Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, sees the effort as the next logical advance in Web technology. “Today any computer programmer in the world can launch a website and have full-strength tools for creating new things,” he says. But he points out that this is not yet true for video. No collaborative video editing process is available to all Web users. “It’s a process that’s a lot harder to do if all I can do is download a 60-minute video to my computer, open up some [proprietary] software to edit the video, then upload it,” Wales says. “There’s no easy way for other people to give direct feedback. The record of the edits isn’t there. And if someone else wants to change it, they have to redo all the work on their computer.”
Wikipedia’s effort to promote open video standards isn’t the only one; the YouTube competitor Dailymotion, for example, is making 300,000 videos available in the Theora format. But whatever the catalyst, wide acceptance of such standards could have important implications even for people who don’t want to make their own video remixes. In particular, it could drive broader and faster advances in video search. Consider Blinkx, which has indexed 35 million hours’ worth of videos and devised a variety of ways to search them, from simple means–metadata, or computer-readable tags that literally describe what’s in a video–to advanced techniques involving speech analysis and facial recognition. One method devised by Blinkx allows searchers to draw a box around a face in a video, click it, and then search the Web for other videos containing that face. But for that trick to work with all Web videos, Blinkx must rebuild the interface code to accommodate each of a handful of dominant video formats and 80 lesser-used ones. “If open video works, then all the people doing these kinds of innovations within individual video formats–they can all talk to each other,” says Suranga Chandratillake, the company’s founder and CEO. “It means innovation isn’t split into separate groups in separate formats. Today the video Web is written in tens of languages, causing all the usual barriers when you want to switch from one to the next. With a dominant open format, everything will link to everything else; viewers will be able to freely watch content and jump between relevant clips.”
And on the copyright front, Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization that has provided usage licenses for 250 million copyrighted works, is helping to clarify what existing video works can and can’t be used. “Open licensing is a crucial part of this fairly multilayered ecosystem that will make open video take off,” says Mike Linksvayer, Creative Commons’ vice president. “If the video itself, and the components of the video, like music, aren’t actually openly licensed, then each of the other layers is hindered.”
Lately, Mozilla’s Blizzard and Surman have been showing off something a Mozilla developer cooked up with open-source video tools. In their video, the two men walk in and out of the camera’s field of view. A thought bubble dances over each head (tracking their movements thanks to face recognition software); inside each bubble, their real-time Twitter feeds are displayed. This was all done with Theora, HTML 5, and other new standards, Blizzard says. While such a stunt could be performed with proprietary software, it wouldn’t be so easy–or so easily shared. “This is what we mean when we talk about taking video out of the plug-in prison and allowing people to create things,” he says. The goal isn’t to make any one application possible but to bring about the next Internet revolution–one whose specific form is hard to foresee, except that it’s likely to be televised.
David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.