Streaming Media Matures: The Search for Solutions Drives Developments

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Another approach to improving streaming performance is to rethink how to get the biggest bang from video at the smallest bit-rate. That may mean shrinking the box within which video is displayed while using synchronized multimedia to fill in spatial and informational gaps. Real, Apple, and Microsoft have each developed integrated multimedia capabilities for their players, though a lot of Web developers have yet to take advantage of the opportunities.

One source for effective demonstrations of these possibilities is the Pilot Video Web site ( Showcases.html). "We keep every streaming multimedia presentation as small as possible," Frech says, "by synchronizing media, such as high resolution graphics, so they exist outside the video streams." In a RealPlayer-based example, for instance, video, dynamic text, and a slideshow are combined to create a multimedia presentation that is streamed in real time. A QuickTime demo, meanwhile, uses interactive hot spots in the video to control navigation through sections of the presentation.

While Pilot's approach uses the existing player base, New York City's Sorceron is taking a different tack that requires its own viewer software. "One of the most important technical advances in overcoming the shortcomings of bandwidth- and hardware-intensive technology is modular media," explains the company's COO, Thom Kozik. "Sorceron has developed an entire authoring platform—Cauldron 1.0—around this concept, which is highly beneficial for an enterprise environment. By creating object-based content—where an object can be any media type, such as text, audio, video, HTML, 2D/3D graphics—only the changing pixels in a frame need be streamed rather than every pixel of every frame. This results in much higher-quality playback and much lower demand on network bandwidth."

Of course, both intra-frame compression and object-based streaming are concepts utilized by formats other than Sorceron's, including MPEG-4. While Sorceron says that, "unlike promised MPEG-4 only applications, Cauldron is available today," companies such as Envivio have recently made ISO-compliant MPEG-4 support a reality in the market. Envivio's EnvivioTV MPEG-4 multimedia viewer, for instance, is now available as a plug-in for QuickTime and RealNetworks streaming PC clients, such as the RealOne Player. EnvivioTV is ISMA 1.0-compliant and also decodes object-based "scenes" (advanced 2D profile) programmed in MPEG-4's BIFS scene-description language. Envivio's production environment for EnvivioTV content is Envivio Broadcast Studio.

One of the most appealing aspects of MPEG-4 is its emphasis on standardization and interoperability, which is clearly lacking in today's market. "The ultimate solution for the future," Frech says, "would be a single media player that could support any type of streaming video. Such a player should be a standard for each browser on every operating platform, and it certainly would speed the growth of video on the Internet."

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