Rich Media: Offers Wide Range Of Opportunities

By | March 1, 2006 | Broadcasting, Feature, Telecom

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."

Distributing Rich Media Is Not Like HDTV Broadcasting

Delivering or distributing rich media is far different from broadcasting DTV and HDTV, because TV is typically one-way, while rich media is often two-way and interactive. "TV distribution is full-time," says Skimmons. "Rich media can have heavy requirements during the workday that fall off at night. TV distribution has channels dedicated to a transponder that may not involve active management. Rich media, on the other hand, can involve platforms and bandwidth with a number of customers whose time and use have to be coordinated and supported," says Skimmons.

In addition, quality assurance in TV distribution focuses primarily on satellite availability in terms of transponder power and bandwidth, whereas distribution of rich media content typically involves an end-to-end service level agreements that specify quality and performance across the network, according to Skimmons. Satellite resources will vary depending on the number of sites and quality of service requirements. "Satellite network operators need to proactively monitor traffic and adjust the requested bandwidth of their customers to efficiently meet the increased needs of rich media," he says. "Committed information rates need to be developed and understood at the start of network implementation and adjusted based on traffic flows. Also, there is a greater need to apply [quality of service], or application prioritization capabilities, to customer traffic."

Global satellite coverage and advanced IP hubs are essential for delivering rich media, says Skimmons. Skynet offers both. "Rich media requires highly robust and secure networks. Skynet has the customer support capabilities and encryption methods to meet the security and support needs of our customers around the world," he says. "Skynet provides [service level agreements] and [quality of service] metrics based on customer requirements that cost-effectively support and optimize the delivery of rich media content."

Satellite IP-based networks offer powerful advantages in providing a flexible, robust and interactive platform; consumer-oriented broadcast networks such as DTV or HDTV have completely different requirements, according to Ramaswami. Among other things, enterprises demand a high degree of control over all facets of their media distribution networks. "Because of the influence on shoppers, for example, a wrong or improperly timed message or poor image quality can result in an unintended negative experience. In addition, the enterprise may use the same private media network for internal applications, such as staff training and business TV," he says. "There are advantages to satellite delivery of media rich content: ubiquity and the multicast/broadcast nature of the technology. These attributes enable satellite to uniformly deliver high-quality content cost-effectively, continent-wide, independent of distance."

If anything, rich media is going to become even richer with time – higher resolution, more colorful and increasingly multidimensional – resulting in ever larger files and a greater dependency on compression, which is absolutely necessary to make the economics of rich media work, according to Scott Calder, president and CEO of Utah-based Mainstream Data Inc. "The other edge of the compression sword is that losses of relatively small amounts of data result in useless files. This has necessitated some of the more robust error correction coding that Mainstream employs, as well as hybrid distribution architectures whereby damaged or missing data blocks can be recovered using the terrestrial IP infrastructure," he says.

One of Mainstream’s clients is Technicolor Digital Cinema, which uses Mainstream’s technology for delivery of digital cinema products to movie theaters across North America. "We are currently distributing very large (multi-gigabyte) high-quality video files as an essential part of Technicolor’s Skyarc digital satellite network to theaters. The files we send today include movie trailers and pre-show advertising, and we expect to begin transmitting feature films shortly," says Calder.

For NTN Buzztime Inc.’s 4000-site network of restaurants and bars, Mainstream delivers a combination of feature video and advertising as well as system metadata to control and schedule local playback of that content. In addition, approximately 2,000 of the NTN sites use two-way VSATs to facilitate IP connectivity for credit card verification, communication of point-of-service information, interactive distance learning and Internet connectivity.

Mainstream Data has been distribution technology agnostic since its founding and currently builds at least as many terrestrial and hybrid systems as satellite-only networks. Mainstream has also seen the demand for bandwidth – a proxy for increasingly rich media content – growing at a rate of at least 50 percent per year, for the last 20 years, according to Calder. "And we are smart enough not to bet against history; the growth will absolutely continue," he says. "We see the hybrid satellite-Internetwork as the optimal distribution modality of the future."

Rich Media Gains Momentum

Because satellite service providers can now offer one-stop, turnkey managed services, including the total network infrastructure plus in-store equipment such as plasma screens, applications software, installation and maintenance, Ramaswami sees plenty of opportunities ahead. HNS network operations centers can host customer ads or business-related content on high-performance, redundant servers, operating with sophisticated software that allows for directing selected files to selected sites on a pre-programmed basis. "Of course, there is a high degree of network security, including multiple levels of encryption and other safeguards. The overall architecture of satellite delivery is highly robust, secure and lends itself to a single, managed [service level agreements]. HNS, for example offers a comprehensive, fully managed private media network service that assumes responsibility for end-to-end operation, ranging from content ingest/formatting to control of the remote displays, all centrally controlled," says Ramaswami. "The enterprise can then focus on the messaging and application aspects of rich media, rather than the operational aspects."

Among the areas of improvement that Ramaswami and others point to, the need for improved algorithms that can more efficiently integrate rich media with lower rate data and IP traffic. Making rich media and interactive services more responsive through further refinements in the use of IP spoofing over satellite and the local caching of content, while at the same time, ensuring that evolving video technology, such as high-quality encoding and compression, is quickly integrated into network operations, are also key areas of concern.

The process is by no means complete, while the enthusiasm for rich media keeps building.

Peter Brown is Via Satellite’s senior Multimedia and Homeland Security editor.

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