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Every Technical Solution Becomes a Problem

A few months ago, after my trusty Olympus D-40 digital camera passed on (after putting up a six-month struggle resulting from complications from being dropped), I acquired a nifty new camera from Sony, the DSC-W1. Among the things that make it nifty are the Carl Zeiss optics and a screen that measures two inches diagonally. That doesn't sound like much, but it really makes framing a picture even easier, and allows you to see significantly more detail when reviewing pictures. And while the movie feature of earlier digital cameras was more of a neat trick, the Sony allows you to capture, if you want, video that is camcorder-quality; that is, 640 × 480 resolution, reasonable mono sound, and, if you use the faster Memory Stick Pro, the duration of the video is limited only by the capacity of the memory card.

With the older Olympus, the movies would appear as .MOV (QuickTime movie) files, encoded in a format called Motion JPEG. Even a fairly short sequence could occupy about ten megabytes, which is way too big for Internet sharing. But if you have QuickTime Pro (or other cheap or free movie editors), you can easily export the movie in a smaller format, which usually means MPEG-4 AVC – this is a format that QuickTime handles well, but it can also be played by the Windows Media, Real, and VLC players.

But it's not so simple, at least on the Mac, when it comes to the Sony. (I can't tell if the Windows software that's bundled with DSC-W1 has any movie conversion functions.) If you capture movies in 640 × 480 “fine” mode, you end up with very large files, with the smarter compression (MPEG-1) being asked to handle about eight times the information when compared the older camera (that is, four times the number of pixels and twice the number of frames). Unfortunately, while QuickTime (and lots of other software) can play these MPEG-1 files, it cannot compress them to something else as they are.

Wild speculation: Why ? I don't know. It appears that some time in the past, a few versions ago, QuickTime could treat this particular kind of MPEG-1 video file, which, crucially, uses an interleaved scheme to combine the audio and video into one data stream, just like another of the other video types it understands. And then the ability disappeared, or, I suspect, was removed. My wild guess is that Apple had got a tap on the shoulder from the MPEG consortium, and they (or should I say They, the consortium) did not want consumers to easily convert this format, which is just the same as the one found on Video CDs, to others. While Video CD is an obscure format for those of us in the West, it is very popular in China. This tendency for licensing to be restricted for consumer video formats is also apparent with MPEG-2, the DVD video format – it's not at all wildly technically different from other video formats, but the ability to export to it is not bundled with QuickTime Pro.

So I had this clip I wanted to share with others, and Googled for alternatives. Most of them involved a multi-step process of “de-muxing” the audio and video tracks, then converting using a command-line tool called ffmpeg, or even using iMovie. It all seemed pretty error-prone to me, especially if you had to paste the audio and video back together.

But I did find an application called Kinoma Producer (for both Mac OS and Windows) that can do it all (MPEG-1 to MPEG-4, scaling down the size if you want) on one go. Oddly enough, in the eyes of its developer, that's not really what it's for. What they think it's for, primarily, is turning video content into something you can view on a Palm-based device, like a PDA or Treo phone, and Kinoma has a format (and small device-resident player) to deal with that. It looks like Kinoma's player format is really MPEG-4 AVC underneath. In any case, the interface to Producer is fairly easy – after a little trial and error, you can set up a preset for the way you want to export movies to the web, like so:

Kinoma does cost money but it's surprisingly cheap considering the small market they must be selling to, at least for people who want to put media on PDAs. It would be nice if Apple brought the functionality I need back to Quicktime Pro or iPhoto (iPhoto 5 recognizes video files from digital cameras), but this is reasonable solution for a technical problem that seems to have fallen through the gap.


into battle
Daddy-O à Go-Go

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