Hulu Rolls Out Sweeping Changes, Passes On HTML5 Video… for Now

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Exactly two weeks ago, YouTube gave their video player a much-needed makeover.  Now it’s Hulu’s turn… possibly.  Hulu just announced that they will be rolling out a new version of their video player. These changes by Hulu are pretty huge, and widespread, so let’s run down some of the tweaks they’re going to be applying.

The Player Itself

  • The actual video player is now 25% larger, with a native resolution of 720 x 404.
  • The new player has no controls on top of the video, allowing the video to take center stage (hmm… changing the video player to better highlight the video itself… now where have I heard that before?).
  • The time line (progress bar) will disappear—just like YouTube’s does now—unless you hover back over the video.
  • They’ve also moved the “full screen” button to the bottom right of the player—something that nearly every other video player was doing already.
  • “Continuous play” is now called “autoplay”.
  • They’ve replaced the “next video” button with “the more universal icon for skip” (the play icon with a vertical line next to it).
  • Videos no longer have additional menu options on the left and right of the video, with all those features now moving to just the right side.
  • There are a handful of other minor changes, such as the position of the “buffer” indicator and some other new looks for buttons.

There are almost too many small changes to the video player for me to know where to begin commenting.  But it’s obvious there are several motives.  First, Hulu wants to feature the content itself, and let controls and player options take a back seat until needed.  This is exactly the same motivation YouTube expressed in rolling out their recent player changes, and I’m just as big a fan of it now as I was then.  Second, Hulu is—at least partially—making some concessions here to other video players… moving some buttons and features to places that most other players have consensus on.  That’s also a wise move, as users get frustrated when they expect to see an option or button but can’t find it.

Here is a video about the new player:

Ad Tailoring

The new video player will ask the viewer for help in understanding their interests, so as to better serve more applicable advertisements.  During some ads, you can even vote up or down on the ad, which will directly impact what ads you see down the road.  Sometimes, instead of an advertisement, you’ll see a series of survey questions, the answers for which will help Hulu better understand your wishes as a viewer. This is outstanding.  I’m a huge fan of giving the user more power over advertisements.  I still believe most of us are willing to tolerate—maybe even enjoy—some measure of advertising in exchange for free video content.  The better they can get at serving ads I’m actually interested in, the more likely I am to watch even more content on their site.

Ad Volume Normalization

What is “ad volume normalization?”  Well, the new Hulu video player will scan an advertisement prior to its run, and adjust the audio output levels in advance so that the video you’re watching and the advertisement are at the same levels.  Freaking fantastic.  Everyone I know is annoyed at the difference in volume levels between their favorite shows and the commercials—or the previews at the movie theater and the movie itself.  When I have the latest episode of “Lost” cranked up so I can hear all the subtle sounds of the jungle… and then a Tide commercial comes on and bursts my ear drum… that’s more than annoying.

Heat Maps

The video heat map is a way for users to see what parts of a video are most popular, and users can then jump straight to a movie’s most hilarious scene or a TV show’s most outrageous moment.  Hulu is moving this feature directly under the player, meaning the heat map data will correspond directly with the video progress bar.  Awesome.

Adaptive Bitrate Streaming

The most technical-sounding of all the new features, Adaptive Bitrate Streaming is an attempt to reduce video buffering.  No one likes to have their video pause for buffering.  Hulu will now be actively monitoring your Internet connection speed, and will reduce the quality of the video when the speed goes down so that you won’t have to be paused for buffering.  When the connection speed vaults back up to normal, the video quality will return to its higher setting.

Closed Caption Customization

Users now have color choices for the text in closed captions:  yellow, white, or white-on-black-bars.

Seek Previews

Hovering over the progress meter will now result in a pop-up thumbnail of that particular section of the video, and it works regardless of where the advertisements are.  This means that if you know you want to see a certain scene in a movie, and wish to jump straight to it, you’ll be able to find it quickly by hovering over the progress meter until you get a thumbnail of the scene you want.I may be alone, but this is one of my favorite new features.  It’s maddening to just blindly click… click… click on the progress meter, hoping to come to the scene you’re looking for.  Seek Previews will help you find it rapidly, and get straight to what you actually want to see.

HTML5 Doesnt Cut it for Hulu

Hulu then takes a moment at the end of their post to talk about HTML5, a direct commentary on the recent public debate over Flash vs. HTML5.  Essentially, HTML5 doesn’t meet all their needs and the needs of Hulu’s users just yet… that seems to be the stance.  They don’t sound down on the technology at all, but are simply pointing out that there are things it can’t do that they need their video player to do.  Here’s a quote from their currently-disabled blog post, written by Eugene Wei, their VP of Product

“When it comes to technology, our only guiding principle is to best serve the needs of all of our key customers: our viewers, our content partners who license programs to us, our advertisers, and each other. We continue to monitor developments on HTML5, but as of now it doesn’t yet meet all of our customers’ needs. Our player doesn’t just simply stream video, it must also secure the content, handle reporting for our advertisers, render the video using a high performance codec to ensure premium visual quality, communicate back with the server to determine how long to buffer and what bitrate to stream, and dozens of other things that aren’t necessarily visible to the end user. Not all video sites have these needs, but for our business these are all important and often contractual requirements.”

That’s It

So there you have it.  That is a high number of updates/changes/enhancements to make at one time.  You might go so far as to call them sweeping.  And they’ve managed to address several issues all at once.  The new features should make the overall viewing experience at Hulu a much more pleasant one.  I’m excited to see them go live and start tinkering with all the new bells and whistles.


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