Coming At You: MPEG-4

This article has been published with permission from InterVideo, Inc. It may not be published in any form outside without exclusive permisson from InterVideo, Inc.

On February 12 Apple announced QuickTime 6, the latest version of its multimedia software. Curiously, Apple did not launch the product. In its press release Apple noted, "Although the QuickTime 6 software is complete and ready for release, Apple is delaying its release until MPEG-4 video licensing terms are improved." In other words, MPEG-4 support is so vital to the release of QuickTime 6 that Apple is withholding the product from the market until MPEG-4 support is complete.

The question is: Who cares? What’s the big deal about MPEG-4?

Well, a lot actually. The technical answer is that MPEG-4 delivers high quality video at very low bit rates. What that means is that MPEG-4 is the coolest thing to hit digital audio and video, maybe ever and, at the very least, promises to reorient the way we are used to seeing video on the Web, on PDAs and on all sorts of devices.

MPEG-4, which was released in December 1999, is an ISO/IEC standard for audio and video developed by MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group), which is the same group that developed MPEG-1, which enabled video on a CD-ROM, and MPEG-2, which is the basis for DVDs and digital TV. More relevant for this discussion is that MPEG also developed MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, commonly known as MP3, which is the audio standard that kick-started digital audio from to Napster. MPEG-4 has the potential to do the same thing for video.

Thinking in terms of video is an easy way to talk about the MPEG technologies. MPEG-1 video is slightly better than VHS quality, and you can fit about an hour of video on a blank CD-ROM. MPEG-2 is DVD quality video, if you could squeeze it on a CD-ROM, you would only be able to fit about 15 minutes of video. MPEG-4, however, offers nearly the same quality as MPEG-2 but it is only about 1/11th of the size. To put that in perspective you could put a 110-minute, full-resolution MPEG-4 movie, with stereo audio (16 bit, 48 kHz) on a single 700 MB CD-ROM. The analogy of video across the web has always been that of trying to fit an elephant through a straw. MPEG-4 is more like fitting a pea through a straw.

Now, it is easier to see why a lot of people are getting excited about MPEG-4. There are a lot of innovations within MPEG-4. However, rather than discussing new algorithms and variable bit rates, it is more fun to talk about how you will soon experience MPEG-4 as DVD quality video and audio in a wide range of applications. Streaming video will no longer be blocky and jerky, it will soon look better than the picture on your VCR. You’ll be able to get the same quality video on your PDA, wirelessly. 2D and 3D graphics companies are excited as well because MPEG-4 compresses their content into very small files. MPEG-4 has audio uses as well, bringing the ability for audio-on-demand that sounds great even on slow connections. And speaking of on-demand and over a network, MPEG-4 has the potential for high-quality, low-bandwidth video over a network. Whether that takes the form of peer-to-peer or of tapping into a central broadcast remains to be seen. But there are already sites like popping up and preparing for those days of ubiquitous web video. And there is a big network already, called the Internet, just waiting to fill up with the sites and sounds of MPEG-4.

Dr. C.-C. Jay Kuo is Chief Scientist for InterVideo, a software company that makes audio and video software including WinDVD, the world’s most popular DVD player for computers. InterVideo is also working on a variety of MPEG-4 applications. Dr. Kuo is also Professor of EE at the University of Southern California and a Fellow of IEEE and SPIE. He has made contributions to MPEG-4, MPEG-7 and JPEG-2000 standards, and published more than 500 technical papers in international journals and conferences.
Written by: Petteri Pyyny