High Definition Video with Flash Player

Yesterday, Adobe made available the beta release of “Moviestar”, the code name for the latest version of the ubiquitous Flash player. This new release is clearly targeted to online entertainment as it adds support for H.264 video and AAC audio. If you’re like me, H.264 means almost nothing, but AAC sounds familiar. The short definitions: H.264 = High definition video; ACC = better audio.

H.264 Video

H.264 is basically an updated version MPEG that HD-DVD and Blu-ray use for compression. Adding this to Flash means that Flash video will start to look a lot better, and require a lot more bandwidth. If you use Flash video in your eLearning, this could be very important to you. In the near term, this probably won’t impact eLearning much. Long-term, it well greatly improve image quality of online video.

I expect all the online movie sites will start supporting this standard very quickly. Maybe not YouTube, but sites that deliver commercial content should start offering HD content delivered via Flash, I’m thinking specifically of NetFlix online viewing service. If the entertainment aspect of Flash interests you, check out Read/WriteWeb’s blog post.

AAC Audio

What is AAC, and why might it be familiar? Currently iTunes uses AAC as the default encoder when importing audio. You can choose MP3, but AAC is the default. Now Flash supports AAC, and more importantly HE AAC. I think this will have a much bigger initial impact on eLearning because it greatly improves the quality of audio, like narration, while reducing file size. In testing, AAC was percieved to have better sound quality than MP3. In my personal experience I think AAC sounds better than MP3. Both formats are lossy.

If you use a lot of audio in your eLearning, you should seriously consider switching to AAC compression. Tools like Articulate Presenter and other Flash based tools should add the option to use AAC compression in their next round of releases. With the implementation of AAC in Flash, we could see the dominance of MP3 slip.

So for now what should you do? Not much. This is still in Beta, so will have some bugs. Once it is released in a final version it will take time for people to upgrade. It will also take time for tool vendors to update their software to support the new Flash features.

Until the release is final, educate yourself about the H.264 and AAC so you can make informed decisions about updating your development practices.

Read more about Moviestar:

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Rapid Intake Flashform Review, Part 2

In June I reviewed Flashform, and didn’t have a lot of positive comments. As a result, Garin Hess, the CEO of Rapid Intake, got in touch with me and wanted to go over some of the features that he felt demonstrated Flashform’s strengths. After some vacation for me and eLearning DevCon for Garin, we finally got together last week to talk about Flashform.

Before I get into any specifics I want to personally thank Garin for taking the time to talk to me. He’s very passionate about Flashform and believes very strongly that it can help eLearning organizations speed up development without sacrificing instructional effectiveness. Garin was very open and honest about Flashform and even admitted they have some usability work to do. I was worried I would get the standard sale pitch, but didn’t. I just talked peer-to-peer with another eLearning professional about a tool and what makes eLearning effective. That was extremely refreshing, and speaks volumes about Garin and Rapid Intake.

Now, onto some comments about Flashform.

First, there is a new version of Flashform available. Version 2.2 is out and has some improvements over the version I reviewed. I did not download and look at the new version, but Garin did demo some features. Also, Rapid Intake is releasing a web-based version of the Flashform soon that runs entirely in a browser and adds more functionality. We didn’t get into specifics, but Rapid Intake will issue a press release with all the details. I’ve always had a soft spot for web-based tools, so I’m looking forward to seeing this new offering. He did mention they are adding an Undo function in the online version and are working on spell checker. Also, some usability issues will be addressed in the new online version. He also mentioned new interaction templates like a memory game, flash cards, and other games. In my review I gave the quiz tool low marks, so hopefully these new tools will be an improvement.

XML Based Authoring

About the current Flashform offering, Garin did explain the architecture to me which helped explain some of the behaviors I experienced. For starters, Flashform stores all content externally and uses XML to store all the references to external media. Text is the only thing stored in the XML file. It then uses a Flash swf file to pull in the XML and external content. Content and presentation are separate. In my opinion this is ideal. I strongly advocate for separation of presentation from content and favor tools that understand and take advantage of the concept. For some reason this was lost on me when I first looked at Flashform, but I stand corrected. There are many benefits to this type of architecture, but I’ll save that for another blog post. In short it makes maintenance and localization much easier.

The only caveat to this methodology is that the swf file has to be able to handle whatever is in the XML. Flashform uses a Flash swf to parse the XML and display the course. As you know, Flash is updated on a very regular basis so as a developer you really can’t be sure what version of the Flash browser plug-in your learners have. Rapid Intake decided to standardize on Flash Player 7. This is why only JPG files were supported. They could have given users the option to publish courses for higher versions of the Flash Player, but decided to make things less confusing. They sacrificed some functionality, but wanted less confusion, which is understandable. In a future Flashform release newer versions of the Flash Player will be supported.

Form Driven Authoring

Garin also explained the form-based nature of Flashform – When you develop a course, you fill in the forms which get written to the XML file for the course. With the Professional edition of Flashform you can modify the forms, or create your own. I evaluated the standard version of Flashform which does not allow you to create or modify the forms, but with the Professional edition you get all FLA files you need to build a customized rapid development tool. Once you create forms to author the content, you build a presentation template to view the content. Your organization can have forms and templates to match your needs and help standardize training across an organization.

Garin gave me a couple of examples of large corporations that did just that. They built custom forms based on their instructional model that were distributed to SMEs to author courses. Obviously you need to have an experienced Flash developer available to create and maintain custom forms, but these days that is not a real challenge. The power of Flashform is that once the forms and template are built, anyone can use the form to author a course. Rapid Intake’s goal was to build something that is easy to use, but still powerful. I still question the ease of use, but I do think Flashform has the potential to be a powerful tool.

PowePoint Conversion

Garin also explained the PowerPoint conversion tools. I wasn’t impressed the first time I looked at them, but now at least I understand the logic behind them a little better. I still don’t think they are great tools, but then I don’t think PowerPoint is really an eLearning tool.

Flashform includes two methods importing PowerPoint: Using the PowerPoint converter template or using the Flashform Screen Recorder. I’m not going to describe each in detail here, if you want to see them in action you can view the tutorial on the Rapid Intake web site. I’ll just say that if you must use PowerPoint for specific elements in an eLearning course, you will probably find one of the tools useful. I would personally go through the extra effort and either create real content screens or a Flash animation. If you need simple screen recordings for demos, you’ll probably make good use of the screen recorder.

Summary

Since I haven’t used the new version of Flashform and haven’t seen the upcoming web-based version, I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions. I will say that I like Flashform’s XML based architecture. Also, I can see how creating your forms and distributing them to content authors could really speed up development. You could get a few Professional editions for the developers and distribute the forms to content authors with the standard edition. This could save you a lot of money. I’m a Flash developer, so the concept behind Flashform is cool to me and I would probably enjoy coming up with my own templates and seeing how far I could push the tool. If I had the Professional edition.

So, I guess the only judgment I’ll make is that I would not buy the standard edition. I would insist on the Professional edition and spend the time to customize it for my needs.

Again, Thanks to Garin Hess for his time and effort.