I recently had an eye-popping experience. Ten days before NAB2001 I was invited to the Woodland Hills offices of Internet Pro Video (IPV) just north of Los Angeles to see a preview of a fascinating innovation that would get its stateside introduction at the Vegas technofest. It’s my bet that when the NAB2001 dust settles, IPV will be generating a lot of buzz.
What these guys from England have accomplished is to create a unique technology called Flexible Media Architecture (FMA) that allows frame-accurate editing over the Internet. That in itself is pretty cool, but there is a lot more that FMA makes possible.
"This will speed up the whole process of video postproduction," Martin Sebborn, president of IPV, said, "and will enable collaboration over a much larger geographic area. In the future even small boutique edit facilities will be able to edit video and create reliably accurate EDLs anywhere in the world."
What IPV actually presented at NAB2001 was a technology demonstration of the proprietary codecs and associated software enabling FMA in the hope that third-party developers will be interested in creating FMA applications. Based out of Cambridge, England, IPV itself is an offshoot of Telemedia Systems Ltd., founded in 1995, which is best-known for developing a "shadow-browsing" system called SpectreView, used extensively in the European broadcast community to scan and edit media distributed worldwide through OEM channels.
As Alan Chaney, founder and CEO of IPV Inc. (and the inventor of Flexible Media Architecture) said, "IPV’s FMA technology allows editors to finally use the Internet to acquire video with instant access to every single frame with total SMPTE timecode-based frame accuracy and a choice of resolutions, up to full broadcast quality. What’s more, FMA-empowered products do it with commonly used applications such as Apple’s QuickTime and standard digital video equipment most editors already have."
FMA ON DISPLAY
During our private demonstration, Senior Product Manger Richard Enriquez helped explain the previous difficulties with trying to edit video using Internet delivery. Sure you can stream video over the Internet if you have the bandwidth, but streaming media lacks frame accuracy if you try to edit it. And even with broadband access, downloading data-rich files can take an eternity.
But FMA is not tied to any particular bandwidth. It can work with a 56k net connection but will, of course, provide accelerated response with higher-speed connections such as DSL, cable modem, T-3, T-1 or ISDN.
"Basically, FMA lets you upload a high-resolution version of your source video onto a server," Enriquez explained, "and then access a low-resolution proxy version of the footage on any Internet-connected workstation – be it Windows or Macintosh, since QuickTime goes both ways."
Enriquez called up a one-minute video clip that was originally a 140 MB broadcast-quality file. It was stored, in this case, on a server up in Toronto, Canada.
The little reference movie proxy file he downloaded was just 214 kB because all it contained was the audio tracks and metadata that pointed back to the original material. Using conventional QuickTime playback controls on his desktop computer, Enriquez was able to scrub through the entire clip at will, seeing low-resolutions images fly past his screen. But when he stopped the scan, the FMA technology delivered the specific frame he was parked on at full resolution.
Meanwhile, the rest of the video was being cached in the background at a resolution level that Enriquez had designated in consideration of his computer’s capacity. That way, an editor does not have to wait for the whole clip to arrive at his or her workstation before he or she can begin working with it.
EMPOWERING THE USER
To accommodate different bandwidth connections the editor can decide on the best tradeoff between resolution, frame rate and image quality. A tiny little green bar at the bottom of the screen indicates what percent of the total proxy clip has been delivered, and a red bar reflects the amount of video that the specified frame, or series of frames, has been downloaded.
"The whole idea is to empower users to see whatever video they want at the designated resolution as soon as they want to see it," Enriquez said. "Once you have the proxy of the clip on your system, you can simply drop it into a QuickTime-compliant editing application, such as Adobe Premiere, or a graphics package like Adobe After Effects, and cut or manipulate it just like any other video source."
Interestingly, at the time we spoke, Apple’s own Final Cut Pro Version 1.25 editing software could not handle unprocessed QuickTime video frames. But the new Version 2.0 of Final Cut Pro that we would be seeing at NAB2001 should solve that problem.
Once a project has been edited, the resulting video file and its associated EDL can be sent to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world. Recipients can then view it at full resolution because they would actually be seeing the original broadcast-quality video playing back from the host server.
Even more astonishingly, the system can easily access multiple servers at the same time so that during our pre-NAB demonstration we saw material stored in Toronto, San Francisco and Cambridge play on the screen as if it were coming off a local tape deck.
HEART OF THE SYSTEM
The heart of the system, Flexible Media Architecture, is a complete infrastructure for handling media over networks. FMA is designed to work with any encoding technology, but the greatest gains are achieved by using it with IPV’s own "FlexVideo" encoding, which has been optimized for scalable Internet usage.
With FlexVideo a video frame is compressed as many separate blocks. Only some of these blocks need to be available when the video is decompressed, and each block contributes to quality in a particular way. The more blocks you have, the better the quality of the video. FMA uses this feature to enhance a video image over time by loading more blocks over the network while you are working.
Two components of FMA make Internet editing possible. First, "FlexBuilder" turns a QuickTime movie into an FMA movie and prepares it for delivery by converting the video into FlexVideo format and then creating the appropriate files for storage on the server. FlexViewer is then the client software that allows FMA material to be played within a QuickTime application. It reads the FlexVideo data from the server into a cache and decompresses it when it needs to be displayed.
FMA also supports the caching of media once it has been delivered, thereby allowing high-quality media to be viewed even over low-bandwidth connections. The media playback will start at a low-resolution image level but will improve as more data is read until a high-quality version is available.
In addition, FMA offers a special kind of selective enhancement that will boost the quality of the sections of the media that are actively in use. Selective enhancement makes it possible to obtain a high-resolution still image while the rest of the clip remains at low quality, or to enhance a designated section of media from a longer clip while the editing progresses.
This is a nifty way around the limitations of Internet bandwidth, and these features will only become more powerful as the digital pipeline expands worldwide. But even today, Enriquez has wowed observers all over Europe by putting on his demonstration in hotel rooms with a mere 36k dial-up connection. Can editing on a wireless laptop be far behind?
Flexible Media Architecture will find its way into a multitude of applications ranging from remote file management to server browsing. Imagine being able to send shots from the video assist on a remote film camera back to the studio for editing as soon as each take is completed. IPV and Internet editing may change the whole paradigm of the way editors work in the future.
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