Friday, May 20, 2011

Tall Screen Video on iPad, iPhone, and NOOK Color

One of my greatest challenges as a technology writer is to keep my eyes wide open and continue to be able to see things the way they are and not how I think they are. Technology is changing so quickly that you just can't make assumptions about the way things work.

The other day, my mom, a photographer, was visiting us here in Barcelona. She had just gotten a new iPhone 4 (so jealous!) and was really jazzed about taking videos, and how different it felt to capture not only an image, but also the sound and movement.

When she emailed me one of her videos, I gently suggested, as upstart daughters are wont to do, that she should take her videos horizontally, because otherwise, they would be difficult to watch on a computer. That had always been my experience: photographers naturally rotate their cameras to capture vertically-oriented subjects (say, Gaudí's Sagrada Família or the Clock Tower in my square), but if you do that with a video camera, the video comes out sideways on your computer. Then you have to figure out how to rotate the video, and often that results in ugly black bars and a tiny reduced video within.

But my mom said her videos looked just fine on her phone, which is mostly where she looked at them. And indeed, in my email, it looked pretty great too. And that's when I realized that horizontal video is a construct born of horizontal video displays--namely televisions and movie screens--that are wider than they are tall. Screens probably began in horizontal mode because they are ideal for viewing stories, say, two people talking to each other, since there's enough room horizontally for both to fit on the screen.

And since all of our screens were horizontal, it made sense to make horizontal video to fit. We've now complicated matters by having various shapes of horizontal video—widescreen (16:9) and 4:3 proportions—but in general, the video we've created has been wider than it has been tall, so that it would fit without minimal distortion on a screen that was also wider than it was tall.

Enter the iPad and the iPhone. While they can do widescreen and 4:3 horizontal movies just fine, they can also be rotated vertically to display vertical video without distortion as well. All of a sudden there are millions of vertically oriented screens available for watching vertically oriented, or tall screen video. And of course, any tablet can be rotated to a vertical orientation. The NOOK Color also plays vertical video beautifully.

The iPhone offers one more important push towards tall screen video: it makes it really easy to create them. I watched interestedly as my parents took video after video in tall screen format—perhaps because we're in a big city with lots of tall things?—I am sure they're not the only ones. And now that there's a logical place to view them, there will be many more.

My parents were here just as I was trying to finish up my new Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide. My first thought when I realized that tall screen video made sense was whether it would work in ebooks. And it does. Beautifully. Both in iBooks on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, and on the NOOK Color from Barnes & Noble. I assume it will work in other tablets with ereaders as well (Samsung Galaxy?), but I haven't had a chance to test it elsewhere. You have to adjust the size of the video player so that it doesn't come out squished in a 300 x 150 box with big black bars, but once you overcome that piece, it works really well. Capturing and formatting tall screen video also has some tricky bits, since all video editing tools to date expect that you're creating horizontal video. I explain all the details in my new miniguide. (Of course, I explain how to add regular horizontal video, as well as audio, in the guide as well.)

As I found out when preparing this blog post, it's not easy to post tall screen video on the web. You can upload a tall screen video to YouTube, and you can play it there, but if you try to see it full screen, which is sort of the point on the iPad, it displays as if it were in a horizontal box. I tried changing the size of the player, and that worked in Safari on the Desktop, but not on the iPad.

Of course, you can always post a video on your own server, but that has complications of its own. Video files are huge, and you can run into problems if a lot of people view your video. Second, you have to know some HTML.

The answer is Vimeo. You can upload tall screen video there AND it plays fine on iPad/iPhone, both at normal size and full screen. I wish I were a better videographer, but hopefully you can still see the potential. I did have a great time walking around Barcelona yesterday morning looking for tall things to film. You can view it on any screen, but of course, it looks best on an iPad or iPhone, held vertically.

Barcelona Tall Screen Video from Liz Castro on Vimeo.

I think tall screen video is as big a revolution as adding sound was back in 1927. All of a sudden, videographers have a totally new medium. It should be really interesting to see what people create, and how they take advantage of the vertical orientation. I hope my Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide gives people a good start.

Thanks, Mom.


  1. Great, great, great, Liz. And so necessary. Since tall video reflects human behaviour: We look not only to the right and left – but also up and down. Thanks for all your good work. Great help always.

  2. Great post Liz. I actually helped create the Gaudí's Sagrada Família iPad feature for National Geographic Magazine, Interactive Edition, and man this vertical footage would have really been cool in there.

    Thanks also Liz for EPub Straight to the Point and the Fixed Layout addition to your book. Your book empowered me to publish my first Children's Book on iBookStore...The Knot String. I could not have become a self published author without it!

    I look forward to learning from your new mini guide Audio and Video in EPUB for my next project! Thanks gain!


More of my books