PARIS As the International Broadcasting Convention opens in Amsterdam this week (Sept. 11-15), the most doggedly pursued technology by many of the companies in attendance will be software- or hardware-based solutions for real-time H.264 encoding and decoding in high-resolution applications.
A year ago at IBC, H.264 was still a curiosity that hinted at the industry's future, and inspired comparisons to MPEG-4 a standard that has played only a supporting role in broadcasting.
The International Telecommunications Union's Telecommunications Committee (ITU-T) ratified the spec in May. Several industry sources close to H.264 licensing negotiations confirmed that in addition to video companies, leading satellite operators such as DirecTV, Inc. are also determined to use H.264 in their next-generation video services, possibly starting in 2004.
Although DirecTV is mum about its H.264 transition plan, many technology companies acknowledg ed that serious interest from a mainstream satellite operator has already set off a bidding war for H.264 solutions for broadcasting encoders, set tops, cost effective silicon and more efficient codec implementations.
Still, H.264 isn't a shoe in to enable next-generation technology convergence. Many in the industry are sketching out a scenario under which consumers can easily exchange and transfer their multimedia files between mobile phones, camcorders, recordable DVD disks, home servers and PCs using IP and wireless-friendly H.264 as a common technology.
But until the resolution of H.264 intellectual property rights issues critical to establishing a reasonable licensing structure for the standard the industry is not likely to move forward. "Ideally, we should have had it [H.264 IPR licensing] by today," said Rob Koenen, president of MPEG Industry Forum.
Koenen added, "My hope is that the H.264 licensing scheme would be simpler than MPEG-4. There are legitimate concerns in regard to the use fee."
Ken McCann, chairman of Digital Video Broadcast's Audio Visual Coding module and a director of ZetaCast, agreed. He identified "finding a viable business model" as the biggest roadblock for H.264.
As H.264 licensees drag their feet, Microsoft Corp. is maneuvering to take over the codec market with its proprietary Windows Media technology, according to Rick Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group. On the other hand, royalty-free design activities for "H.264-like encode and decode" are looming in China, he added.
At least one large U.S. satellite operator has reportedly threatened the H.264 community that it will take its business elsewhere if backers don't get their act together.
Despite these uncertainties, a handful of companies are rolling out H.264 technologies at IBC. Those expected to demonstrate H.264 include: Harmonic, Tandberg TV, SeaChange, Modulus Video, LSI Logic, Texas Instruments and others. The list covers broadcast equipment companies, chip ven dors and software developers.
New on the H.264 roster at this year's IBC is little known startup called Vsofts (Los Altos, Calif.). Most of Vsofts' R&D engineering team is based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Vsofts hopes to make a splash at IBC with its code-efficient, real-time H.264 Baseline Profile codec algorithm. It is capable of encoding standard-definition content in software without degrading picture quality. It runs on a PC using a single Pentium 4 processor running at 3 GHz.
Together with Coding Technologies, which offers MPEG-4 AAC-plus-SBR (spectral band replication) audio coding technology, Vsofts will offer a live demonstration at IBC.
By using its patent-pending efficiently implemented in a H.264 codec, "Our encoder can run 40 times faster than the Joint Video Team (JVT)'s reference code, without degrading the picture quality," said Thierry Fautier, vice president of marketing at Vsofts.
The efficient software-only H.264 codec "is very important," said the MPEG Industry Forum's Ko enen, "because any new codec that will be broadly used needs to get first established in the Internet world, capable of running on a PC platform."
LSI Logic, meanwhile, is showing the industry's first H.264 Main Profile-compliant real-time standard definition video technology platform. LSI Logic's real-time H.264 Main Profile encoder operates on its video technology platform based on three FPGAs and two Pentium 4 processors running at 2.5 GHz.
Texas Instruments, demonstrating the company's newly engineered Digital Media Development Kit at IBC, will also show H.264 Baseline and Main Profile encoding and decoding capabilities on its DSP-based platform. TI has been working with H.264 software algorithm developers such as UB Video and Ingenient Technologies.
The development kit comes with a PCI-based emulator, a video camera, a full suite of application software and utilities and an evaluation board with 32 Mbytes of external SDRAM, 4 Mbytes of flash memory, composite video input/output, S-Video inpu t/output, a VGA output port and an Ethernet port to enable streaming media. The kit's goal is "to allow video engineers to become more familiar with DSP, while making it easy for DSP engineers to develop a video system," said Thomas Brooks, TI's IMS320C64x DSP marketing manager.