Latest MPEG efforts: solutions or confusion?
By Junko Yoshida, EE Times
November 12, 2001 (5:52 p.m. EST)
System designers are working harder than ever to reconcile the increasing complexity of new formats and standards cropping up for mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), camcorders, Web tablets, set-top boxes, personal video recorders and digital TV.
The designer's job is to shield the users from the confusion of incompatible file formats and codecs that force them to take extra steps for format conversions and transcoding.
The mantra among those in consumer electronics these days is "not to make the same mistakes the PC industry has made" with operating systems that tend to crash and lock consumers into proprietary formats. Such actions have created user frustration (and the urge to throw your PC out a window).
Currently, various streaming formats and numerous plug-ins are proliferating on the Internet. So the potential for noninteroperability among emerging digital consumer systems-whose system resources are usually much more constrained than those of PCs-looms as a genuine danger for many consumer system designers.
Industry opinion sharply diverges on the solutions to interoperability problems and how long it may take to fix them. Some experts even predict that a "Dark Age of digital incompatibility, combined with potential consumer confusion," could plague the consumer electronics industry for as long as 10 years. This could slow the rollout of digital TVs, set-tops and digital recording devices. Meanwhile, others insist that emerging new standards for interactivity and interconnectivity are close to resolving many such contentious issues.
Virtually every expert would agree that MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 have played a pivotal role in enabling broadcasters, consumer electronics companies and Hollywood studios to make a successful transition from analog to digital in the areas of satellite , cable and terrestrial broadcasting as well as video CDs and DVDs. Audiovisual content encoded in MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 standards can be decoded by a wide variety of consumer platforms-set-tops, PCs, DVD players-that adhere to those standards.
Despite the triumph of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 on the consumer market, many feel the quest for interoperability has only begun. They now want interoperability to extend to the low-bit-rate, error-prone wireless world.
This week's Focus section walks us through what it takes to apply standards in consumer system designs. Contributors discuss the laborious results of the MPEG-4 and MPEG-7 standards groups, and how such issues are being sorted out.
The goal here is "a future with pervasive access to various video sources on-demand" from wired or wireless devices, according to contributor Bruce Flinchbaugh, distinguished member of the technical staff in DSP R&D, and his colleagues at Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas).
Meanwhile, many system engineers in the content industry also want to add a certain level of interactivity in audiovisual content: Not only do they want to start or stop a video in progress, but to cut and paste video or synthetic objects within the stream without depending on a specific platform, CPU or API used in a consumer system. Especially when it comes to interactivity, content owners long for a new standard like MPEG-4, capable of object coding and offering an interactive environment with many video objects of arbitrary shape, synthesized audio, and 2-D or 3-D vector graphics with texture maps.
One Hollywood studio's engineering executive said, "As a content provider, the endless reworking of content for different middleware and presentation engines is prohibitive. The plethora of options has not allowed a sizable audience with the same set-top box and software to get established for content producers and broadcasters to target."
Further, content owners and system engineers are also looking for a standard way to desc ribe multimedia content so that sorting out Internet information, or navigating 500 channels of broadcast programming, or digging through the vast digital archives buried in libraries, becomes far easier. In theory, a metadata standard can open the door for "information queries by spoken words, hand-drawn images or even humming," says contributor Neil Day, president of the MPEG-7 Industry Forum. Despite the work to achieve interoperability with MPEG-4, which defines how to represent data, and MPEG-7, specifying how to describe it, "what is achieved may be almost completely undone by efforts to protect the digital assets," warns Rob Koenen, senior director of technology initiatives at InterTrust Technologies Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.) in his article. "In its current form, digital-rights management could unfortunately go against the very goal of interoperability, as it locks up the 'standardized content' using non-standardized protection mechanisms." That's where the MPEG-21 Multimedia Framework comes in. The new group is set up to make trusted interaction with content and players much more transparent, by describing "a 'big picture' of how different elements to build a multimedia infrastructure relate to each other," notes Koenen.
Earlier this year, Didier LeGall, who successfully shepherded the MPEG-2 video standard in the early '90s, cautioned, "Multistandards are becoming a fact of life. The possible end of standardization may be near." Indeed, the ever-increasing number of streaming formats on the Internet alone suggests this might be true. Yet, no other forum is set up to tackle interoperability issues from the dizzying range of angles that the MPEG experts have so far considered with MPEG-4, MPEG-7 and MPEG-21.