Sunday, April 29, 2007

MPEG-A—Multimedia Application Formats

Today is another perfect day in Silicon Valley. The weather at a balmy 23ºC, blue skies, perfect for a walk on the beach, a hike in the woods, or to drive down to San Jose to attend the First Multimedia Application Formats Awareness Event organized by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), INCITS (InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards), and MPEG from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

If you recently strolled in a good shopping mall, you probably saw that spacious store in white and light wood, selling—no, not handbags or scarves—but of all things computers, a mass-merchandise that usually sells without markups, with the manufacturer pocketing a small profit by selling sticker space on the keyboard and icon space on the desktop for bloatware. But as you walk down towards the store's end, there is a table with a media person giving a free workshop.

These media people are not store clerks who attended a one-hour training session, but knowledgeable users of the media, which can be music creation, music appreciation, blogging, video blogging, movie making, photography, etc. When the workshop is finished, there are always people asking the price of the software used in the workshop. The answer is a laconic "it's free," and when people ask from where they can download it and whether it runs on XP or requires Vista, the trainer responds "it comes pre-installed on our computers." A few minutes later you see attendees walking out of the store with a box containing the new computer they just bought. Note this are not just teenagers using their parent's credit cards, they are also octogenarians brandishing their grey preferred care card instead of their AARP card.

Clearly people do not want to just balance their checkbook on their computers or solve spreadsheets. They want to use their computers for their creative hobbies. This is possible at an affordable price because today's computers are very fast and the ISO (International Standards Organization) has developed a number of excellent technologies for codecs, metadata management, digital rights management, and digital item streaming.

As a reader of this blog, you are already familiar with JPEG and JPEG-2000 [by the way, as a follow-up on that post, this week Microsoft has submitted HD Photo as a possible JPEG standard, so all the technical details are now available], which deal with still images. Sound and video, as well as digital items in general are covered by MPEG. You have already heard of the old family members:

  • MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 provide interoperable ways of representing audiovisual content, commonly used on digital media and on the air
  • MPEG-4 defines how to represent content
  • MPEG-7 specifies how to describe content
  • MPEG-21 provides a truly interoperable multimedia framework

From an implementation point of view, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 provide codecs for audiovisual streams. MPEG-1 is the standard on which such products as Video CD and MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer III) are based; MPEG-2 is the standard on which such products as Digital Television set top boxes and DVD are based; MPEG-4 is the standard for multimedia for the fixed and mobile web; and MPEG-7 is the standard for description and search of audio and visual content.

MPEG banner

Returning now to that store, they are not selling magic nor snake oil. Looking at their media tools, my guess is that they have an excellent implementation of the various JPEG and MPEG codecs, a very slick XML management system that delivers seamless interoperability for a multitude of tools and an Internet service, and a family of very slick user interfaces.

In principle, anybody can do it, because JPEG and MPEG have reference implementations and examples of everything. Learning to listen to customers is a little harder, and the system engineering for architecting the content management framework is even harder, but these days computer scientists are a dime a dozen. The idea behind MPEG-A is to show entrepreneurs how easy it all is, and to even give them example implementations they can modify to build their own products. Here it is in MPEG's own words:

The 1st Multimedia Application Formats Awareness Event introduces ISO's newest multimedia standard, ISO/IEC 23000, also known as MPEG-A. MPEG-A aims to serve clearly identified market needs by facilitating the swift development of innovative and standards-based multimedia applications and services. The corresponding application-driven process results in normative specifications of Multimedia Application Formats (MAF) along with reference software, which demonstrates the use of the MAF, and which offers a head-start in product development for multimedia based applications and services. The ultimate objective of MAFs is to stimulate even more the usage of MPEG standard technologies by providing the user with another degree of interoperability at the application and service levels. A MAF (which formally corresponds to an individual part of the MPEG-A standard) specifies a combination of already standardized MPEG and non-MPEG tools providing an appropriate technical solution for a class of applications. This type of standard application and service provide the solutions needed for managing, searching, filtering, and accessing of the exponential growth of public and private multimedia content from the environments of Internet, digital broadcast networks, and mobile devices. The MAF awareness event demonstrates powerful application and service technologies and lays out a migration path towards widespread usage of multimedia content for any organization wishing to provide a set of standard comprehensive and cost-effective content management and distribution service solutions for their customers.

As a consumer, with MPEG-A, you are no longer constrained to white gadgets whose name starts with an 'i'. You can buy mobile phones, cameras, music players, GPS navigators, TVs, etc. from any brand as long as they are MPEG-A compliant.

I have not written anything on the event itself, but that is not necessary, because it is all available on the Web, just look at your tax dollars at work at http://maf.nist.gov.

Thank you to Touradj Ebrahimi for the invitation to the event.

PS: Links contributed in the comments: