TheyWorkForYou video – seeking

Our video is streamed via progressive HTTP, using lighttpd and mod_flv_streaming. This works by having keyframe metadata at the start of the FLV (Flash video) file (we add ours using yamdi as that doesn’t load the whole file into memory first), which maps times within the video to byte positions within the file. When someone drags the position slider, or presses a skip button, the player actually changes the source of the video to something like file.flv?start=<byte position> which starts a new download from that point in the video. This means you can seek to parts of the video not yet downloaded, which is definitely a required feature.

The video is split up into programme chunks, according to BBC Parliament’s schedule, so each Oral Questions will (approximately) be its own video chunk, and the main debates will be a couple of chunks. By default, the video player will show a screengrab from the start of the video, as that’s all that’s available when it first loads (you have to load the start of the FLV file to fetch the keyframe metadata in order to move anywhere else 🙂 ). I wanted the player to show a relevant screengrab before you hit Play, so came up with the slightly messy workaround of setting the volume to 0, seeking and playing the video for under a second in order to start it from the new point and show the video, then stopping it and resetting the volume. It works most of the time 🙂

Some of our video chunks have jumps in them, due to problems in downloading the original WMV stream. The timestamping interface has a link for people to let us know of such problems, so that we can mark the relevant speeches as missing video and not have them be offered to future timestampers. One valiant volunteer, Tim, let us know about two such videos, but with the added oddity that if you let them play, they would happily carry on past their “end” point, but this made timestamping those speeches quite difficult.

I started investigating, firstly noting that both videos should have been 6 hours long, but were both listed as 1:20:24, which I thought was a bit of an odd coincidence. After reading the FLV file specification, it turned out that 32-bit millisecond timestamps in FLV are split into two – first the low 24 bits, then the high 8 bits. 2^24 = 16,777,216, which in milliseconds is 4 hours, 39 minutes, 37 seconds, which is pretty much exactly what the two videos’ durations were short by! All the timestamps in our FLV files were not setting the high byte, so after 4:39:37, they were wrapping round to 0 (and thus 6 hours became 1:20:24ish).

Our video processing consists of four major steps – the downloading script uses ffmpeg to convert each 75 minute chunk from WMV to MPEG; then nightly processing uses ffmpeg again to convert the right bits of these MPEG files to FLV, mencoder to join the relevant FLV files into one FLV chunk, then yamdi to add the metadata. My first try at a solution was to alter yamdi to increment the high byte itself, which fixed the duration display and let you seek to high times, but when you tried to go to e.g. 5 hours, the video started playing from the right point but the video thought it was playing from 20 minutes in. This would obviously confuse timestamping!

As the FLV files produced by ffmpeg were all under 75 minutes long, they couldn’t have the problem. It turned out we were running an old version of mencoder, and updating that and converting all our long video files fixed the problem. Phew 🙂

Join us later today for my third short technical talk on TheyWorkForYou video, where I’ll explain how our Flash application talks to the HTML and vice-versa to enable the “Watch this” and highlighting of speeches.

  1. The Flash player
  2. Seeking
  3. Highlighting the current speech

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