Metadata vs. The Megaplex

Mary Kathleen Flynn

Deliverers of content hope MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 will speed the development of VOD.

New MPEG standards could represent a breakthrough in the development of video-on-demand services, good news for both cable operators and streaming media companies.

MPEG-7, which was finalized recently by the Moving Picture Experts Group and will be published in December or January, will give hardware manufacturers and service providers a common way to describe audio and video content. If MPEG-7 gains wide acceptance, it will allow multimedia files to be indexed and searched easily using a wide variety of devices, including PCs, personal video recorders and digital television set-top boxes. The group has also begun work on MPEG-21, which takes on the thorny issue of digital rights management, another challenge the VOD industry faces.

MSOs are hopeful that MPEG-7 will help grow the VOD industry. “We support the industry’s movement to a common standard for VOD encoding,” says Tracy Baumgartner, a spokesperson for AT&T Broadband. The company expects MPEG-7 to give MSOs access to a larger library of VOD content.

Today “there is no standard way to represent audiovisual content,” says Mukta Kar, senior adviser, digital network architecture, of Cable Television Laboratories. This makes it hard to index and search multimedia content, such as movies and music. MPEG-7 gives companies the vocabulary to describe the metadata–information about such things as background color, shape of an object, name of an actor or how long a file will stay on a server. By providing a consistent way to describe content, MPEG-7 will make it possible to access movies and other multimedia files on servers all over the world.

Proponents of MPEG-7 envision VOD services that would allow a customer to search through all the film archives in the world for, say, Disney films with princesses, and then select Cinderella from a movie-rental store located in Los Angeles or a film library in Paris.

The big challenge facing VOD providers is access to content, says Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable’s senior VP-subscriber technology and advanced engineering. Time Warner Cable’s Oceanic division in Honolulu has been offering VOD service for 18 months and still has only roughly 200 titles. “The technology is mature enough to deploy, but the question is whether or not the” content is there, Hayashi says. “Having more movies on your server is a more important aspect of deployment than technology.” To the extent that MPEG-7 may help content owners index their multimedia properties, Hayashi agrees the standard “should be helpful.”

MPEG-7 also might contribute to opening up the market for cable television set-top boxes, currently dominated by General Instruments and Scientific-Atlanta. Says Thomson Multimedia spokesperson Dave Arland, “A national standard might be something that gives other companies an opportunity in the cable industry, which is familiar with doing business with only a couple of major players.” Under the RCA brand, Thomson would like to develop a set-top box incorporating MPEG-7.

Products based on the MPEG-7 standard will arrive next year, predicts Rob Koenen, senior director of technology initiatives at the digital rights management company InterTrust Technologies Corp.; he also serves as chairman of the MPEG Requirements Group. “The first MPEG-7 products are likely to be database search tools that will help customers find audio and video clips,” Koenen says.

Indeed, Singingfish, a developer of MPEG-7 that makes search engines for audio and video content (and which was acquired last year by Thomson), is already using aspects of MPEG-7 and expects to deliver commercial products that support the standard next year.

MPEG’s Koenen expects to see MPEG-7 search engines from Singingfish and others to be used within corporations and also in Internet applications. Further down the road, Koenen says metadata will be added to television programs, making it easier for customers to search for TV shows and other multimedia content.

Digital set-top boxes that use MPEG-7 features are still a few years away. The industry will have to take several steps first, says Ajay Luthra, senior director of advanced technology for Motorola Broadband’s DigiCable business. First, content providers need to index the content and develop the metadata. Then, third-party developers may get involved. For example, Luthra says, a movie broadcast on CBS might be better indexed by CBS than by the company that owns the movie. Finally, set-top boxes have to be able to receive the metadata. “This involves more than one company,” Luthra says. “It has to be an industrywide initiative.”

Although industrywide support is exactly what the Moving Picture Experts Group is aiming for, some companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to MPEG-7. It’s too early for Microsoft to say whether or not it will include MPEG-7 features in future versions of its Windows Media Player. Says Michael Aldridge, the company’s lead product manager for digital media, “We need to see if content owners will invest in the time and resources to catalog their content to generate the metadata and whether they think the MPEG-7 direction is where they want to go.”

Even further in the future is the MPEG-21 standard, which will help companies protect copyrights and handle other digital rights management issues. The Moving Picture Experts Group recently issued calls for proposals for a digital rights expression language and a data dictionary-the calls for proposals are the first steps in the lengthy standardization process.

“Digital rights management is an important condition for content providers,” says Jan van der Meer, VP-business development and standards at Philips Consumer Electronics. “Can you listen to an audio file once, twice, all week or all month?” Record labels, fresh from winning legal battles against companies that allowed the exchange of MP3 music files without paying copyright fees, have been involved in developing the MPEG-21 standard, primarily through industry groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America. As Time Warner Cable’s Mike Hayashi puts it, “Nobody wants a replay of what happened with Napster.”

Protecting copyrights and other digital rights issues are so important to some companies that they may not be able to wait the three or four years it takes for a standard to develop. Jeff Ayars, group manager, product development, for RealNetworks, maker of the popular RealPlayer media player, says, “We will likely participate in MPEG-21, but we also have a short-term business need to do specific things.”

Earlier this year, RealNetworks and other companies including America Online, Bertelsmann, EMI, IBM, InterTrust, MGM, Napster, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and Sun Microsystems, announced XMCL (Extensible Media Commerce Language), which is designed to establish industrywide standards for Internet media commerce. Might XMCL become part of MPEG-21? “We began work on XMCL before we were aware of MPEG-21. Our intent is not to create another standard,” says Ayars.

Microsoft is also working on technology that could be an alternative to MPEG-21 called XRML (Extensible Rights Markup Language), a method for specifying rights and issuing conditions. Meanwhile, Microsoft will hold off on contributing to the development of MPEG-21. “We will evaluate the work done by MPEG-21 once it reaches conclusion and demonstrates industry support,” says Microsoft’s Aldridge.

MPEG’s Koenen acknowledges that there are “still issues to be resolved.” Currently, digital rights management systems “block access to content because they’re not interoperable,” he says. But, he points out, “the infrastructure is beginning to emerge that will allow open access to multimedia content wherever it is. People want to have revenues coming from their creative work, but we think it should be done in an interoperable way. We shouldn’t have technical barriers to content.”


MPEG-1 (published in 1992): Compression algorithms that transform analog audio and video into digital audio and video. Designed originally for CD interactive and still used in PCs, on the Web, in CD video and in digital cameras. The popular MP3 music format is the most complex and powerful audio component of MPEG-1.

MPEG-2 (published in 1995): A higher degree of compression at higher data rates that extends MPEG-1 to digital television and DVD.

MPEG-4 (major releases published in 1998 and 1999): A new way of describing multimedia as it is built up from its components (called objects) so that text, graphics and motion video can all be displayed in one multimedia presentation. Some work still continues on MPEG-4.

MPEG-7 (finalized in 2001): Describes multimedia content by its features, such as background color or actor’s name, so that it can be indexed and searched easily by servers, digital set-top boxes and other devices. Some products, such as search engines, are expected next year; others, such as MPEG-7 set-top boxes, will be available in a few years.

MPEG-21 (first elements ready in 2002): An interoperable multimedia framework, currently focusing on digital rights management. The MPEG group recently issued calls for proposals for a digital rights expression language and a data dictionary-the first steps in the standardization process are expected to be concluded early 2003.

–Mary Kathleen Flynn

COPYRIGHT 2001 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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