Sportscaster Jim McKay’s recent passing reminds me of how grateful I am that Jim and his team were there on Saturday afternoons for so many years. As a kid growing up in the ‘60s, I didn’t have too many choices about what to watch on TV—basically, the three big networks, and a local public TV station that we only watched on weekdays after school. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” was always one of my favorite things to watch—where else could you see bobsled racing and professional surfing, sometimes on the same day? Beyond simple amusement, WWoS always made me appreciate the ingenuity that people around the world exhibit when it comes to thinking up ways to entertain themselves and to figure out a way to turn almost any activity into a competition. For that, and for many hours of great entertainment, we owe a world of thanks to Jim.
A VARIETY OF OPTIONS
Today, television viewers are spoiled for choice. Even on basic cable, we have a dozen or more broadcast channels to choose from, and 50 more choices for an increased monthly fee. But that’s nothing compared to the huge variety of video content that is available over the Internet and other IP networks. Here are several new developments that seem to be expanding the role of IP technology for video.
(click thumbnail)Even casual viewers can gain access to Hulu.com.First of all, Hulu is doing a lot of things right for Internet video delivery. One important item is that no viewer sign up is required, which means that even casual viewers can easily get access. Plus, because the videos are distributed in Flash format, there is no need to download a special player. Like a lot of other sites, Hulu has clips that have been extracted from movies and television shows. However, full episodes of a number of shows and movies are also available, and the list seems to be growing over time. A few choice shows have every episode available, such as “Arrested Development” and “Firefly.” Hulu has even made in-stream commercials somewhat tolerable by indicating their location on the player status timeline with a small white dot. Although viewers can’t fast-forward through the commercials, at least there is a way to tell when the commercials are going to appear. Overall, watching a few commercials certainly beats having to pay for downloading each episode, and Hulu is a great implementation. AOL Television also offers a number of series online, especially favorites from the ‘60s and ‘70s, although the user interface isn’t quite as nice.
For a new twist in video delivery to the home, Sezmi, is offering a combined RF broadcast and IPTV service that they call TV 2.0. The idea is that the popular network channels are be broadcast over the air for free and can be viewed live or recorded and played back upon demand at a later time. RF spectrum can also be leased from DTV broadcasters to allow distribution of private licensed content, for channels such as ESPN or Discovery that don’t have local broadcast outlets. To make all this work, Sezmi supplies a high-performance DTV receiver that is built into a powerful personal video recorder that also has a broadband network connection. Shows that aren’t broadcast over the airwaves are streamed over the broadband connection and can be stored for later playback. While this technology is just entering technical trials, it may reach commercial status by the end of 2008. Of course, success depends heavily on Sezmi’s ability to get enough bandwidth (both for RF broadcast and for consumer broadband) to make their system appealing to consumers. Plus there is the small detail of acquiring licenses for all the content that they want to offer.
VIDEO PLAYERS IN VIEW
Innovations are also happening in video players. With current technology, just about the only way to move through a video file is based on time, such using a scroll bar or a jog/shuttle interface to move through a timeline. Now, researchers at the University of Toronto have developed a technique that they call Direct Manipulation Video Player, or DimP. This technology gives a viewer a whole new ability to move around inside a video sequence, by manipulating the image directly. A user simply needs to use a pointing device to move an object to a place of interest, and DimP automatically advances or rewinds the video to position the object in the desired spot. For example, if a user wanted to study the exact point in time of an automobile accident captured in a surveillance video, the user could simply point to one of the cars and move the cursor to where the collision occurred. The DimP software would respond to the user input by moving the video timeline so as to display each frame of video that contained an image of the auto wherever the cursor was positioned. This frees the user from having to try to step through individual video frames and gives a much more natural user interface. Since this is hard to describe in written form, the best thing to do is to visit www.aviz.fr/dimp for actual video examples.
Speaking of surveillance video, it is amazing how completely the closed circuit television industry has embraced video-over-IP technology. There are literally hundreds of cameras on the market from major manufacturers that have multimegapixel IP video outputs at full frame rates. These cameras can be connected directly to Ethernet connections, and the video streams can be delivered to a variety of display and recording devices. One very popular viewing device is a PC with a software video decoder and multi-image viewing software.
There is also a huge variety of IP network-enabled digital video recording equipment, some based on dedicated hardware and some in the form of software that will run on a standard PC platform. Based on the wide array of products available, it’s clear that camera manufacturers have mastered the technologies needed for delivering IP video streams directly from a camera. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that more manufacturers have not taken the step of adding direct IP connections to consumer and prosumer camcorders.
On the contribution front, uncompressed HD video-over-IP (operating at roughly 1.6 Gbps) was used for the UEFA Euro 2008 championships held in Switzerland and Austria in June. This tournament, which occurs every four years, is held between the national teams for countries from around Europe, which had to qualify for the 16 available tournament berths. There are eight stadiums, each having capacity for 30,000 spectators, located in four cities in Switzerland and four cities in Austria. Video from each stadium is brought back to the broadcast center in Vienna using an IP over SDH backbone. During each match, every stadium is equipped with a total of 30 Gb of IP bandwidth, which is enough to handle 12 uncompressed HD video signals for multilateral feeds (fed to all broadcasters) and 18 lightly compressed (2:1) SD signals for unilateral feeds (dedicated to individual broadcasters). More details can be found at www.medialinks.com.
GROWING AT A QUICK PACE
From a broader perspective, Internet Video traffic continues to grow rapidly in the United States. According to comScore, www.comscore.com, more than 11.5 billion videos were viewed online in the United States in March 2008, representing a 13 percent gain over February and a 64 percent gain over March 2007. More than 139 million viewers watched an average of 83 videos in March, or about 2.7 videos per user per day. Online video viewing is not limited to a single country; in fact, 2.1 million videos were viewed in January in France, for an average of 90 videos per viewer, or fewer than three videos per user per day.
And of course, IPTV deployments continue to roll out around the world. AT&T said it has a total of 379,000 U.S. IPTV subscribers as of the end of March 2008, representing an increase of 148,000 in the preceding three-month period. Globally, the installed base is much larger with PCCW in Hong Kong reporting 882,000 subscribers, Orange/France Telecom reporting 1.3 million, the ISP called Free in France reporting more than 3 million TV-enabled broadband subscribers (with likely more than 2 million users), and more than 2 million other IPTV subscribers elsewhere in Europe and another 2 million in Asia. Overall, this market seems to be adding new subscribers at an accelerating pace through the end of this year and for the next few years.
Clearly, video-over-IP is “spanning the globe” in an amazing variety of ways. With all this content from so many different sources, it is hard to remember what limited choices we had growing up. Thanks, Jim McKay for delivering the wide world of television to our homes. We will always be grateful.
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