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The Moving Picture
Today's Stream Believers

Jeff Sauer

December, 2000 | Something strange happened at NAB 2000, the National Association of Broadcasters' annual assembly of all things video, that marks a dramatic shift in digital video. This notorious aggregation of quality snobs turned its collective interests and envies from the pretty pictures of HDTV that it had been admiring for the last few years to comparably modest images of "streaming video." Yes, broadcasters. Yes, streaming.

You've probably seen streaming Web video: It's jittery, has bad frame rates, and looks blotchy from the artifacts. Broadcasters can't really take that stuff seriously, can they? They do now, and it marks a turning point for serious video in business, education, and commerce, as well as broadcast entertainment. Streaming has already turned the corner, even if that doesn't mean over the Web.

Today, the noteworthy successes of streaming video are happening over intranets. Although it's similar to Web streaming, streaming video over networks is not typified by tiny and clumsy imposters for video, but rather, full-frame, full-motion MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 digital video [See Sauer's September 2000 article, "Band-Aid: Network Appliances for MPEG Streaming," pp. 38-45–Ed.] Jittery slide shows on the Web may be what pops into most minds when teased to think of video streaming, but it's not the solution that's already producing revenues, nor the likely future of streaming.

Successful digital video has always been about bandwidth. With early non-linear editing systems, this meant pushing hard drives and the old NuBus (on Mac) and ISA (don't remind me! on PC) buses to move enough data to support the heavy demands of full-motion video. In the retired pages of CD-ROM Professional, we watched Cinepak, Indeo, and MPEG-1 video push the limits of 1X CD-ROMs. The Web represents the smallest pipe yet, but also offers the biggest potential.

The ultimate solution to each of those other barriers was more bandwidth–faster hard drives, the PCI bus, and 24X CD-ROM drives–and the Web will likely prove the same. Today, Web streaming is hamstrung by low-bandwidth dial-up connections, but that will clearly change. While individual users may be impatient, DSL, cable modem, or some other form of high-speed access to home PCs is inevitable [See September MOVING PICTURE, p. 56–Ed.]. Whether it takes months or years, many competing interests are anxious to make sure it does.

Why? The FCC has mandated that all domestic television stations broadcast exclusively digital television by 2006. While that's suppose to mean broadcast towers sending out digital data rather than analog frequencies to home TVs, for the transition to proceed, consumers will have to purchase either new TV sets or converter boxes to feed existing analog TVs. Whether or not 2006 proves realistic for such grand-scale consumer habit-changing, change itself makes many alternatives possible.

The computer industry, cable, and phone companies all have a chance to become integral pieces of the entertainment industry if high-speed Internet access yields video entertainment over the Web. Cisco Systems (the richest company in the world) and two-bit companies like Microsoft, Intel, and AT&T; are all highly motivated to move the computer (or at least something with computer smarts and connectivity) into the living room. Simply put, streaming video may be the key to the biggest growth opportunity each of those companies will see for the next 30 to 40 years, and NAB 2000 was just the beginning.

Meanwhile, the excitement and the bandwidth for effective video streaming already exists over intranets, and several business, educational, medical, and entertainment users are now demonstrating that the technology for sending video over IP is more than a fascination: It is money-making and money-saving business. While the MPEG industry has been promoting streaming for a few years, only recently have both the available bandwidth of LANs, WANs, and satellites and the knowledge to manage it come together.

By its real-time nature, video data can't wait for the typical latencies of most networks (and certainly the Web), so video packet information has to be labeled and networks managed effectively to allow each video frame to arrive at its destination on time. Conversely, video data can't hoard corporate network bandwidth and prevent other types of data from passing. Fortunately, where network managers once resisted video as a data juggernaut that would cripple their infrastructures, many are now asking "how?"

Admittedly, for broadcasters planning several years in advance, the lag time for high bandwidth to homes simply allows time for preparation for a digital future. But the mere fact that they are already talking about it and that should convince anyone with intranet bandwidth and a need to communicate that now is the time to take the plunge. Video has always promised to be a killer communications app and NAB 2000, combined with today's real world successes, suggests that the promised time may have arrived.

While the government has TV stations trudging forward to digital television–E.T.A. 2006 or some future date unknown–streaming video is already proving successful for businesses and educational organizations. And if NAB 2001 is anything like NAB 2000, those early electronic media streaming pioneers will be looking like visionaries…from wherever the Web stream finds them.

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com), columnist for The Moving Picture, is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to New Media Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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