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Tips for building the best custom video player

Gary Kahn
Tips for building the best custom video player Gary Kahn

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." Today, many companies spend huge quantities of time and resources producing top notch video. With that in mind, it's surprising that those companies do not consider the effect a media player has on its audience.


Here are some points to consider when planning your next custom media player:


Frame or chromeless?
Some feel that the strongest presentation is to put the video up front with no frame and a control bar that disappears after a few seconds. This enables the user to focus solely on the video, and not get caught up in the features of the player. That said, a frame can give the player context, and connect the playback area to a playlist. It also makes users aware of built-in social networking features or chat.


Full screen options
If you want your users to sit back and enjoy a full-screen viewing of your video, make sure you include a button that gives them the option to do so. Use caution, though, as there are some nuances that may not be initially apparent: Suffice it to say that problems arise when the aspect ratio of the video does not exactly match the aspect ratio of your user's monitor. Flash has done some good work in this area, but it remains to be an element you should be aware of during the testing phase. In addition, you should consider how the control bar and playlist function when you are in full-screen mode. Currently, HTML5 cannot offer a true full-screen option; it can only stretch to the edges of a browser window.


Playlist specifications
Your video player should be able to play single videos or playlists of videos. As you create more and more media, you'll want to begin organizing your media into logical groups. Make sure that your player can handle both situations. It is also important to figure out how deep your playlist can be and how groupings will be displayed.


Examine how the information about each video is presented and how flexible the layout is. Can you control the length of the title? What happens if your title is too long? Can you include thumbnails? What about a description? You may have specific needs, such as ratings, run times and other metadata that you want displayed. Consider how your playlist is constructed. Has your provider created a tool for you to use, or do you have to rely on editing xml files by hand? Playlists are interesting creatures -- think long and hard about how yours reflects your organization.



  • Support for multi bitrate playback is becoming essential in today's market. As internet connections improve, we need to be able to deliver higher bitrate material. The difference between a video encoded at 400 and one at 1200 kbps is staggering: a faster video will help you win brand loyalty. At the same time, providing a version for your clients with a slower connection is imperative. Some providers prefer having the user switch between videos on their own, while others let the player and server determine the best bitrate to serve up.


  • Plug-in architecture and layouts are another thing to consider. Ideally, your player will allow for some type of plug-in architecture, permitting you to stick with the same player as a media strategy evolves. Include communication tools so your audience can interact with each other: For example, offer contests and voting to your audience. The sky is the limit here; we are in the early stages of a media player revolution.

    Your media player should also allow for complex layouts that can be easily changed. Ask your vendor if you can make these changes yourself through a config file -- this will save you money in the long run and help you get a better understanding of what is under the hood of your player.


  • Capability to play live and on-demand files is important. Custom players should be able to play live as well as on-demand content. By having both options in the same player, you can show the live version and, within minutes, upload the same content in an archived version. This is a great way to keep your audience around for hours after the event. Most custom player solutions offer both options -- make sure yours includes both.


  • Flexibility for media types is the final thing to keep an eye on. Your player should allow for the integration of many types of media -- the more, the better. The goal is not to bloat the player, but to accommodate all forms of media that can accompany a video. You may want to include a transcript, photos of the event and an application that can poll your audience.  


A media player should advance a company's media strategy. Custom media players are a fantastic way to engage your audience and lay the foundation for deeper interaction.


Gary Kahn is the president of Zeitbyte.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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