INTERNET VIDEO - GETTING UP TO SPEED

Basic assumptions about the Internet are ripped apart as use of high-quality video overcomes technical hurdles.

By Fred Dawson,
Interactive Week, September 6, 1999

Creating and sending high-quality video over the Internet is much closer to widespread implementation than once seemed possible. That means use of the Internet by broadcasters, Webcasters and corporations will rise according to the need and desire - not limited by technical restrictions.

"If you look at the variety of content and applications that will be affected by broadband, it's pretty clear that producers get it," says Ronald Whittier, senior vice president and general manager of the content group at Intel. "They're looking for an early lead in market share in their segments, because they know the market base is going to grow fast."

That's because assumptions about the Net are being ripped apart. Where content and service providers had talked about needing to transfer millions of bits per second to users in order to get quality video, engineers have developed a sweet spot for broadband content requiring transfer of less than 1 megabit per second of bandwidth, either on cable or phone lines.

Reaching these networks has been instrumental in driving content and applications producers to prepare for broadband and service rollouts in the near term, says David Goldberg, chief executive of Launch.com, a provider of musical entertainment. "We thought we'd have to operate at higher bandwidth to do the things we're planning, but that's turning out not to be the case," he says.

Launch (www.launch.com) is working with interactive content supplier Arepa.com to create a three-dimensional world filled with games, music videos and full-length films. With efficient file formatting and distribution, all these types of content will be accessible to users with access capabilities in the high hundreds of kilobits-per-second range, Goldberg says.

Intertainer is another content supplier that is lowering its anticipated bandwidth ceiling for the delivery of interactive television-quality entertainment. "There's going to be a dramatic shift over the next 12 months," says Caroline Beck, chief operating officer at Intertainer (www.intertainer.com). "There's a groundswell in feeling among providers of broadband content that there's a competitive environment to work in that we haven't had before."

Intertainer is preparing to roll out services commercially in about a dozen markets where phone companies offer Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service.

Right now, the movies, shopping and advertising that the company is planning to provide is designed to work on 1.5-Mbps connections - beyond the speeds set by the telephone industry for consumer services. By next year, Beck says, Intertainer will be able to deliver its services at 800 kilobits per second, which squares with the access rates set for G.Lite, the consumer version of DSL technology.

Developers of streaming and compression tools say these targets can be reached. "We've already demonstrated that we can achieve TV quality with video delivered in the submegabit range in the right context," says Martin Dunsmir, general manager for emerging technologies at RealNetworks (www.realnetworks.com). "We're not yet at the end of the rainbow where streaming movies and other media-on-demand is transparently available for viewing on TVs and PCs, but we're at the first step."

Alone with improvements in the tools themselves, another big step will be taken with the launch of broadband back-bones such as the one Excite@Home is developing using Real's technology, Dunsmir says. In fact, he adds, Internet Protocol-based video streaming could begin to affect traditional TV delivery in a big way. Today, the Headend-in-the-Sky developed by Telecommunications Inc., and now part of AT&T Broadband and Internet Services, can transmit digital cable TV signals using as little as 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth. By adding IP streaming at both the origination point and in the end points, typically cable set-top boxes, HITS could send video based on the Motion Picture Expert Group-2 (MPEG-2) compression standard at 600 Kbps, he adds.

NEW STANDARD
Compression and better support of different file formats also promise to revolutionize the look-and-feel of online video, both on high-speed and low-speed lines.

At the high end, these compression and IP-based integration and playback techniques will even allow the personalization of video messages, such as ads. Using a new format for video call MPEG-4, one carefully authored 30-second spot carries enough data to deliver a variety of presentations.

"Advertising over digital TV gets very interesting with MPEG-4," says Glenn Reitmeier, vice president of high-definition and multimedia systems at Sarnoff.

The second version of MPEG-4, which will be the first to be commercialized, is expected to be finalized by year's end, says Eric Petajan, a member of the technical staff at Lucent Technologies, who represents the company in the MPEG-4 process.

At the low end, MPEG-4 can separate the instructions that represent the execution of user commands from the delivery of the content itself. This way, the graphic components can be delivered in occasional bursts and stored in memory at the end-user terminal before they're needed. Then, only instructions need to be sent to set the graphics in motion.

To do this, MPEG-4 defines various types of graphic objects as reference models that certain commands are linked to, allowing objects already residing at the computer to be manipulated. For example, Petajan, in a recent demonstration, showed how a face can be made to speak, by just sending instructions to move a few "facial reference points."

"You can scan over and replay content already downloaded to the terminal, allowing the level of resolution in the display to be detemined by the capabilities of the CPU rather than by available bandwidth," Petajan says. This means that the scenes in a multimedia game or other compact disclike content might be displayed at graphic quality levels and manipulated at frame rates comparable to high-definition television over relatively low-speed links, he adds.

MPEG-4 also gives content developers a standard set of tools for doing all the things they now have to do by bringing together a lot of disparate elements themselves, such as 3-D rendering and the synchonization of various multimedia components.

MAKE IT QUICK
Apple Computer's development of QuickTime 4.0 is another key development. The QT file format has been adopted as the basic reference file format for MPEG-4.

QuickTime has been made more compatible across different types of computers in conjunction with the tie-in to MPEG-4.

For example, the Apple software now includes a streaming component that relies on the same streaming transport protocol that is used by RealNetworks. By choosing to use Real-Time Streaming Protocol, now a standard endorsed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, Apple (www.apple.com) has assured the availability of streamed QuickTime files across a vast base of end users who have RTSP-based "plug-in" client software already installed at their PCs, says Steve Bannerman, senior product manager at Apple's QuickTime group.

"We've separated the server from the client [software], which is crucial to getting economies of scale," Bannerman says. The new system also allows developers to create applications such as online games, where some content elements are accessed from the network and others are embedded in playback devices, such as CDs or digital videodiscs. "Imagine games where the network track provides new versions without requiring the user to purchase a new CD-ROM," Bannerman says.

Activities at IBM's Internet division offer a clear illustration of how market uses of tools at the low end and high ends of the expanded bandwidth spectrums are creating a bigger economic push for the use of video on the Net.

In fact, says Rich Wall, program director for advanced Internet projects at IBM's Internet division, his unit is now focusing on market needs to model the evolutionary path.

"We're using the phrase 'next-generation internet' with a small 'i' to stress the fact that we need to focus on tools and applications, because the new infrastructure that will support next-generation capabilities is already in the process of being built," Wall says. "As the bandwidth becomes available, this is going to move a lot faster than the first generation of Internet applications."

IBM's work in high-speed commercial services gives a good indication of where the mass market will be as the next-generation Net takes hold.

"We're going to see incredible levels of bandwidth as a natural evolution of networking technology, but the applications we're talking about will need to be predictable, end-to-end quality of service and other performance parameters that will require more than just a lot of bandwidth," Wall says.

Transmitting medical images, collaborating on engineering designs, and smooth, clear videoconferencing will mean creating tools that make efficient use of servers, routers and switches that handle billions and trillions of bits of data at a time - something now provided by IBM and other systems makers, Wall says.

Graphically rich virtual reality environments will quickly make their way into the consumer space as well, starting with e-commerce sites geared to users with high-speed access who will have far more flexibility to explore the fine points of goods offered on line than is generally possible now, Wall says.

Today, he adds, people can unzip a jacket and turn it around to look at it in 3-D, but soon they'll be able to "try it on," using on-screen models proportioned to their dimensions and coloring to see how they'll look wearing the garment.