Serving up multimedia

Video servers are now an essential part of providing broadcasters with a seamless pathway to Internet Protocol(IP)-based multimedia content that can quickly be extracted and then sent downstream, either directly onto the Web or onto a data broadcasting platform.

With terms such as "media servers," and "mediacasting" becoming de rigueur, a dazzling assortment of new video-multimedia server products and concepts is emerging. Even the granddaddy of all video servers, the Profile, has been given a facelift in the form of Profile XP, part of Grass Valley Group's "Media Without Bounds" initiative.

Broadcasters are eager to figure out how to marry enhanced TV, data broadcasting and Web-driven streaming services into the off-air game plan, while video-server vendors are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the trend. Broadcasters also want to move quickly beyond the concept phase and tap revenues from new programming and advertising sources.

"Customers want choices as they manage their content," says Larry Kaplan, president and CEO of Omneon Video Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif., which has signed up New York City-based Internet news supplier The FeedRoom as its first major customer for its Video Area Network concept. "They need the ability to utilize different types of production and management tools that support multiple content types."

Kaplan says that Omneon's strategy is based on a "data-type-independent infrastructure" and also brings together Omneon's technical competencies in the networking and computer world with broadcasting. At the same time, he says, Omneon is offering a system that is 20% to 30% less expensive than other solutions.

"The name of the game is the ability to deploy new services rapidly to generate incremental revenues," Kaplan explains. "Customers see a mix of distribution methods, but they do not know how the business models are going to come down on all of them. All they know is that the facility infrastructures today, without exception, are inflexible."

Many broadcasters are starting to realize that compression tools such as MPEG-4 are available, says Rob Koenig, project manager in the multimedia technology group at KPN Research in Leidschendam, Netherlands. Koenig, who chairs the requirements group at the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), says that work on both the studio profile for very high-quality video coding and the streaming-video profile of MPEG-4 is well under way.

"In the new streaming-video profile, technology is included for fine-grain scalability, which allows the image to be improved in small steps as more bit rate becomes available," says Koenig. "Another use is in statistical multiplexing of pre-encoded material, which has so far been impossible." On the metadata front, efforts such as MPEG-7 are being harmonized with TV Anytime [a PVR forum] and SMPTE [Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers], he says.

"We have both the data-warehousing and ad-insertion engine features of Microsoft TV server that can be used in conjunction with metadata and archiving to create a richer user experience, and one that is more profitable for the operator," says Paul Mitchell, senior group manager, interactive television at Microsoft Corp.

"As far as ATVEF [Advanced Television Enhancement Forum] goes, we view ATVEF as a critical unifying specification for enabling all of these diverse content-based services," Mitchell adds. "The ATVEF specification is currently on a standardization path in SMPTE D27."

Pluto Technologies CEO Mark Gray says that the company recently collaborated with Cisco Systems on an Internet simulcast system.

"We are simply taking a separate channel off the server. We pump it to a Cisco IP/TV encoding system and then on to a Cisco router," says Gray. "Most broadcasters do not understand that it's just that easy."

According to Mike Wolschon, director of marketing for broadcast and Internet delivery solutions at Philips Digital Networks in Salt Lake City, while Philips is not offering a server for streaming, operators can push one button on a Media Pool that will automatically force a copy to be made in MPEG-4. This in turn is sent directly to a Web server.

"Web media is going to be ubiquitous. Every server will have to deal with it as an ancillary media type," says Pinnacle Systems Chief Technical Officer Al Kovalick, who points out that Pinnacle Systems' Media Stream 300 handles MPEG-2 4:2:2 and 4:2:0 along with ATSC/DVB MPEG streaming. Pinnacle also has two new Webcasting products, StreamGenie and StreamFactory.