SMPTE Industry News - Monthly Tech Focused Newsletter of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers


Hot Button Discussion
Tracking Mobile Media
By Michael Goldman

Living as we do in an age where mobile technology for consumers is proliferating at a startlingly rapid rate, it has been almost impossible in recent years for content creators and distributors to efficiently stay ahead of the curve in terms of how they package, protect, track, and distribute moving image media to a rapidly widening suite of mobile platforms. The explosion of handheld multimedia devices has created a host of problems for both content creators and distributors in terms of how best to get content data files to all the various devices they are targeting, and the new ones that will eventually arrive, and how to keep track of it all.

For content owners, distributors, and those producing content management tools, for that matter, "different platforms are definitely a very big issue," suggests Jim Alexander, Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Ericsson, a mobile, multimedia, and telecom solutions company involved in developing systems to help content owners distribute digital content to mobile devices.


"In our most recent content management project, we have helped major service providers—cable or telco—manage the transformation of raw video files from (content providers like) Starz or HBO into delivery-ready content on various devices," Alexander says. "As the year went on while we were rolling out this product (Ericsson's WatchPoint® content management technology), we realized we were having to go further and further back in the chain, all the way to dealing with programmers and other content creators. Everyone was having the same issue: they start out with a big mezzanine file with high-resolution video, and they have to track the process of making all the copies, with versions for each of the target platforms."

"In addition, each content provider has to either deliver those copies to service providers or deliver them directly to consumers, which involves attaching all the digital rights management metadata (DRM) to those files. People are realizing that there is a problem with how to track all this content. A year and a half ago, it seemed that every new device that came out required a new process to get video onto that device. For content owners and service providers, that meant hiring new people to support that device. Now, content providers have found they can't bring new people on for every new device that pops up, and so, they are looking for automated technology."


Automation Required
The rise of the Interoperable Master Format (IMF) has, of course, paved the way for content creators to produce highly flexible, interoperable master mezzanine files containing digital content destined to eventually be sliced and diced in different ways for different end platforms. And there are many tools and services to use those mezzanine files and automate the process of managing the many pieces of data that come out of them as versions are manufactured for mobile destinations. Ericsson is now offering such a product with the aforementioned Watchpoint Content Management System (CMS), for example, and there are others, such as Motorola's Medios productthePlatform™ online video management technology, and Cisco's Video Management and Storage System Network Module, among others.

"Automated tools ensure a reliable, consistent process," Alexander suggests. "Content owners can be assured that each title is processed according to an approved process to create appropriate versions of the movie, by managing the steps needed, such as transcoding, QA, and watermarking. It can automate whatever you need to do to process the content. WatchPoint®, for instance, will manage the workflow and, along the way, will produce different versions of content for each device. Appropriate versions of the metadata are also created by the system. Then, the content packages—video and metadata—can be delivered to different end points. For example, a distinct package may be created and delivered for each downstream system: an MSO using old set-top boxes, Hulu-type companies using browsers, or phone companies using cell phones." 

Alexander adds that different models exist—one in which outside companies can offer programmers a managed service to build and distribute versions for them; one in which the content creator will create the versions themselves and then hand them over to a cable company or other distributor to send them where they need to go and manage them; and one in which a big distributor will take the mezzanine file and use the kinds of tools many companies are now offering the industry.


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No De Facto Standards
In any of those scenarios, however, there remains a big issue to grapple with, Alexander suggests—there are not yet any accepted or de facto standards for how to store content targeted for mobile devices nor standards for delivering files to mobile devices. There is work going on in this regard, of course, and Alexander points out that there are a variety of high-end file format options for mezzanine files in wide use today, such as JPEG 2000, Apple's ProRes, and the MXF formats. But for mobile formats, the issue of how best to deliver that content to end devices is more of a Wild West show right now, he suggests. 

"There are so many choices in the formats, aspect ratios, delivery bit rates, and the digital rights management that a content provider or service delivery provider has to determine and then create each of these," Alexander says. "There is no common format just yet for this."

However, the MPEG working group's efforts on the MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) protocol is rapidly advancing, he reports, and looks promising. The adaptive streaming protocol was approved earlier this year as an international standard, and the Dash Promotion Group, supported by several major industry manufacturers, is promoting it as a potentially unifying standard that could allow content creators to produce clean, single files that could be played on all Dash-compatible devices. Adobe and Apple, among others, however, have not yet signed on to supporting Dash as a standard, and issues remain about whether or when all web browsers will support it. There are also royalty issues involved in the equation, which might delay how soon some content companies will want to sign up. (An article published late last year on the StreamingMedia.comwebsite provides a solid overview of MPEG-DASH and its implications for the video streaming industry.) 

Still, Alexander suggests that MPEG-DASH represents an attempt, at least, to answer the questions posed by the longtime search for some kind of Holy Grail for mobile video providers eager to find ways to reach out to different platforms in a more seamless fashion. 

"The idea is to find a way to create (files that contain) everything common for all devices—Apple, Android, others, and all the over-the-top media players you might find on those devices—that might need that content," he explains. "It would be a standard mechanism for getting the correct bit rate and aspect ratio and segmenting approach into the file. I think MPEG-DASH is trying to move in that direction."



Another key development in this arena is progress of the Entertainment Identifier Registry (EIDR), a unique identification system content owners can use to track all pieces and flavors of their media assets, ranging from titles, clips, encoding versions, and much more. EIDR has been developed by, and is being promoted through, a non-profit coalition of major industry studios, cable providers, software companies, networks, and others, founded jointly by MovieLabs, Cablelabs, Comcast, and Rovi.  

"It's basically a numbering scheme in a sense, like the unique ISBN number they put on books, but for video assets," Alexander explains. "EIDR also provides a service to accept registrations (with metadata) and assign them unique numbers. For example, with EIDR, the industry can track every different variation of a 'Harry Potter' movie."

These and other developments are making it easier to push and track content targeted for new platforms as they arrive. But Alexander suggests the industry won't find a definitive standard for seamlessly storing and delivering files to all significant mobile platforms for quite some time.

In the meantime,  he suggests getting educated on what is going on with new file formats and workflow developments. One resource he highly recommends are the ongoing series of free, two-minute tutorial videos called "Bruce's Shorts," produced and offered to the industry free-of-charge by Bruce Devlin, Chief Technology Officer of Amberfin, a SMPTE Fellow, and co-author of the MXF format. You can sign up for them here and receive links to weekly tutorials on MXF and many other workflow-related topics.

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News Briefs
MPEG in Context

For those interested in the status on work to improve video coding standards with the rise of the H.265 (High Efficiency Video Coding or HEVC) digital coding scheme, take a look at Randy Hoffner's historical look at MPEG's evolution on the TV Technology website. H.265 as a preliminary draft standard is likely to be approved and published by 2013, and Hoffner says that is a good thing and a big deal for improving the state of the coding industry. He suggests such improvements come along about once every decade, and in comparing HEVC to MPEG-4, he suggests that HEVC will continue MPEG-4s increased efficiency, but will also be more easily integrated into future applications and processes.  

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Xbox Leads Connected TV Race

A recent Forrester Research report got a lot of play on technology blogs this month by suggesting that Microsoft, via its Xbox 360 technology, has jumped ahead of prominent rivals such as Apple, Google, and others in the race to dominate the web-connected television market, at least for now. The report, by Forrester analyst James L. McQuivey, Ph.D., suggests this market represents the next big technology battle for the minds, hearts, and habits of consumers now that the mobile device transition is well under way. In arecent piece in Forbes, McQuivey reminded that Xbox is already the most well-used web-connected TV console in the world, and that more than half of current Xbox users already use it to connect to the Internet. With the potential for a host of in-home video services on the horizon, he says, it appears best suited to take a healthy lead over rival systems. The New York Times also discussed the report recently. The full report can be purchased directly from Forrester.

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Portable AV

Meanwhile, there are definite transitions also taking place in the AV world, with the over-arching theme that AV system and control technologies are shrinking by going portable, and yet are more powerful than ever. AV Technology magazine recently published an article analyzing the top five trends in portable AV. As with many other networked systems these days, the article suggests that laptops and, more recently, tablets have become the leading drivers of AV systems. Mobility, in fact, is probably the leading trend, but the most unexpected trend, perhaps, is that AV companies are increasingly trying to operate green systems and build green infrastructures whenever feasible when doing installation work.

Opinions expressed in SMPTE Newswatch do not necessarily reflect those of SMPTE. Reference to specific products do not represent an endorsement, recommendation, or promotion.

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Table of Contents

Tracking Mobile Media

MPEG in Context

Xbox Leads Connected TV Race

Portable AV

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