Multimedia Matters: WM9 On Track At SMPTE, While Another Gem Emerges
by Peter J. Brown
Given what is at stake and the magnitude of what is unfolding at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) with respect to the ongoing standardization process involving the Windows Media 9 Series, in early February we posed some questions to Peter Symes, SMPTE engineering vice president.
Will SMPTE go ahead and approve the standard in question without substantial revisions? How long will this process take at SMPTE? These are not easy questions to answer, but the answers will have a great impact on the competitive landscape as well as on content providers and service operators alike who would probably prefer to have a selection of standardized advanced encoding solutions to choose from for many reasons.
Via Satellite (VS): What does VC9 stand for?
Peter Symes (PS): I do not think it stands for anything officially. I assume the derivation was "video codec." We do not permit trademarks in standards naming, but "9" clearly links it to WM9, and that will help to minimize confusion.
VS: How long should this standardization process take?
PS: There is no real answer to that. It becomes a standard when and if it achieves consensus in the Technology Committee. At present the syntax document is at the "Working Draft" stage. It has not yet been elevated to "Committee Draft (CD)," mainly because many members thought the elements of a conformance plan should be defined before proceeding with the syntax document. CD means the choice of technology, and the content and structure of the proposal are approved. When CD is approved, the next step is "Final Committee Draft" where we make sure all the technical details are correct. Finally (in the Technology Committee), the "Draft Standard" stage approves for Trial Publication and public comment. Following this, and resolution of any comments, the overall procedure is reviewed by the Standards Committee prior to publication as a SMPTE Standard.
Each of these steps can take more or less time depending on the complexity of the document and the level of participation throughout the process. I would hope for completion during 2005.
VS: Does this process entail a set of benchmarks or an established set of performance tests, etc?
PS: Yes. This has not been SMPTE practice, but with a document of this complexity the experts advise us that reference software and bitstreams are essential parts of the process. So, requirements for a conformance plan were added at the last meeting in December. We discussed exactly what was required at the March meeting. Microsoft has indicated its willingness to provide the necessary elements.
VS: Has SMPTE applied this standardization process to any other advanced coding scheme previously?
PS: No. We are seeing a substantial change in the complexity of the tasks we have to undertake. The turning point was really the development of the MXF file format [Media Exchange Format] standards, a very long and complex process. In retrospect, this might have been quicker and smoother if we had recognized at the beginning the value of developing conformance tools along with the textual standards.
VS: Are there any special considerations given the broadcast applications involved?
PS: In general the potential for broadcast use sets a very high benchmark. Standards exist to promote interoperability among the products and systems of different manufacturers and different users. A defective standard has negative value, in that it creates an illusion that users can purchase and use "conforming" equipment, but fails to provide (at least) the standard of reliability needed by a broadcast user. That is why we have had to listen carefully to the experts from other organizations and take their advice on what is needed to make VC9 robust and reliable.
As you can see, the fact that this is the first undertaking of its type at SMPTE is not to be overlooked. As for the adoption of advanced modulation techniques, the implementation of DVB-S2, and the growing interest in such things as the Advanced Common Application Platform at the Advanced Television Systems Committee, well, there is a lot on the stack.
Interactive multimedia must move on as well, and it must be accomplished in a closely choreographed exercise. The adoption of any advanced encoding solution, however, is not dependent upon the widespread adoption of Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), although the two are certainly evolving simultaneously in a most amazing fashion.
The pursuit of a standard for interactive television that is truly global in scope has been given a boost by several standards bodies who have given the thumbs up to the DVB- GEM (Globally Executable MHP) specification.
Peter MacAvock, executive director of the DVB project office reminds readers that, "deploying MHP is not like deploying a new TV channel–it requires set-top-boxes consistent with the state-of-the-art today and a sophisticated download. It is not something to be contemplated lightly."
As more and more emphasis is placed on the availability of satellite-delivered on demand and interactive (ITV) content let alone HDTV, the status of the relatively few advanced encoding options becomes more central to everyone’s bottom line.
Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor.