The recent launch of Hulu.com represents not only one of the most aggressive attempts to provide users with a wide range of high quality video on the web. It is also a major example of the growing importance of high def content on the web and a graphic illustration of some of the challenges faced by companies trying to improve the quality of online video.
For the moment, Hulu's high-def content is relatively limited and it hasn't announced plans to dramatically expand that offering. The Hulu.com HD Gallery contains about 20 movie trailers, only a tiny portion of the content from over 50 suppliers that includes a multitude of clips, full episodes from more than 250 TV series and more than 150 full length movies.
Eric Feng, chief technology officer of Hulu, stressed, however, that "the HD Gallery is an important investment and a sign of things to come in terms of our commitment to improve the quality of video on the Web. In the last couple of years, online video has been very much about convenience. The battle was over how you could make this experience very convenient for the user so they could get whatever content they wanted on demand on their own terms. But I think in the next 12 to 24 months we will have a new battle and that will be around quality."
What that will mean for HD video on the Web remains an open question.
For starters, there is still a lot of confusion over what constitutes HD video on the Web, with a number of sites claiming to offer high-definition video that falls short of the 720p standard for used in television.
In contrast, Hulu's HD Gallery is encoded in true 720p, Feng said.
"We decided we wanted to be very careful about the definition of HD and be very conscious of the precedents that had been set so we wouldn't upset the expectations of our users," he said. "But in the long term, I don't know if the web will evolve into a video platform that will have the same HD specs as broadcast."
Another key issue is the potential audience for HD content.
"When we created Hulu we wanted to serve the widest possible audience with the best possible experience," Feng said. "HD is very exciting but is also very much an early adopter experience. You have to have a very heavy internet connection, the latest version of flash, a pretty nice graphics card and a lot of video memory to be able to see it."
In March, Hulu also added a selection of full movies with even high quality video that stream at 1 Mbps in 480p.
To deliver the movie trailers in the HD Gallery, Hulu.com is using a 2.5 Mbps stream that Feng calls "a good compromise between having enough bits to deliver 720 lines of resolution without overloading someone's pipe."
Even so, the higher speeds limit the potential users. "You pretty much need a T1 line or a good office connection to view that content," he said. "You won't be able to watch it on DSL and you will have trouble with a cable modem unless you're watching in a period with low latency and high capacity. We generally recommend somewhere between 3 Mbps and 4 Mbps throughput so you have a little buffering in case there is some congestion on the network."
Currently the average broadband connection in the U.S. is about 1.9 Mbps, Feng said, but he expects that to rise significantly over the next two years, making it possible to deliver much higher quality content to larger audiences.
"As you get higher connection speeds and better graphics cards, the quality will improve," he said.