Tech is sometimes considered a bit geeky and boring. But to understand how video sharing has evolved into the phenomenon it is today, it’s worth going back a few years to look at the part played by video and web technology.

By the late 1990s, the digital video (DV) camcorder and mini DV camcorder had arrived. Basic video technology was by this time relatively affordable. Chances are you owned a compact camcorder or knew someone who did.

Individuals and businesses could use a DV camcorder to record a simple home movie and then make very straightforward edits on a PC. The process of hosting and streaming video was still a challenge, however. At the time there was no obvious leader in the race to become the primary streaming option for the masses. QuickTime®, WindowsMedia Player® and RealNetworks® competed for market share, but no all-encompassing, cross-compatible platform for PC and Mac existed.

Flash Version 4 (from 1999)

However, one piece of technology was about to have a big impact on online video. Flash®, a vector based software, had originally been known as FutureSplash. When the software was taken under the wing of Macromedia, it was re-branded Flash. The advantage of Flash is that its animation playback generates relatively small file sizes – ideal for internet use – and it is compatible with both PC and Mac systems.

Flash software began to resolve some of the problems facing a number of video formats. But a major issue that web designers still struggled with was how to play (or stream) video online in real time – ideally without the user having to wait a long time for the video to download. Even in the late 1990s, people were beginning to exhibit impatience with the internet.

Most people in the UK still relied on modems. A lucky few in the USA had cable connections, but internet connections in most countries outside the USA and Germany were often painfully slow – too slow certainly to stream online video effectively.

A solution that used Flash® software emerged: Rotoscoping.


This version of rotoscoping, involved exporting a short video file into still photo images. The series of still images would then be imported sequentially into a timeline in Flash software. By doing this, it was possible to achieve an effect of video playback with less frames being used.

Example of Rotoscoping in Flash.

In the late 1990s and early 2000 two agencies who were excellent at this technique were Hillman Curtis in New York and Hi-ReS in London.

The problem with rotoscoping was that it was time consuming work. The designer using Flash software could spend many hours extracting images from a video file and then rebuilding them again sequentially in Flash.

A major problem with rotoscoping wasn’t just the time it took to do, but addressing the challenge of making small enough files that most users could download them without having to waiting for many minutes.

This was an era in which the aim was to create file sizes that ran to just a few hundred kilobytes rather than many megabytes and this was a challenge if you wanted to deliver content that resembled television or film.

If a standard video played at 24 frames a second that might be broken down into as few as 6 or even frames a second. At this number of frames there was a compromise.

Super-smooth playback was not always possible, but Rotoscoping could deliver some interesting results.

The art was in producing the best illusion of video playback using the fewest number of stills.

Some good news was on its way, however. In 2000, with Flash in its fifth edition, a group of developers invented Wildform Flix.

Wildform Flix Software

Wildform was a breakthrough. Its developers had found away to render Flash Player compatible files from a range of standard video files at the press of a button. In many ways, the application yielded the development of the technology you now see on YouTube: videos are converted from native formats into web-friendly Flash® player compatible files that can be streamed.

When the next version of the Flash software, Flash MX, was released two years later, it featured a built-in encoder that enabled the conversion of a variety of video formats. The release of Flash Professional MX in 2004 made it possible to stream Flash videos from a web server. This opened the door to the possibility of mass video sharing and streaming

The cameras

Whilst it took until around the mid-2000s to consolidate web streaming and playback technology, the quality of video cameras had consistently improved throughout the 1990s.

Video cameras that could deliver more professional-looking footage became increasingly affordable, making video accessible to a growing number of people.


By 2003, Sony®, JVC®, Canon® and Sharp® had introduced high-definition video (HDV). The first affordable HDV format used inexpensive MiniDV tapes (see image below). And with a good-sized hard drive and enough RAM, a home PC could cope with editing video.

Web video production was opening up to most computer users. It wasn’t even necessary to spend hundreds of bucks on a camcorder to make online video.Webcams had arrived in force and these allowed for the recording of simple, low resolution video, for streaming online.

By the last 2000s DSLR cameras and action cameras like GoPro’s began to take over as indie film makers weapon of choice. Now people all over the world were able to get online and communicate audio visually.

Video as social media

As video became easier to capture and edit, video sharing and streaming websites evolved. Metacafe® was founded in 2003. The following year, quirky daily video blog Rocket boom appeared.

The format of Rocket Boom was not dissimilar to the way many YouTube presenters create their shows now, almost 15 years later. Shot in a low-budget studio Rocket boom had a quirky, face-paced style. It used humor and mixed studio content with segments out on location.

Sound familiar? 

Amanda Congdon presenting Rocket Boom

In San Mateo, California, three men who had worked together on PayPal™ went about inventing another internet start-up: YouTube. Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim set a goal to allow users to post videos online and then share them. The first video was posted to YouTube in April 2005.

Its sounds crazy now, but initially it was hard to know it would be as big as it is now. Many platforms came and went, but then thing that stood out for me personally was that the video footage began to stream in real time. It seemed to work better than the other platforms of its time and combined with the social aspect of encouraging likes and comments it nurtured user engagement in an effective way.

The YouTube Homepage 2005

No longer was a Hollywood production budget necessary fora video to be seen. If the content was interesting enough, people were more forgiving of technical shortcomings.

YouTube’s influence cannot be overstated. It changed people’s perception of the video format, how video could be made and how we consumed video. Video run-times became shorter and public demand seemed to sway towards more and more outrageous content.

A fascination with talking to camera evolved, and since YouTube displays how many times a video is viewed, the opportunity to become a web star emerged as a possibility.

YouTube added further features, including the option to‘like’ a video, and invited feedback by allowing the public to comment or post video responses.

By the time Google bought YouTube in 2006 the video revolution was in full effect. Four years later, in 2010, YouTube was attracting average monthly traffic of more than 52 million hits.

The video evolution also grew and grew with the growing popularity of Facebook and Instagram. New tools and apps made editing video more accessible and the explosion of smartphone technology combined with widespread adoption of broadband and 4G technology became a game changer in the way we use and share video – and at the time of writing video has become an everyday part of many people’s lives.

Read Next: Different Types of Video You Can Produce For Your Business

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