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BBC iPlayer On Wii

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Anthony Rose Anthony Rose | 13:20 UK time, Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Last month, we made BBC iPlayer available on Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch devices, the first of many mobile platforms that we hope to support.

The theme for this month's iPlayer release is "iPlayer in the living room" - i.e., watching BBC on-demand programmes on your big-screen television set.

Today, most people watch iPlayer programmes on their computer. That's great - you can watch your favourite BBC programmes curled up in bed with your notebook PC, or on your study desk while you check your email, or (if you downloaded our programmes) on the plane or away abroad on holiday.

But have you tried hooking up your computer to your TV set?

s-video.jpgiPlayer programmes, particularly downloaded programmes, look great on a TV. The video quality is usually even better when iPlayer programmes are played back on a TV than on your computer screen. Most newish computers, particularly notebook computers, have an S-video output, which, with a suitable S-video to SCART cable, can connect to most modern TV sets. If you have an LCD or plasma TV, chances are that it will have a Video Graphics Array input which will give even better picture quality when connected to the VGA output of your notebook PC. (N.B. Picture of S-Video output courtsey of yum9me on Flickr.)

If you have a Nintendo Wii, it's already connected to your TV, and now you can play iPlayer programmes directly on your Wii.

On your Wii, you'll first need to install the Internet Channel, which costs 500 Wii points, or approx. £3.50. Unfortunately, there's no alternative to having to buy the Wii Internet Channel for iPlayer web site access at his time. But later we hope to be able to get iPlayer on Wii without this purchase being needed [see below]. After you've installed the Internet Channel, browse to www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer, find your favourite programme, and hit Play. The programme should stream and play immediately as we're no longer using full-screen mode

Connect your PC, Mac or Wii to your TV now and get a glimpse of the future, which is of course an IP-connected browser-based device that plays video-on-demand programming on your TV set.

For those who are after the tech details, here's the lowdown on our Wii port:

Nintendo Wii supports only Flash 7, which uses the Sorenson Spark codec rather than the ON2 VP6 codec introduced with Flash 8. Unfortunately, the Sorenson compression isn't nearly as good as ON2 VP6 compression, which is why most video sites gave up encoding their content in Flash 7 compatible format.

However, there are a lot of Wii boxes out there hooked up to TV sets, so with a little extra encoding effort (specifically, transcoding an additional 400 hours per week in an extra format) we can make BBC iPlayer programming available on Flash 7-enabled devices, including Wii.

Our regular Flash content is encoded at 500Kbps. We chose that bitrate because it's the highest quality that could be reliably streamed on pretty much any UK broadband internet connection. However, for Wii we had to increase the bitrate to 820Kbps because the Sorenson codec used by Wii simply needs more bits to achieve the same picture quality. So, for a smooth playback experience on Wii you'll need an internet connection that can give you 1Mbps or better. If you're experiencing buffering issues, try turning off those p2p downloads that are running on other computers around your home.

The Flash player that ships with Wii was designed to support YouTube-style quality levels rather than the much higher video quality that we try to provide in iPlayer. Unfortunately, that means on Wii, at least at this time, our programmes won't look as crisp as on Mac, PC or iPhone. iPlayer on Wii is still in beta, and over the coming weeks we'll tweak the video encoding rates and playback window size to get the best possible video quality.

There are over 2.5 million Wiis in the UK, which according to Nintendo should reach five million by Christmas, so getting onto Wii means potentially a huge new audience for BBC iPlayer. However, we're taking a phased approach to this, where we've started with a relatively low development effort of keeping our regular iPlayer site (which is a bit large for the Wii's 800 pixel-wide screen size, requiring some scrolling when browsing for programmes) and encoding content in Flash 7 format.

As iPlayer usage on Wii takes off, we'll consider creating an optimised version of the iPlayer for Wii. Hopefully, this won't require people to shell out for the Internet Channel, and which will provide an optimized browsing and playback experience, perhaps even as a dedicated BBC iPlayer channel on Wii.

Stay tuned for more on this.

Anthony Rose is Head of Digital Media Technologies, BBC Future Media and Technology.

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