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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

frame.

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

are developed."


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