By Peter J. Brown
There is much work to be done in the multimedia world, as the owners of new fixed, portable and mobile devices that dot the landscape in rapidly increasing numbers express their desire for more new content. This is no longer a matter of tracking trends in North America and Europe. That era ended long ago. Instead, much of Asia, the Middle East and other regions make up this emerging global rich media-driven market.
For rich media creators and distributors, catching up with this demand is taking on a sense of urgency. The tools are there and so is the creative energy that can address the needs of consumer and enterprise markets alike.
So what exactly is rich media? Kristin Zurovitch, Mediasite product manager, at Madison, Wis.-based Sonic Foundry, defines rich media as the integration of online audio and/or video with one or more personal computer-based applications, such as Powerpoint slides, opinion polls or text downloads. Sometimes referred to as webcasts, these integrated presentations are distributed via Internet-style networks and can be accessed by users on a live or on-demand basis, according to Zurovitch. Sonic Foundry's Mediasite rich media systems allow customers to create and deliver rich media by capturing, synchronizing and publishing audio, video and graphics from Powerpoint, electronic white boards, document cameras and other presentation devices.
"Rich media gives satellite viewers some of the most compelling entertainment experiences available today. These rich entertainment options are delivered through a combination of audio, video and graphics that enhance television shows and commercials," says Dalen Harrison, president and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Ensequence, which works with satellite operators like Dish Network and BSkyB to broadcast interactive television shows and commercials for various networks, channels and advertisers. "Rich media enables interactivity and personalization, giving viewers content that is relevant to the programs that they are watching."
Brian Skimmons, Loral Skynet's vice president of global Internet protocol (IP) services, adds yet another dimension. "The definition of rich media continues to evolve and varies based on a given set of end-user requirements and expectations," he says. "For enterprise and government customers, rich media typically includes corporate communications (one or two-way), business TV, private networks, interactive webcasts and on-demand IP streaming (integrated audio/video/graphics to PCs across a LAN/WAN)," says Skimmons. "For consumers, rich media could be IPTV, multimedia content exchanges on gaming consoles, PCs and mobile phones."
The versatility of rich media enables a variety of organization to take advantage of the medium, Skimmons says. "Distance learning companies such as Unopar (University of North Parana) in Brazil are using the power of broadband satellite to reach smaller communities with a variety of self-paced training courses from accounting to auto repair, across the country," he says.
Digital signage and distance learning are the main applications driving rich media distribution in the enterprise market, according to Sampath Ramaswami, senior director, strategic development, North American division at Hughes Network Systems LLC (HNS). Ramaswami emphasizes that while consumers in North America and elsewhere are utilizing broadband satellite to download music, courseware and software, there has been an enormous uptick in the launch of global enterprise solutions using rich media. Broadband service overall now represents approximately half of HNS' business. "In the retail sector, companies such as Tesco in the United Kingdom are increasing sales and customer loyalty with targeted ads in their stores; while ASDA (the U.K. subsidiary of Wal-Mart) has rolled out a training and business TV network," says Ramaswami.
As enterprise customers seek to identify appropriate rich media and content management technologies, the budget to pay for it looms as a contentious issue, according to Skimmons. "There could be turf wars between, for example, [human resources], which wants such a capability, and the IT group that is concerned about performance and ongoing management," Skimmons says. "With the government sector, customers like the greater flexibility given their goals of national security, promoting cultural awareness and goodwill."
Budgets are also a factor in the consumer markets, as consumers who are starting to combine their TV watching with IP access and IP networking are, in turn, generating greater demand for rich media content availability and distribution on a two-way basis. "Consumer implementations are driven by a combination of content and cost. Success has varied by market," says Skimmons. "Another key factor in demand is that traditional asymmetrical traffic flows are becoming more symmetrical as consumer and enterprise customers upload from their homes and desktops pictures, videos and other rich content files. The improved cost and broadband functionality of network usage are making this possible and driving greater demand."
At Gilat Satellite Networks Inc., the primary application driving the demand for rich media distribution is business TV, which is used widely for corporate communications and marketing purposes and constitutes a significant part of Gilat's business. "Rich media on a Gilat VSAT network enables two-way connectivity, either through video, voice or electronic communication," says Raz Korn, Gilat's director, product line management. "Because Gilat's technology is based on an open IP platform, any media content that needs to be transmitted can be delivered over our Skyedge VSAT system. By using a standards-based outbound channel, DVB-S, we can integrate native DVB-S video and data streams into our system and we can deliver media rich content over IP to low cost DVB-S receivers."
Korn emphasizes that not only is content awareness important within this environment - Gilat provides a platform that allows for this service - but that having the ability to support both broadcast and multicast is important, too, because multicasting enables the delivery of rich media content to customers in a segmented manner. "Specific examples of IP multicast are distance learning, music distribution, management presentations to employees, product launch initiatives and advertisements," says Korn. "However, depending upon the type of rich media, there may be a need to integrate equipment and software at the hub as well as perform modifications at the remote sites. For example, if native DVB-S video streams are required, then there is a need for modifications at the sites. But, if we are dealing with MPEG-4 video or content delivery over IP, then remote-site modifications may be limited to a software installation."