Video perks give data a sharper image
The prospects for adding innovative and high advanced types of video-enhanced content to high-speed data channels have brightened considerably in recent months, thanks to emergence of new software tools that not only support video distribution, but greatly alter the functionality within the data feed.
Already, cable companies are putting some of these new APIs (applications program interfaces) to use in conjunction with the distributed network architectures they've implemented in their data service rollouts. And much more is in store as cable taps into the developments taking shape within and beyond the Microsoft and Netscape Communications multimedia alliances.
For example, sources report Time Warner, Tele-Communications Inc. and others are in the final stages of forming a venture that will apply streaming and other new technology to facilitate distribution of content formatted for CD-ROM and other platforms over high-speed data networks. "You'll see Time Warner go to offering things like (the CD-ROM video game) Quake this fall, where people who download the high-speed on-line version can play with each other over the cable system at much faster speeds than would be possible over dial-up lines," says an executive close to the discussions, asking not to be named.
The key to reformatting such material for high-speed access is a new Internet standard known as "Common Internet File System," presently nearing completion under the auspices of the Internet Engineering Task Force. CIFS, like the other new standards associated with IP applications, offers developers the opportunity to put content together in one coherent process for multiple applications and distribution media, allowing them to move forward on the high-speed front without having to create content from scratch.
One measure of just how fast and far the functionality of video-based multimedia services might go can be found in expectations surrounding on-line games that will one day be provided over high-speed data networks. Along with very high-end graphics and fast interaction among players, such services will support participation by hundreds or even thousands of players in a single game and direct voice connections among players who want to communicate with each other, says Charles Moldow, vice president of business development for @Home Network 's @Media group.
"It's in our best interest to program very robust game services," says Moldow. "The question is, when is the right time to do it." Not yet, he adds, but he believes the capabilities he describes will be part of the picture within two years.
Such claims have been made before, most notably in the runup to the big interactive TV bust; but this time there are real market activities where some of these capabilities, as well as others, are being put to use in the narrowband domain as well as cable data domains. Where games are concerned, on-line gaming has already reached a point where demand is having a significant impact on sales of established CD games like Quake, Doom and Diablo that have been especially adapted for playing over connections to the Internet.
Developers report such adaptations are boosting retail sales of popular CD games by as much as 30 percent. "Network gaming over this past year has salvaged a lot of what was a down year for the PC (game) market and kept it at a competitive advantage against the (video game) console market," says Steve Dauterman, director of game production at Lucas Arts.
The new generation of games features 3-D graphics in which the player's perspective shifts through 360 degrees in any direction as he or she maneuvers through the changing scenes, propelling forward and turning by pushing cursor keys on the computer keyboard. Some games require graphics accelerators with the CD-ROM attachment, but many don't.
With these dynamics in play, the '99 timeframe is looking very good for introducing low-latency multiplaying over high-speed data networks, Moldow says. "We've found that the roundtrip latency over our network coast-to-coast is about 50 milliseconds," he adds, noting that this is only twice the theoretical latency minimum set by the speed of light. "You only need to be at sub-100 millisecond latency to do good 'twitch' action games."
Much needs to be done to get to the level of game playing depicted by Moldow, including most especially standardization of protocols that support interactive, multi-participant sessions linked to IP voice connections, but the pieces are rapidly coming together. "Games represent the biggest content category when it comes to requests from customers for broadband-enabled content," says Doug Perkins, director for Internet and high-speed services in MediaOne's Florida division. "We're actively looking for development of applications from the electronic games community."
MediaOne is working closely with video streaming and conferencing software developer VDOnet Corp., in which MediaOne parent US West has a significant equity stake.
VDO, a key player in the Microsoft alliance, just introduced new software that enhances tie-ins between videoconferencing and streaming for applications such as catalog shopping and on-line gameplaying, marking a first step toward the integration of IP telephony and video content that is vital to cable's evolving data service picture.
Where previous iterations of VDOPhone software were tailored to work in the low-bandwidth environment of dial-up access, version 3.0 is scalable from low- to broadband access levels, says Steve Chambers, vice president of marketing at VDO. This means that the transmission between any two Internet connections will automatically adjust to bandwidth capacity, making it possible for people on high-speed data links such as cable offers to see each other in high resolution without the herky-jerky motion associated with low frame-rate transmissions.
While VDO is using a proprietary system that requires that all users be equipped with its client software, the new version is designed to work within the standards framework being established for Internet telephony by the Internet Engineering Task Force. For example, implementations of VDOphone 3.0 in various applications by software developers will interface with the same applications using other videophone software that is compliant with the H.323 Internet video telephony standard, Chambers says.
The new version of the VDOnet system also comes with a software developers toolkit which will soon include the interfaces that make it possible to link video streaming and videophone applications in broadband-enhanced services, Chambers says. "We'll be formally announcing these capabilities in the near future," he notes.
Chambers sees the release of VDOphone 3.0 as "a proof of statement" that it is now possible to bring together the multimedia and two-way communications components that can enable the types of applications Perkins, Moldow and other cable data executives are looking for. "What we're saying is that the tools are here to develop content that really distinguishes broadband connections from other connections," he noted.
One of the first applications of the new software will be for call centers at a large travel concern, where people calling in over the Internet will be able to converse "face-to-face" with travel representatives and then be shown video clips of hotels and destinations, depending on their interests. "This is just one of a wide range of applications you'll be seeing involving use of call centers in conjunction with video streaming," Chambers says.
With H.323 and related standards moving to implementation in software, the development of commercial call center applications is moving forward on several fronts beyond VDO's efforts. MCI, for example, is developing Internet interfaces with its call centers that will allow people connecting to the carrier's home page to click on an icon and be connected to an operator, notes Harvey Kaufman, president of NetSpeak Corp., developer of the Webphone, a "smart" device that supports Internet voice and video applications without use of a PC.
"We can do least-cost, least-latency, least-hop or closest-geography routing," Kaufman says. "The plan in this environment is to take the call and give the caller the best connection or experience possible."
While the gameplaying pieces are coming together, MSOs are moving forward on other multimedia tracks with content enhancements making use of such emerging protocols as IP Multicasting and Real Time Streaming Protocol. @Home, for example, plans to use audio and video streaming software from Progressive Networks Inc. in combination with new multicasting capabilities built into its network to deliver a wide range of new content, such as trailers from feature films, news and sports clips and broadcast of special events.
"Multicasting technology is a smarter networking scheme," says Milo Medin, network VP for @Home, in a prepared statement. "It not only provides savings in network and server resources; it enables exciting new applications not feasible with unicast technologies."
Multicasting is a newly standardized means of distributing content mapped to the packetized format of the Internet Protocol that allows a single data feed from a server port to go out to multiple users at the same time. This approach greatly reduces congestion at the server and makes it easier to manage the flow of bandwidth-consuming video over the hybrid fiber/coaxial network, where delivering video to many users contending for dedicated bandwidth at the same time can result in an overall slowing of access speeds for everyone within a given coaxial serving area.
@Home's network is ideally suited for multi-casting applications, which require that all routers in the end-to-end connection be equipped to recognize and give special treatment to packets tagged with the protocol's API, notes Jeff Huber, director of server and network products for @Home. "This is something that can only be done at this point over corporate and other private networks, like @Home's," he says.
The multicast can begin from any point with a direct connection to one of @Home's 13 regional data centers in the U.S. and Canada, Huber says. Once the packet flow reaches the RDC, it can be multicast throughout the @Home customer base via distribution across @Home's backbone to other RDCs and then into the local networks or it can be distributed for local storage and later multicasting, in a process known as "distributed multicast."
"We're deploying our server software supporting multicast and distributed multicast in a number of enterprise networking applications," says Philip Rosedale, general manager of the applications group at PNI. "It's a very efficient way to make use of available bandwidth, especially if you're delivering video at, or near, 30 frames per second."
While, as noted last month (p. 82), there is growing synergy between the cable industry's digital TV and on-line agendas as high-speed data moves to embrace video content, there are major differences in how the tools will be applied by the groups within the DTV and on-line arenas. "This isn't video-on-demand, like watching Terminator 2," Huber says.
Instead, multicasting supports two types of delivery paradigms where everyone shares the same data stream in applications that are more like broadcast television. In one case, a specific event is distributed at a pre-set time, with users tuning in at the beginning or while it's in progress, much as they would a TV broadcast program. The other approach involves continuous repetition of content loops, such as the four- to five-minute movie trailers, with updates of the material as the supplier sees fit.
@Home is working with content partners to create a number of applications in both categories, Huber notes. Where special, time-specific events are concerned, the company is looking at local and national sports and concerts, among other things. Some of these events might be accessible exclusively through @Home, while others might be more broadly available through TV or other venues, with @Home offering special features unique to its version, he says.
"Our near-term focus will be on national events, such as rock concerts," Huber adds. "We can deliver content suited to special interests within our subscriber base and provide access to chat sessions specific to the events."
@Home is taking advantage of the latest advance in PNI's RealVideo software, which supports delivery of high-quality video at up to 30 frames per second, with audio close to CD quality at data rates of 100 to 400 kbps. "This is very close to broadcast quality video, with full-screen display, but with bit rates low enough to minimize bandwidth consumption," Rosedale notes.
The ability to deliver this level of video quality at low bit rates rests on use of proprietary compression algorithms. PNI makes use of its own as well as compression systems from other suppliers, rather than using the more bandwidth-hungry MPEG-2 that is employed in digital TV.
@Home will also use another approach to delivering video in the future as it continues to expand its content capabilities, relying on high-speed connections to deliver bursts of video data files to users, rather than streaming the content. While multicasting is ideal for live events or repeating loops of material such as sports and finance information or movie clips, the rapid file downloads made possible by high-speed access over cable links are ideal for interactive applications such as game playing.
The company will also use multicasting for some types of games, such as multiplayer games where hundreds of users join at the start in a network-wide event. "People playing Quake, for example, would have a very different experience from what they have today, where the latency (in reaction times among players) is very low because everyone is sharing the same data flow as it is multicasted over the network," Huber says.
Time Warner, along with working on applications suited for multicasting such as Quake and live events that are likely to be introduced this fall, has taken another first step toward expanding appeal of high-speed data content with use of a new software tool in conjunction with launch of its Road Runner service in the Capital District region of New York. The "photobubble technology" supplied by Interactive Pictures Corp. allows users to view graphic displays in three dimensions, as if they were turning around within the "bubble" of a graphic that offers views of all the walls, ceiling and floor of a room on command from the PC mouse.
The first application involves a Web site developed by the Albany Institute of History, where cybervisitors can go to rooms and click on any point from within the bubble to get a closer look at the displays. "With this site, we've demonstrated a 2 megabyte file containing graphics and audio can be downloaded in three to five seconds, offering users a completely new on-line experience," says Jeff King, president of Time Warner's Albany division. "Now our challenge is to work with other local content providers to help them make use of this capability."
IPC, employing technology originally developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for remote robotics applications in defense and space exploration, offers a means of navigating in cyberspace that applies not only to still graphics, but to action sequences as well, including live video, says former Motorola Corp. executive James Phillips, who is CEO, president and chairman of IPC, which previously operated as Omniview Inc. "There's a lot of talk about teleportation in cable data applications, and that's what we're about," Phillips says.
The cable involvement will go well beyond the type of implementation initiated by Road Runner in Albany, Phillips notes, though he declines to identify participants or specific projects. But he describes future plans for his firm's technology that make clear what the potential cable applications might be.
IPC has developed virtual reality headsets that allow the user to be "in" the three-dimensional bubble rather than viewing the graphic on a PC screen, Phillips says. In addition, the company's software will eventually support three-dimensional navigation through real-time or stored video graphics, where the viewer can change the camera angle to zero in on any point in the picture.
For example, the IPIX software, working in conjunction with new high definition TV cameras that use wide-angle lenses to capture a scene across an angle of 180 degrees, will be able to reconfigure the data at any point in the picture to fit the dimensions of a directly focused picture in real time, Phillips says. "Millions of people will be able to change the camera angle to focus on whatever point of action they choose, independently of each other," he adds, noting that IPC is working with @Home Network and Cox Communications as well as Time Warner in fashioning applications for cable data services.
Such developments are clear signals that the software community is finally beginning to realize cable's high-speed data connection represents an outlet for new content that can't be overlooked. Cable can only do so much to seed such content, given the immense costs associated with upgrading networks and implementing high-speed data services, so general recognition of the opportunity among developers is vital to rapid exploitation of the new tools now at hand.
"The cable modem could enable delivery of product that is not available today," says Brian Apgar, COO of Mpath Interactive, a leading supplier of multiplayer gaming services over the Internet. "The biggest implication in this is that developers should start thinking of selling large binary files to customers, rather than being constrained by the distribution and capacity limitations of CD-ROM. Getting that bandwidth to the home is going to have a profound impact on the on-line game market."