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.
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
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,"
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.