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New world of visual communication

By Bhuvan Lall
June 17, 2005 14:02 IST
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The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in April every year, remains the definitive media and entertainment event for sizing up industry trends and checking out new production gear.

This year's convention seemed to be busier than other shows: the halls were packed with people as was the monorail that efficiently transported the participants to and fro from their hotels. An estimated 100,000 people attended the conferences sessions and user group meetings.

My agenda at NAB was to seek details about H.264 or MPEG 4 Part 10 and upgrade my knowledge on the future of broadcasting and film technology. Broadcast television and home entertainment have been revolutionised by the advent of digital TV and DVD-video. These applications and many more were made possible by the standardisation of video compression technology.

The groups responsible for these standards are the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) and the Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG). Nowadays, video content is compressed using the MPEG 2 technology which works for today's DVD movies and in-the-air/cable content delivery. But it's difficult when you try to send video to mobile units or to put really high quality resolution on a disc.

Now, the technology industry is in the final stages of developing a new standard that promises to significantly outperform MPEG2 providing better compression of video images together with a range of features supporting high-quality, low-bitrate streaming video.

The next-generation video compression technology in the MPEG-4 standard is also known as MPEG-4 Part 10. The official title of the new standard, however, is "Advanced Video Coding" (AVC); though it is also known by its old working title the International Telecom Union document number, "H.264".

The H.264 can match the best possible MPEG-2 quality at up to half the data rate. It can "shrink" MPEG-2's 15-20 Mbps requirement down to 8 Mbps and is able to push more TV programmes into channel bandwidth. The new compression standard makes it possible to send really great video over smaller bandwidth networks.

H.264 also delivers excellent video quality across the entire bandwidth spectrum  --  from 3G to High Definition and everything in between. That's because H.264 is up to twice as efficient as MPEG-4 Part 2. Not surprisingly, many established encoder and decoder vendors are moving directly to H.264 and skipping the intermediate step of MPEG-4 Part 2.

H.264 has been adopted by organisations representing everything from mobile phones to HDTV and a broad spectrum of inter-operable products, consumer and professional, hardware and software, will soon be offered. Using the H.264 standard, companies across the telecommunications, consumer electronics and broadcast industries can create products such as set top boxes, cell phones and digital cameras that will be interoperable.

Among broadcasters, H.264 has already been adopted by Europe's Digital Video Broadcasting, the top six Japanese broadcasters and is under final consideration in the USA. In the mobile arena, H.264 has been adopted by the 3GPP (for GSM) organisation. It will also turn the video market on its head by enabling delivery of Internet Protocol-based broadcast-quality video at data rates of less than 1 Mbit/second.

If it lives up to its promise, H.264 could be the solution to a lot of content delivery and storage problems. Satellite service providers will be able to fit four High Definition channels into one of their current standard channels.

It will also be able to put a complete High Definition movie on a single-sided DVDR disc. The H.264 will impact broadcast technologies  --  the way films on-demand are ordered, replaying and delaying programmes, recording High Definition stuff on one channel while viewing another and more. Importantly, while H.264 is an advanced code, it runs on today's computers with no additional hardware required.

It will probably take a year to be fully implemented but H.264 really solves the bulky content problem. The H.264, a.k.a, MPEG-4 Part 10 or the "Advanced Video Coding is the new emerging compression technology that will dramatically change the world of visual communications and introduce us to the infinite channels, cable and direct-to-home satellite broadcast universe.

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Bhuvan Lall
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