Rich Media: What The Customer Really Wants
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 24×7’ 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."
Addressing Premium Content And Brand ROI
David Jamieson, head of media solutions at BT Media and Broadcast, is already looking ahead to the future of rich media, and sees interactive advertising being a big driver in the evolution of the concept.
"The term rich media appeared with the arrival of broadcast.com about five years ago, but today with all Web sites and even Powerpoint slides containing a mixture of animated graphics, audio and video clients, it now tends to refer to a multimedia look and feel," says Jamieson.
"If you take rich media as being premium content, which content users pay for directly, then rights management or the protection of existing rights deals is key. Most content owners are keen to protect their existing revenue streams and are wary of the Internet," he adds. "In the IP world, if any of the encryption or rights management wrappers are breached, one ripped copy posted on an FTP server can be distributed in large volumes, not just affecting the Internet channel to market but also destroying the traditional physical channels to market."
Rich media as it applies to the advertising world, including most broadcasting content, involves a different set of challenges, according to Jamieson. And the challenge of convincing advertisers and media agencies about the critical nature of ‘Brand return on investment’ is high on the list.
When it comes to attempts to drive advertising messages, Jamieson sees the challenge involving rich media as one of convincing advertisers and media agencies of ‘Brand ROI’. Convincing end users to spend more time with a brand requires the technologists who handle current content distribution to think more about the context of what users are doing when they view content, according to Jamieson.
"With the Internet, end users are now not just sitting in the living room passively absorbing content, but are now in the bedroom, at work, or on the move. So, on one hand, you have ‘paid for’ content owners trying to restrict access, and on the other hand, you have advertising brand owners who are trying to do the opposite and get their message out to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible." says Jamieson.
BT Media and Broadcast offers products that focus on a ‘create one, distribute many’ approach. For ‘paid for’ content owners, this company offers white labeled platforms then formats, encrypts, manages rights, distributes and bills users on a global basis, targeting global brands and helping them get an undiluted message all the way to their customers, according to Jamieson.
"For a media or brand owner, BT Media and Broadcast offers the ability to delivery a brand message across multiple mediums and to offer interactive return paths allowing real-time measurement of the effectiveness of their spend," he says.
"A mobile user may only want to see previews or summaries with an invite to purchase if it is ‘paid for’ content, or if it is ‘advertising sponsored’ content, be compelled to download or view more. In some contexts, preview and payment may be a relevant mobile experience with final fulfillment being a static absorption mode activity at home. By addressing or supporting all modes by which rich media can be delivered, we can support QoS or contextual dependent content delivery."
IP Packet Filtering And Content Awareness Are Essential
At Comtech EF Data, IP-enabled satellite modems provide advanced FEC technology, end-to-end QoS, payload and header compression, and a wide array of modulation choices. These modems maximize delivery for any content while promoting bandwidth efficiency, while the prioritization of traffic is addressed via a ‘Diff Serv’ feature as well.
In addition, by using packet-filtering technology to create appropriate flows, the best lossless compression of the payload is achieved. The CDM-570L satellite modem can provide priority treatment for mission critical applications and allow non-critical traffic to use the remaining bandwidth, while the just-released CDD-564L quad demodulator was engineered to maximize IP-over-satellite link efficiency with the integrated router and IP module functionality, which utilize Telnet, HTTP and SNMP.
Comtech EF Data also offers performance enhancement proxy (PEP) products, the turboIP and turboVR, which can alleviate TCP/IP bottlenecks in impaired environments (high bit error rate, high delay) while preserving interoperability with any TCP device.
A sister company, Comtech Vipersat Networks Inc., provides complete solutions that optimize bandwidth utilization for broadband two-way multimedia over satellite networks in the global marketplace. The company’s products enable applications such as video teleconferencing, voice, data and Internet/Intranet delivery to a variety of industries. Product features include dynamic bandwidth allocation and switching, data carrier management, single hop on demand, multi-transponder mode and voice prioritization.
Given the importance of content awareness in rich media delivery every step of the way, Comtech EF Data addresses it in a number of ways.
"Content becomes an issue when it causes network congestion. Comtech EF Data addresses content awareness through QoS technology by using session knowledge to differentiate traffic to the appropriate places. QoS automatically recognizes the packet type and directs it accordingly," says Enns. "Complementing our QoS, full IP header compression also optimizes bandwidth allocation, reducing operating expense costs associated with rich media transmission."
"Thales delivers QoS in two ways," says Barouxis. "Thales delivers some QoS at IP level with our Opencast multicast software solution. The Opencast is an excellent companion to the widely deployed Opal IP Encapsulator. The Opal offers statistical IP and adds even more QoS to Thales’ end-to-end solutions."
Statistical IP is where a pool of bandwidth is allocated in the overall multiplex output by Opal, according to Barouxis. This fixed pool, called a "virtual channel," is dynamically shared among multiple packet IDs (PID). Each PID has a minimum guaranteed rate and a best effort rate with a priority. The sum of the minimum guaranteed rates has to fit the pool, of course, but at any time – Opal is constantly measuring the IP traffic that each PID has to encapsulate – if a PID uses less than its minimum, the delta between the actual rate and the minimum goes back into the pool as leftover bandwidth that can be used by other PIDs for their best effort rate.
"This, combined with the statistical aspect of the IP traffic and the queuing (First In, First Out or FIFO) for each PID, provides real QoS at the PID level," says Barouxis. "Most recently, Teleglobe has utilized the advanced QoS features of the Opal to provide services to their customers globally. Government agencies around the world have done the same."
While we asked him to outline how Thales addresses interfaces with terrestrial networks including hybrid WANs or WLANs, and what if any challenges are encountered in these architectures, he responded by saying that Thales does not have permission to discuss customers where this has come into play.
MPEG-4 Meeting Expectations
If rich media delivery performance is to advance to the next level, AVC or H.264 has to be ready for primetime. Thus far, all signals are go as the demand for rich media content starts to soar. Our assembled panel of experts offers their insights as follows.
"As service providers expand their offerings, maximizing bandwidth usage is critical to their success," says Signes. "The increasing demand for video services over limited bandwidth positions MPEG-4 technology in the right place at the right time. Consumers expect high quality and a myriad of choices. Whether a provider is delivering broadcast video to a mobile device, educational or business content to a desktop or an HD television stream to a subscriber’s home, they need a technology that will allow them to increase service offerings and quality over time. MPEG-4 is that standard and AVC is a key component of that technology."
"We see an increased interest in H.264. Thales supports open standards and is all for wider spread adoption of H.264," says Barouxis. "That said H.264 is just a codec, and to us rich media can be any format. We are primarily concerned with delivering traffic in the most efficient and economical way for our users."
"The issues in the IPTV space which uses H.264 seem to be around the real-time de-encryption and de-encoding of content which seems to be more of a struggle for the current generation of STBs, and the standardization of the user interface," says Jamieson. "The other related issue is whether it is inevitable that Microsoft will dominate this space."
Lockard indicates that Ascent Media is just beginning to look at H.264.
"Once the standard is more widely adopted it could have a very significant impact, depending on where it penetrates," he says. "The ability to send broadcast – even editorial quality material – at significantly lower bit-rates than MPEG-2 with the same quality could open up many new possibilities for distributed or collaborative production workflows. H.264, if implemented by Microsoft and Apple, could eliminate many of the cross-platform issues around proxy materials for review and approvals, dailies, etc. as well."
For any readers wondering about the Microsoft rich media agenda including the status of the VC-1 solution, we contacted Microsoft, but they elected not to participate.
Apart from the roadmap for low bit rate encoding, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) looms in the background as an attractive option because it provides a secure and segregated virtual network environment. For example, for Ascent Media clients using MPLS VPN technology, according to Lockard, Ascent Media could deploy a single IP-based backbone, thus saving on redundant and expensive IP infrastructures.
"It could also allow us to securely extend the Ascent Media backbone right into the existing WAN clouds of our clients and business partners, with the potential to create a more streamlined flow of material for production, post-production, and special effects material," says Lockard.
"A global MPLS network can offer a single network solution for all voice, data and media solutions. MPLS networks are not just for interfacing or bridging LANs. They offer the ability to extend the support to internal and external supply chains and to deliver rich media experiences to enterprise level customers," says Jamieson. "Using a mixture of VPNs and DSL technology, the latest terrestrial networks offer new workflow solutions to the creation of content on a distributed basis using satellite as an effective infill where required."
Keep Up With Rich Media Or Perish
We try to avoid making sweeping generalizations, but when it comes to content delivery, and multimedia content delivery in particular, you can bet that the rich media savvy will survive and all others will perish.
Satellite-based rich media delivery, as noted above, is not the same game as the one played by terrestrial service providers. Latency and large footprints are a fact of life. Rich media needs to get to a lot of customers, right down to his or her screen. That screen, large or small, has room for a satellite feed. So, the big question is not who will pay, but why they will pay.
Peter Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security editor. He also volunteers as a satellite technology and communications advisor to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.