By Peter J. Brown
In a world where interactivity and mobility matter, consumers see entertainment and communications as ice cream, and they want every flavor imaginable right at their fingertips, while businesses must cope with a diverse range of information as well as access and distribution requirements, which impact operations. Add it all up and it spells boom times for the creators and distributors of rich media.
Everyone has a slightly different definition of rich media, and all the subtle differences cannot go unmentioned.
"At a basic functional level, I define rich media as video, games and audio. I would say that definition initially focused on the Internet - broadband or narrowband, but today it extends across devices," says Aditya Kishore, media and entertainment strategies analyst at the Boston-based Yankee Group. "This is largely driven by the extension of media distribution to new platforms for consumption including interactivity and on-demand on TVs and set top boxes, multimedia content on mobile phones as well as gaming consoles, to mention a few."
"Bandwidth is probably the most significant challenge, while developing an easy-to-use user interface is critical as well," he adds.
"Rich media is defined today as the transmission of heavy or richer digital data such as music, video and interactive animation files, or any combination of those media. However, content definitions change as technology evolves and expands its reach in the satellite communications market," says Daniel Enns, senior vice president, strategic marketing and business development at AZ-based Comtech EF Data.
Enns describes the two biggest challenges encountered when delivering rich media as end-to-end network quality of service (QoS) and prioritization of real-time media. Any satellite- based transmission includes the challenges of minimizing latency and maximizing link efficiency.
"The term 'rich media' historically describes a broad range of digital interactive media. However, rich media means different things to different users," says Howard Barouxis, director of sales, Thales Broadcast & Multimedia. "To a BTV user or provider, it could be a suite of content that can be used for educational purposes, or for business communications. For a government user, it could be streaming media of an intelligent nature with associated metadata embedded into the image."
"The biggest challenge that users typically encounter is what satellite distribution answers so well: getting content out to many places at once and getting it out economically. We all know that satellite is ideal for the multipoint delivery of information; it is no different when it comes to rich media," adds Barouxis.
"The definition of rich media is changing as the public expects rich media to be delivered anywhere, anytime in a broader fashion than ever before from mobile devices to desktop computers to standard and high-definition television," says Julien Signes, president and CTO of CA-based Envivio, Inc., a company developing push and pull network technologies that can broadcast all rich media components within a single MPEG-4 stream. This entails authoring: server and player technology that allows the user to consume content that can dynamically change such as sensitive and real-time interactive information displayed as context-dependent messages over live video.
"Rich media has a temporal (time) component that traditional methods for handling rich media do not support," adds Signes.
Tokyo-based Mobile Broadcasting Corporation (MBCO), a satellite-driven digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) service for personal, and mobile device use, selected Envivio Inc.'s 4Caster, an H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC) encoding solution to encode the live feeds for its new Mobaho! service which is beamed to devices throughout Japan.
Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) is using the Envivio Mindshare presentation system (formerly called 4Forum) to transmit classes from its New York City campus to medical students at its Qatar campus in the Middle East. The Mindshare presentation system records daily interactive classes at the WCMC facility in New York, combining audio, video and graphics into single 1600 x 1200 resolution MPEG-4 files, for live or on-demand transmission over Internet protocol (IP).
For its two 24-hour news channels, 'NDTV 24x7' and 'NDTV-India,' New Delhi Television Ltd. (NDTV) in India operates a digital satellite newsgathering network (SNG) based entirely on MPEG-4 encoding with Envivio encoders. NDTV's new fleet of SNG vehicles, deployed throughout India, is equipped with 4Caster MPEG-4 encoders.
Tony Lockard, vice president, technology development at Ascent Media Group defines rich media more broadly.
"Rich media encompasses the many industry-standard multimedia formats, such as Windows Media, QuickTime, MPEG, and JPEG-2000. In addition, it would include the many Web and entertainment specific formats including Flash, Quark, Photoshop, Avid and Protools," says Lockard. "For us, it is really any file format used in the creation, distribution, or playout of multimedia content."
As far as bandwidth is concerned, he agrees with Kishore, emphasizing that last mile bandwidth into many locations especially "on set" at a cost-effective price is always an issue. Concealing the complexity of dealing with rich media material and integrating it into the workflows around production and post-production activities without significantly changing established processes is another challenge.
"Besides creating easy-to-use, non-intrusive systems for the creative talent, security is also a key consideration and challenge. Both network and file-based encryption mechanisms are required to give programmers and publishers the level of security they require. Ascent Media supports a variety of encryption, watermarking, DRM and key management processes to address these needs," says Lockard.
"One of the critical requirements from customers in file-based distribution solutions is the need to see the status of content through the pipe. Ascent Media has developed a series of services around end-to-end visibility of content state through the distribution channel," adds Lockard. "For streaming material, either low- or high-resolution QoS and other traffic shaping mechanisms become even more important, especially on shared IP infrastructures."
"The new Ascent Media Express file-based store and forward solution uses a number of forward error correction (FEC) and verification mechanisms, targeted at moving rich media files between Ascent Media locations, its clients, and business partners worldwide.
"This service uses a combination of terrestrial fiber and satellite to deliver files. Creating systems to deal with the very different transmission characteristics and requirements between fiber and satellite (latency, loss, etc.) can be a challenge," says Lockard. "However, traffic shaping and file transfer control systems from companies like Kencast, Orbital Data and Digital Rapids, for example, are making the transmission medium more transparent to the end applications."