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The Moving Picture

 I Love Digital Video

Jeff Sauer

Not surprisingly, given the nature of this column, I really like digital video. What might come as a surprise, however, is why. Itís not that Iím a big fan of the stuttering frame rates of todayís Web video or even of the flamboyant special effects enabled by digital video editing tools. I like the idea that digital video is data and, as such, not inextricably linked to a physical videotape or film reel.

I like that digital video can be copied without generation losses, eliminating the reliance on a single ìmasterî that must be guarded like a rare but biodegradable coin or lost to history forever. Itís robust, too, and doesnít accrue drop-outs or color bleed from friction with the tape deck heads, nor does image sharpness fade into a two-dimensional blur like with VHS tape.

Whatís more, digital video data doesnít turn to dust like the aging film reels from Hollywoodís golden age. CD and DVD discs last longer than film and tape and, while files can be corrupted, digital video can be backed up like any other valuable data. Since copies are identical to the original, nothing is lost. To me, this ethereal nature is more like pure art and ideas.

Benedetto Croce, the late-19th-early-20th-century Italian philosopher, believed that the artistic process was completely a result of what he called ìintuitionî and, as such, accomplished in the mind rather than through external or physical communication. For Croce, artistic vision itself was paramount, not the mechanical outward creation needed for communication. Admittedly, Croce wrote more about poetry than the more tactile forms of art, and his arguments make more sense in that context, but I suspect Croce would have liked digital media, too.

My wife is also a fan of digital media, and works with it daily in her career as an archivist. (Not to be confused with anarchists, alchemists, or Acadians from the Maritime Provinces of Canada, an archivist works with historical documents, records, photographs, and videos.) Unlike a librarian, who essentially works in the present organizing and referencing information, an archivist works with history for what it is, gives it context in the present, and decides what relics to keep for future generations and which should be weeded out.

My wife also regularly works with current technologies, including digital media. Her recent projects have involved building topical Web sites for portions of a collection using photographs, streaming media, and Java.

My wife, however, hastens to point out the shortcomings of digital media for archives. She sees the potential dangers of non-standard media formats that may not be viewable years in the future, like early computer data stored on 5 1/4-inch floppies and early tape drives. Without standardization, digital video faces the same problems.

Digital media files can also be changed or altered far more easily than physical assets, often without reference. For example, simply opening a file and changing one bit alters the file date, and its history becomes confused. The lack of a single physical master, in this case, also introduces questions as to whether one version of a file is actually true to the original.

There are few standards for keeping track of data and organizing digital media so it can be stored logically and retrieved efficiently when needed. Video producers often have their own methods for organizing materialósuch as timecode, shot type (close-up, medium shot, landscape, etc.), topicóbut those systems are usually personal. For an archivist working with all types of digital media, a standard way to account for what information is tucked away in all those 1s and 0s is critical.

These problems are what the MPEG committee is trying to solve with MPEG-7. Unlike its past work creating highly efficient audiovisual compression, this future MPEG standard takes a completely different tack by creating an infrastructure within which all present and future digital media can be used.

Formally known as the ìMultimedia Content Description Interface,î MPEG-7 attempts to lay out a standard manner in which digital media can be referenced, archived, and retrieved. This standard does not preclude new coding methods, but essentially will work with existing media files of all coding types, including even analog media. In other words, MPEG-7 takes the metadata object of MPEG-4 (see ìWhatís It Good 4: Encoding and Applying MPEG-4î in this issue, pp. 38óEd.) and gives it some beef.

More than just copyright information, an MPEG-7 file could theoretically contain file creation and compression history, as well as project data from that non-linear system so the file could be reopened if necessary. Security information could restrict file access where license or royalty fees are due and could even include past and future play schedules for widely distributed media.

Perhaps even more importantly for archivists, an MPEG-7 data file would contain standard descriptors about the audiovisual material. It would allow smart searches on content topics, specific video images and objects, audio sounds (including perhaps even individual voices), and scene types so archivists could easily find and use media in presentations about the past.

Media management on this scale is a major undertaking, ifÝ a fairly unglamorous one, for video people accustomed to the pace of moving pictures. But for an archivist itís exciting stuff. And, if successful, it could be the missing piece for corporate video as well. While the idea of using corporate video to enliven presentations, training, and promotions is an appealing one, those intentions quickly fade if the fast pace of business leaves us no way store and find the material.


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