Tuesday, November 22, 2011

At Long Last… My Interview with Merton, the Piano Chat Improv Guy

It was more than a year ago when Merton, the improvisational piano player, became an Internet sensation when he first appeared on Chatroulette playing piano and serenading the strangers he'd meet on the video chat website. His videos have attracted over 25,000,000 views on YouTube and he has performed in London, Montréal, and he now has a live, interactive, webcam show that airs weekly on Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET called The Merton Show.

Merton is a self-taught improvisational pianist who lives in the Colorado rockies. He's a quick-witted, friendly guy who conceals his true identity by wearing a green hoodie and fake horn-rimmed glasses. There had been some speculation that he was actually recording artist Ben Folds in disguise – especially with Ben Folds' Chatroulette Piano Ode to Merton video – but while the two have similarities in appearance and musical styles, they both disputed the claim in a recorded Public Service Announcement where they appeared together.

I met Merton last year at NewTeeVee Live where he spoke about his experience as a web celebrity and how he planned to further develop and evolve his improvisational social and musical style. Merton says that he's played piano and done improvisational music for a long time, but Chatroulette gave him the mass exposure to freestyle in real-time with random strangers and become a viral video phenomenon.
"What I'm into mostly is public piano playing. I like to set up a piano in a strange location where people are not expecting it, nontraditional, unorthodox audience situation. I like when somebody is just living their life thinking about "what groceries do I have to buy?" on the way home and all of a sudden here's a guy with a piano singing about them."
Chatroulette: The Dark and Lighter Side

Chatroulette was created by a 17-year-old high school student named Andrey Ternovskiy and launched in November 2009 as a social video website akin to speed dating, where random strangers from around the world could connect for webcam conversations. The media became obsessed with the site for its prevalence of inappropriate content (e.g. naked guys) and Jon Stewart  lampooned it on The Daily Show. Merton learned about Chatroulette from friends and while he knew about the objectionable content he still thought it would offer him a good opportunity to weave his musical talents with its unique interactions and random nature.
"On Chatroulette, I was always dealing with someone who had basically volunteered – they had a limited set of expectations, they knew they were logging onto this website, someone was going to show up on the other end – but in real life it's much more fun because they're not ready for it, they're not expecting it so I get a different king of interaction."
Merton's Improvisational Musical Style

Merton only plays real pianos. He's not interested in synthesizers or organs and he doesn't bring a piano anywhere. He looks for them in weird places, like the hospital waiting room where people don't expect to be entertained and improvisation is a big part of what Merton does.
"Improvisation for me means making it all up on the spot. There's a lot of different interpretations of improv. A jazz improvisation usually is a set song with a chord sequence, and then you keep using the same chords but you play different stuff over it. Acting improv usually has a format. If you go see Second City Live, or something like that, they'll say let's do the Star Trek sketch, but let's let the audience decide what we're going to talk about. But they still have a framework. I'm interested in absolute pure improv where I'll sit down and someone says, play that Bon Jovi song, I'll play the Bon Jovi. If a guy in a plaid short walks up, I'll play the song about the guy in the plaid shirt. So, I'm interested in really free improv, I think especially because I'm not good at preparing for stuff, and so I walk in with a clean slate, no prep and I get to go from there. So I'm lucky I've become an improv musician."
See Jeremy Scott's musical interview with Merton on Reel SEO for on his improvisational musical style: Reel Songs With Merton, PianoImprov Chatroulette Viral Video Star – Interview Conducted In Song.

PianoChatImprov = The Truman Show?

Merton says he loves to document and archive his experiences and is somewhat obsessive about it.
"I'm very nostalgic about personal memories. I love photos and videos of everything, and in all seriousness, as freakish as this sounds, if I could have a little camera running for every moment of my life I would definitely do that."
Especially, he says that when dealing with strangers, they're a big part of the content. He doesn't think the public is that interested in just seeing him sit down in a plain room perform and make things up off the top of his head.
"The interactive component of what I do and the other person is a huge factor, they're my co-stars."
He says when he's playing on the street or in a public context sometimes magic happens, he says, "and if the camera isn't running, it doesn't count. I don't get to show the results."

So when he's playing on the street he carries three cameras with him all the time and sets up three-point shooting.
"I love to capture the moment because I want to be able to watch it later and show it to people."

He says he doesn't actually like to be the center of attention but he does like to be a catalyst for making things happen. This has led him to several projects over the last year that took him to London and Montréal, where he worked with T-Mobile to play piano and sing to passengers at airports around the UK, and on streets of Montréal.

The Merton Show

Merton recently released his first solo piano music, called "The Montreal Song"available on iTunes: http://bit.ly/k1swwq and launched his weekly live, webcam show where fans can interact with him via chat and video. His advice to artists and performers looking to build their audience and expand their reach is to just do it.

"Video is huge and I don't know if I can say anything that hasn't already been said. But a picture is worth a thousand words but a video is worth a million pictures. If you think of a good friend who is no longer around or you get older and change, you have video of a moment of your life is worth so much. You know, you see the person, how they move, their mannerisms, how they speak and it's very different then looking at a photograph. 
And so as far as being a performer, without video and Internet in particular, obviously, for somebody like me, I would never got a record deal. I probably never would have walked into a record office and said, here's my demo tape, here's my photo… But because I was able to make this humble little 5 minute video and put it in a place where millions of people could watch it. I was able to insert myself in the mainstream that way. So, I would encourage anybody who is a performer or artist to just do what you do. Put it on film or take pictures, put it on the Internet and people can find it."

Merton's related websites:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jan Ozer's Thoughts on Why Adobe Abandoned Flash for Mobile

Streaming Media West was abuzz this past week with Adobe's surprising announcement that it will abandon future development of Flash Player for mobile devices following the next release 11.1, and will be more aggressively contribute to HTML5 innovation with key players, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM. Adobe will continue to support its current Flash development. Over the last few years HTML5 and H.264 video have been gaining momentum as an emerging standard for online and mobile video, spurred on by Apple's exclusion of Flash on its popular iDevices and negative press it received from Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Flash. Adobe had developed Flash Player to run on Google's Android and other non-Apple mobile platforms, but its official statement from its blog post now says,"HTML5 is the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms."

While Adobe had a strong presence at Streaming Media West with its Platinum sponsorship of the conference, prominent spot on the exhibit floor and usual pre-conference session with Kevin Towes, the company was tight lipped about why it decided to withdraw Flash from the mobile market. I caught up with Jan Ozer, Video Producer, Writer, Publisher of StreamingLearningCenter.com and author of Video Compression for Flash, Apple Devices and HTML5, to get his perspective on the implications of the announcement for the online video industry, mobile developers and consumers.

Ozer says Adobe made this move for three reasons. Number one, they were fighting against the current at least with Apple, and then with Microsoft's recent announcement about their tablet oriented operating system, they can't fight this. Number two, Ozer says, Adobe wasn't getting then support it needed from Google and other vendors to make Flash work effectively on mobile platforms. The last thing he says is, as computers get more powerful people are building applications that require more power and faster CPUs to run smoothly, and Flash-enabled tablets and phones simply don't have the power to run smoothly and deliver a quality experience.

This doesn't mean that Flash on the desktop is going away anytime soon, and Ozer says that it will actually create a tale of two websites, with a web version that is completely immersive Flash experience, and the other more simple and targeted for mobile devices.
"That's already being done by some vendors like Converse, who, if you visit it with an iPad, sends you to a simple e-commerce site, but if you visit with a computer, sends you to an immersive Flash experience. The other is that many vendors, seeking to minimize development costs, will produce a single site using HTML5 that lacks much of the immersion that Flash can provide." 
While many are saying Adobe's announcement is significant, Ozer points out:
"In terms of video, remember that HTML5 doesn't have many key technologies now being used or implemented by the primary distributers of non-UGC video on the web (networks, studios, etc). These include adaptive streaming, digital rights management (DRM), peer-to-peer delivery, and in the enterprise space, multi-casting. Remember also that at last count (November 9, 2011), the penetration of HTML5 compatible browsers on connected computers was under 60%. Streaming producers are going to need a plug-in based option for several more years, and Flash is the obvious choice. "

He described the implications in greater detail on in this blog post, Adobe to Discontinue Flash for Mobile, and offered this advise to online video publishers.
"If you're a web producer trying to access these mobile devices, your strategy doesn't change much either. You've had to deliver to desktops with one technology and iDevices with another, Android has always been a fractured market. Now you'll likely deliver to all mobiles using a single technology (let's hope) and all desktops with another. Certainly Google's adaption of HTTP Live Streaming in Android 3.0 is a good sign."


Monday, November 7, 2011

blinkx Powers Video Search and Discovery with Targeted Ads, Acquisitions and New Video Channels

Earlier this year at OTTcon, I caught up with Suranga Chandratillake, CEO and Founder of blinkx, which describes as "the world's largest and most advanced video search engine." Chandratillake founded blinkx in 2004 and has helped pioneer video search on the Internet. Unlike other search engines that focus on text web, titles and metadata, blinkx uses a unique combination of patented conceptual search, speech recognition and visual analysis to find and qualify online video. The company has an index of over 35 million hours of searchable video and more than 720 media partnerships, including national broadcasters, commercial media giants, and private video libraries.

Chandratillake says blinkx has positioned itself as a premier destination for online video.
"When you come to blinkx.com, and search for any topic you're interested in right now, we can find videos for you that match that topic, that are highly relevant to that topic of interest and we bring those back to you. So you can click on them and watch them, and that's our core business. But we also power video search behind the scenes for other people too." 
In particular, if you go to Ask.com, blinkx powers the video search experience for that site, which in turn helps power blinkx's ad business with its tens of millions of unique views each month that it sells advertising against.
"One of the really nice things about the advertising is that we use our search technology to try and target the ads. So if you're watching a video about a particular topic, you will likely see ads that are highly relevant to that video."
From a user perspective, Chandratillake says, that's great because you're not getting irrelevant ads that waste your time.
"It's also great from an advertiser's perspective because it means you're being able to engage people or consumers who may actually care about your product."
In April of 2011, blinkx acquired online video media company Burst Media for $30 million in stock and cash in a move to integrate its premium video content with Burst’s 150 million monthly uniques 35 billion page views (according to comScore Media Metrix, September 2011). Just last week, Burst Media introduced 12 new Internet video channels premium video from a host of blinkx's direct play partners, including Reuters, Howcast, CelebTV, GeoBeats and TVGuide, offering TV-style programming on a wide range of subjects, from food to fashion, celebrity gossip to gardening, health to How To.

blinkx also also made two strategic partnership announcements last week, that it is powering video for Aurasma, and it is partnering with Orb Networks to bring its vast video catalog to Orb BR and Orb TV Users. Aurasma is the world's first visual browser for smartphones and tablets that recognizes physical objects and delivers related online content - videos, animations, audio or web pages - in real time.

Orb TV is a hockey puck-sized OTT device that plugs into any TV, enables consumers to stream online video, photos and music to a TV. In addition to blinkx content, Orb TV provides consumers with easy access to services such as Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu and Comedy Central. Orb BR is a software solution that leverages the power of PS3s and connected Blu-ray players to bring users the same content as Orb TV - without any additional hardware purchase. With the announcement, Orb BR brings blinkx content to the millions of PS3s and connected Blu-ray players in the market.

Chandratillake noted that the the online video and OTT space has come of age after so many years of video on the Internet. What's different, he says, is the momentum at which the idea is gaining. The reason for that is because the reality of that connected television universe is just getting ever close. More and more of us are watching Internet video on our television sets or contemplating the purchase of a set-top box or game system to watch OTT video.
"From a blinkx perspective, we look at the TV as the screen or one of the screens of the future. Today, the vast majority of our business, and most our audience is accessing our system through a computer screen. But in the future, I don't know if it's either two years or five years, I think a lot of people will actually access it straight through a television screen. So we've got be there and offer a very relevant service, but it's very important that we make the right partnerships to make sure our services are available though all these different devices."
Just as OTT video is gaining speed, so is social video, with video discovery and recommendation becoming more relevant than video search, which almost seems antiquated in comparison.
"Search and discovery are two sides of the coin," Chandratillake noted. "So on the one hands they never see each other , or on the other hand they're on the same coin. It's one of these classic cases where things can be so closely inter-related, yet so far apart. But its all down to the nature of what the user or consumer is doing at a given point in time."
Search is more of a lean-in experience, where you're doing investigative work finding specific information in a search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing. You tend to add, subtract and play around with words to find the right combination to get the best search results. That, of course, is also the case with online video search.

But there are many other cases on television when actually it's about relaxation. It's about leaning back. It's about turning the box on and leaning back on the sofa and having entertainment come to you. Whether that piece of video is recommended to you by a friend or from personalized recommendations like blinkx's system.
"That's where discovery comes in," says Chandratillake,  "discovery is about knowing enough about you, and knowing enough about the content to figure out what you want to watch right now."
About blinkx
blinkx plc (lse aim:BLNX) is the world's largest and most advanced video search engine. Today, blinkx has indexed more than 35 million hours of audio, video, viral and TV content, and made it fully searchable and available on demand. blinkx's founders set out to solve a significant challenge - the growing amount of TV and user-generated content on the Web means keyword-based search technologies only scratch the surface. blinkx's patented search technologies listen to--and even see--video on the Web, helping users enjoy a breadth and accuracy of search results not available elsewhere. In addition, blinkx powers the video search for many of the world's most frequented sites. blinkx is based in San Francisco and London. More information is available at www.blinkx.com.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I'm going to Streaming Media West to discuss Webcasting Tips and Tricks From the Enterprise

I'll be taking a short break from my intense work schedule next week to speak at Streaming Media West, on a panel session, Webcasting Tips and Tricks From the Enterprise. According to the conference program, "this session focuses on best practices from enterprise corporations which have adopted and implemented live video across their organization. See firsthand how these companies are using video for internal and external communications and learn how you can better leverage assets already available inside your company. Hear firsthand from those who have been successful with their deployments and learn what advice they have for others deploying live video in the enterprise today."

Streaming Media West returns to Los Angeles and the conference organizers promise it to be even best show yet. Last year more than 2,500 content owners, viral video creators, online marketers, enterprise corporations, broadcast professionals, ad agencies, educators, and others all come to Streaming Media West to see and hear more than 100 speakers and 30 sessions focused on latest online video technology and the business models that are coming of age. In conjunction with the show is the first ever HTML5 Video Summit, which is an expanded two-day summit with how-to sessions, demos, case studies, round table discussions and more.

Here's a short promotional video about the conference which kicks off this Monday with pre-conference workshops and the show is November 8-9, 2011.

My session is scheduled on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 10:30 am and confirmed participants include:

Moderator: Patty Perkins, Team Leader, Wells Fargo Creative Services Technology, Wells Fargo
Speaker: Michael Chop, Senior IT Architect, Cadence
Speaker: Tony Sehgal, Sr. Manager, Digital Media Operations and Infrastructure, Oracle
Speaker: Eric Hards, Manager, Web, Media Graphics and Streaming, Lockheed Martin
Speaker: Larry Kless, Production Manager, Videoconferencing and Virtual Events, Kaiser Permanente

I'll be wearing my day job hat as a webcast producer like I did when I first spoke at Streaming Media West five years ago on a panel session on, Distribution & Delivery of Digital Media. The following year I also spoke on another panel session, Best Practices For Webcasting Production which I blogged about here.

Here are some "best practices" that I shared in that post, that address the technical and logistical challenges for webcasting, and how you put the right team and the right technology in place.

If you are producing a webcast, consider the following:
  • Know your role. You may be producer, director and technical director and even camera all rolled up into one. Or you may have the luxury of hiring a full crew.
  • Get clients on board with deadlines, financial commitments and better understanding of web cast requirements.
  • Audio is the number one killer. It’s an ongoing issue when using wireless microphones, telephone call ins, multi-point conferencing and live PA (Public Address) system.
  • Working with a team you know and trust and who knows your business is best. Relationships are vital to your process. Delegation and deference to expertise key to getting the job done. You need to rely on your team to do their job and sometimes take over your chores too when you get called away to manage client issues and handle last minute changes.
  • Redundant personnel and technology is a must and equipment failure should be expected. Back up to you back ups really saves the day in a pinch.
  • Make every room a broadcast studio.
  • Site surveys at least a good 8 weeks ahead to inspect data and A/V ports, power requirements for lighting, ceiling height for rigging, windows and doors for light and noise, bring a digital camera, measuring tape and a continuity tester as part of your arsenal.
  • Complete all pre-web cast equipment and connectivity testing well in advance and conduct it on-site for higher reliability.
  • Prepare a production summary that includes every last bit of detail that covers the entire production. Give everyone on the crew a copy for reference and lead a production meeting before the works so that all teams are synched up.
  • Be prepared for last minute changes and if there’s time just roll with them – update your script, rehearse if possible, but say “No, we’re out of time” when you have to. Really, there’s nothing worse than a major on-air blunder. But as they, “It’s live television.”
Also, be sure to have back up equipment and crew in case of technical or physical problems, and don't forget to test your webcast on location. I'll share more tips following my session next week.

For more information, go to: www.streamingmedia.com/Conferences/West2011/

Larry Kless' Weblog: Best Practices For Webcasting Production
Larry Kless' Weblog: Streamingmedia.com: How to Execute a Successful Webcast
Larry Kless' Weblog: Streamingmedia.com Featured Article: Lessons Learned from Live Events