Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the January 22, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Video and Internet Merge via MPEG 4
This winter Citibank’s morning calls will take on a
new look. Analysts will need merely to open up their laptops to get
up to speed on their firm’s latest take on market-moving information.
It will come to their computer screens via a live briefing, complete
with presenters, charts, and fresh data galore. Meanwhile, at 30,000
feet, passengers on commercial flights will be distracted from any
bumpiness by the live sports and news television playing on the seatback
just over their tray table.
"This is all happening right now, within the last 30 days,"
says Bruce MacLelland, founder and president of Applied Video
Technology, a video systems design-build and engineering company based
in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. His company is now working with
Citibank on its new morning call format and with an Annapolis, Maryland
satellite company on its live airline television broadcasts. The technology
making these feats possible is MPEG 4.
MacLelland, a former teacher, explains that MPEG 4 is really the third
edition (more details on that later) of a video compression standard
developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group. He delivers an overview
presentation of the technology to a joint meeting of the Princeton
Media Communications Association and the Philadelphia MCA-I on Wednesday,
January 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Templeton
Hall. Cost: $15. Call 609-818-0025.
Also speaking at the meeting are Don Lenihan, application sales
manager for Envivio, who discusses the latest MPEG 4 technology for
practical applications, including streaming live TV; Michael Hoehl,
IT-AV integration manager at Applied Video Technology, who discusses
Video on Demand and Live Video Streaming as well as integration and
support for bandwidth management, multicast and unicast routing, and
firewalls; and Sim Agin, network product specialist, JVC Corporation,
who discusses emerging streaming applications using the MPEG 4 file
format directly from camcorders and VCRs.
MacLelland, a graduate of Kutztown University (Class of 1977), taught
English for two years. "I was the guy who was always trying to
get the school to put in a studio," he says. After two years,
he left teaching to work for Sony, selling its professional and broadcast
equipment to, among other clients, Sarnoff and Princeton University.
After a decade with Sony, he was struck by the inevitability of the
convergence between computers and video. "My goodness," he
says, recalling his epiphany, "that’s going to put video on the
computer!" He founded his company in 1996 to get in on what he
saw as the future of communications.
Moving sound through communications "pipes" — dial-up
modems, T-1 lines, high speed cable connections, and the like —
is relatively easy. Moving video is far more difficult, and the more
motion and color it includes, the more difficult it is to make the
video come out on the other side as recognizable, let alone crystal
clear, pictures. The answer is compression, making the video file
as small as possible, so that it can travel through pipes of various
sizes and come out whole on computer screens and other receivers,
cell phone screens, for example.
In the early 1980s, MacLelland relates, scientists from all the key
technology companies — Sony, JVC, 3M, Fuji, and many others —
got together to come up with compression algorithms. Compression works,
he explains, by removing unnecessary parts of a picture, which is
broken into pixels. He offers a beach scene as an example of how compression
works. "If no one is on the beach, you have just white sand and
blue water," he points out. A video of this scene is easy to compress.
Huge numbers of white sand pixels can be stripped away, as can huge
numbers of blue water pixels. There are 30 frames per second of video,
and the compression algorithm works by taking information out of each
Add beach umbrellas, and people — especially people on the move,
slamming a volley ball or riding the waves — and the task becomes
more difficult, as fewer pixels can be stripped out without distorting
the picture. Most computer users have seen the result as jumpy, blurry
video on, for example, movie trailers playing on a computer with a
low-speed Internet connection. But for most video applications, MPEG
1 was pretty good. "To your eyes, MPEG 1 is like watching a VHS
tape," says MacLelland. Good, but not quite good enough.
The scientists huddled again and came up with MPEG 2. The difference
in quality, says MacLelland, can be expressed as the difference between
DVD and VHS. DVDs, in fact, use MPEG 2 compression. The result is
better picture quality, more space, and more features — for example,
menus and multiple language options.
At one point, the world-wide technology consortium that came up with
the MPEG format was ready to send its scientists back to work to develop
an MPEG 3 standard. Then, says MacLelland, they realized that MPEG
2 could be scaled up all the way to high definition. The MPEG 3 was
scrapped, and work moved on to the MPEG 4. And while video device
and technology companies had taken the lead in developing earlier
compression algorithms, American computer companies moved to the forefront
with the latest version of MPEG. "It was Microsoft and Intel,"
says MacLelland. This shift reflected the way that the Internet
was inserting itself as the center of communication.
While the Internet has been embraced by toddlers learning their shapes
and colors, teens sending films of their athletic feats to admissions
officers, and corporations teaching clients to use complicated software,
all have been handicapped by that medium’s limits in terms of transmitting
bulky video files. MPEG 4 eases that bottleneck, says MacLelland,
by compressing those files to one-third of the size to which MPEG
2 could reduce them, while still retaining excellent picture quality.
"MPEG 4 has been put to bed," says MacLelland. "Now we
are in the time frame where products start to emerge and applications
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