For the installation of Worlds Away, we needed to find a way to show the YouTube videos in the gallery. If you’ve visited the show, you’d see the videos installed in a Rec Room in the center of the gallery, complete with green shag carpeting, faux wood-gain paneling, low ceiling and bean bag chairs. It looks very much like my grandparent’s basement, minus the musty smell. The videos are viewable on a CRT television set on the floor in the corner of the room. I built a custom interface to allow people to control the TV, play the YouTube videos over the internet, at a decent quality, without violating the YouTube terms of service, and being mostly mischief-proof.
If you want to be spared the details, here’s a video:
Or, view it in a browser. This opens a pop-up window, Safari suggested, since that what it was built for. Use the left and right arrow keys, enter and escape to navigate.
When we started the project, we looked into ripping the flash video files from YouTube and creating a DVD. Testing showed the quality wasn’t great, but passable on a standard-def CRT television. The big hang-up about a DVD based approach was that it’s expressly forbidden in the YouTube terms of service:
You agree not to access User Submissions (defined below) or YouTube Content through any technology or means other than the video playback pages of the Website itself, the YouTube Embedable Player, or other explicitly authorized means YouTube may designate.
While it’s one thing to just avoid agreements like this with a wink and a nod for one-off or personal use, it didn’t seem like a good idea to blatantly violate the terms of service for an installation that would be in the gallery for months.
We also discussed setting up a computer in the gallery and simply putting a web page on it thin a custom player and view the videos. We weren’t too happy with that idea either, since it didn’t really fit within the Rec Room concept in the gallery — my grandparents don’t have a computer in the basement. We also discussed putting a big plasma TV on the wall, more like a modern TV, and using a remote or some sort of a pointing device to select videos using a custom YouTube player. Again, this option seemed costly (no spare plasma screens sitting around) and not within the theme of the room.
What we wanted was something kind of like the Apple TV, except limited to the 12 videos we selected for the exhibition. Quick research revealed no way to lock down an Apple TV or limit it to a particular YouTube playlist, so that was out. But what about making a web page that worked in a similar fashion?
jQuery and Safari fun
The interface is designed explicitly for Safari. Since this is a single computer installation under our control, I don’t have to worry about whether or not it works in IE or Firefox. I have no idea if it works in IE (ignorance truly is bliss), but it only half-works in Firefox. Firefox doesn’t want to load the flash player in Thickbox. I’ve experienced problems with Firefox ignoring the z-index on Flash elements in the past, so this is not surprising.
Now that I had figured out how to deal with the browser, I had to figure out a way to have the remote interface with the browser by sending specific keystrokes for each button. After looking at several programs that do this with the Apple remote, I settled on Remote Buddy. It was the easiest to configure so that it would only work with specific applications. I configured it to send the left arrow key on left arrow press, right on right, enter on play and escape key on menu button press.
One problem with the remote was that our computer was an older mirror-door G4 tower, which does not have an infrared receiver. Thankfully, Remote Buddy supports third-party usb receivers, so I ordered one, and it worked like a charm. Microsoft does build good hardware.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to track down a G4 that had S-video or composite out, so I also ordered a newer video card for that. We got an ATI Radeon 9200 which has an excellent control panel for TV-out settings, letting you manipulate all aspects of the size, stretch, overscan, etc.
Putting it together
After connecting all these things, I cleaned up the interface a bit, changing the typeface to Avenir, choosing colors that worked better on the Television (don’t use white). I configured Safari to start in full-screen kiosk mode, which Saft enables. Safari and Remote Buddy were set to launch on login, and the machine is set to automatically log in. Additionally, I set up a simple shell script that checks each of them to make sure they’re running and if not, relaunches them. With relaunching the applications, it’s important to use the command-line version of Applescript, since that will cleanly deal with backgrounding the process and giving correct screen focus.
Doc Czypinski, who was the lead tech for installing the show, was able to figure out a way to glue a white plastic strip to the back of the remote. He was then able to cable the remotes to the gallery furniture so that they don’t walk away during the show.
Now that the computer has been in the gallery for about a week, there are two things we’ve learned. First, visitors tend to expect things to be playing automatically on the TV, since that’s the way most media things are in galleries. When they do figure out they need to use the remote, they tend to click the big play button and not cycle through the videos to choose. I’ve attempted to help this by putting arrows on the screen to indicate left and right so that visitors know to use the arrows on the remote to scroll.
The second issue is that the wireless hasn’t been 100% reliable. As anyone who uses Wifi on a regular basis knows, it’s not always up 100% of the time, and the wifi in our gallery goes out once in a while. I’m looking at writing a script that will cycle the Airport card off and on if it looses connectivity, or displays a message on screen if there is extended connectivity loss. A wired connection would certainly be better, but the convenience of Wifi cannot be beaten.
Gallery photo by Cameron Wittig. Arm of Justin Heideman.