SAN MATEO, Calif. MPEG-4 stands at ground zero in a contentious standards debate. At the dawn of streaming media, the embryonic standard is variously seen as a key enabler for tomorrow's multimedia cell phones and systems or as part "science fiction," as one chip executive put it.
Talk of MPEG-4 is everywhere, from this week's 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, where wireless-media companies will promote MPEG-4-compliant solutions delivering audio, video and multimedia applications, to the first quarterly meeting of the Internet Streaming Media Alliance earlier this month, where 75 vendors discussed ways to drive MPEG-4 forward for streaming media on the Web.
And Swisscom Mobile, Switzerland's leading telecommunications network carrier, this week will announce its first field trial of MPEG-4 wirelesss-multimedia services over its advanced General Packet Radio Service network, using PacketVideo Corp.'s PVPlatform 2.0. The authoring tools, and server and handset software, equip phones to decode MPEG-4 multimedia streams.
The debate leaves silicon vendors at sea over how, when or whether to support MPEG-4, as they struggle to pinpoint the killer subset of a standard that some see as too all-embracing.
With no clear path in sight, companies like STMicroelectronics hope to cover all the bases through programmability. "ST has solutions in development from lower to higher profiles of MPEG-4, optimizing the implementation application field by application field," said Alessandro Cremonesi, manager of ST's Advanced Systems R&D Lab.
MPEG-4 is "a big standard," said Tim Schaaff, vice president of engineering for Apple Computer Inc.'s Interactive Media Group. "It's got tons of tools inside." Its success, he said, will depend on the industry's willingness to home in on a small subset, winnowing from a number of profiles and levels designed for streaming a slew of digital multimedia types audio, several types of video, still images, and 2-D and 3-D graphics.
"MPEG-4 is a very ambitious standard, but its biggest problem is that it wasn't focused on anything," said Didier LeGall, vice president for R&D and chief technology officer at chip house C-Cube Microsystems Inc. LeGall dismissed MPEG-4's vaunted object-based coding one of the technologies that sets it apart from earlier MPEG spins as "science fiction" and "nothing more than a gadget" at this point. "I haven't seen any content with objects that really makes sense," he said.
But this may be a standard the industry can't afford to ignore. Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group, predicted flatly that MPEG-4 will be ubiquitous in many products in two to three years' time.
MPEG-4's chief features include highly efficient compression, error resilience, bandwidth scalability ranging from 5 kbits to 20 Mbits/second, network and transport-protocol independence, content security and object-based interactivity, or the ability to pluck a lone image say, the carrot Bugs Bunny is about to chomp out of a video scene and move it around independently.
Its very low-bit-rate audio and video coding capability and its built-in error resilience are what's wooing the wireless community. "The largest area of growth will be cellular phones by far," said Michelle Abraham, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat. With Internet-enabled mobile phones slated to hit 1 billion units by late 2004, "even 5 percent penetration gives MPEG-4 a huge number," she said.
Hence the big splash MPEG-4 is poised to make at 3GSM World this week. PacketVideo (San Diego), for one, will show its new PVPlayer decoding software for the playback of MPEG-4 audio and video on a handset. It has been optimized for the majority of chip sets for mobile devices, including those from ARM, Intel, Lucent, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, said Karen Brailean, vice president at PacketVideo.
Defining recommended technologies for wireless streaming media, the Wireless Multimedia Forum recently announced support for Simple Profile for MPEG-4 video, along with GSM-AMR technology for speech.
Broadband service providers, such as cable and DSL companies, are right behind wireless in sizing up MPEG-4, largely because its low bit rate could help them add channels in their broadband pipes while incorporating interactive features in the content. Possibilities include multiple video streams, clickable video, real-time 3-D animation and interactive advertising.
The Santa Clara, Calif., company iVAST Inc. is developing an end-to-end MPEG-4-based streaming-media platform for broadband networks, offering authoring tools and server and client software. And Philips Semiconductors is engaged in several trials with broadband service providers, using the TriMedia chip as an MPEG-4 engine to test interactive features that are part of the standard, said Thierry Fautier, product marketing manager.
Meanwhile, MPEG-4 is also currying interest in the Internet world. "We understand the power of standards. Rather than having our products tied to a single vendor's proprietary solution, we want to move MPEG-4 technology forward and see the number of applications expand," said Apple's Schaaff, who sits on the board of directors of the Internet Streaming Media Alliance.
This industry group formed late last year by Apple, Cisco, Kasenna, Philips and Sun, with a goal to accelerate adoption of MPEG-4 to stream rich media over the Net plans to define its own subset of MPEG-4 over the next six months. A version 1.0 spec is expected later this year.
MPEG-4's lure is all the tools it supplies for doing neat tricks with mixed media. For starters, it makes it possible for the first time to snip an object of any shape not just rectangles out of movies, cartoons and computer animations, and move them around at will. You could give Bugs' carrot to Elmer Fudd if you liked, for example. Moreover, when the network gets congested, the MPEG-4 video stream becomes scalable, since it treats the frame as an object and can drop frames as needed.
Critics complain that the very versatility makes MPEG-4 confusing and unfocused.
C-Cube's LeGall, who successfully shepherded the MPEG-2 video standard in the early1990s, described MPEG-4 as "solutions that are kind of looking for problems." LeGall predicted that Japan is most likely to turn MPEG-4 into a successful standard in low-bit-rate cellular phone applications.
However, "MPEG-4 addresses more or less the same problem" as competing streaming-video formats, he said, including de facto solutions by Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple, and international standards such as H.263 and H.263L. Rather than hoping for a single-standard scenario with MPEG-4 in the lead, LeGall warned that "Multistandards are becoming the fact of life. The possible end of standardization may be near."
In-Stat's Kaufhold, however, pointed out that both RealNetworks and Microsoft plan to support MPEG-4 in their product road maps, suggesting that MPEG-4 could ultimately put compatibility problems to rest.
Exactly how soon it comes and how big the MPEG-4 market will be are questions still under intense discussion in the industry. Aside from the cell phones and PDAs, it remains unclear if the standard will find its way into enough other markets to justify semiconductor companies' modifying their chips for embedded applications like set-top boxes. The industry is further split on which MPEG-4 profiles, levels and feature sets need to be supported in given applications by servers, client systems and chips.
Despite LeGall's qualms about MPEG-4, C-Cube Microsystems is preparing to support it. The company's multistream, multiformat network media processor architecture, called Domino, is due for introduction in the first half of this year. It can decode and display up to four standard-definition streams, and supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2, HDTV and low-bit-rate MPEG-4 streaming. Silicon based on Domino offers real-time "transcoding" re-recording streams in one format to another and "trans-rating," or re-encoding media streams within one format by retargeting bits for more efficient program storage.
Philips' new Nexperia 8500 platform a dual-processor architecture composed of a MIPS CPU and a 200-MHz TriMedia VLIW engine can handle multiple object planes in the MPEG-4 standard, said Philips' Fautier: four for the simple profile and 16 for the advanced profile.
Ken Nicholson, director of client development at iVAST, predicted that if MPEG-4 catches on, media coprocessors will become important in client hardware such as set-tops. "None of the present CPUs are pipelined for signal processing," he said. "They are not efficient and not cost effective enough."
MPEG-4 will also give rise to a new breed of graphics chips with hardware-acceleration capabilities. "Plans for our ASIC-level support for MPEG-4 kick in, in early 2002," said David Cummings, manager of the multimedia software program at graphics-IC maker ATI Technologies Inc. "Current MPEG-4 applications for example, video for streaming from Web sites tends to be low-bit-rate," so there is no need for decode acceleration in the graphics chip on the PC platform. But, said Cummings, "We anticipate this will change."
The extent to which upcoming ATI chips will accelerate MPEG-4 are still under examination. "But we feel the timing is right, as a lot more high-bit-rate content is expected to become available," said Cummings.
Nicholson of iVAST suggested that 3-D graphics chips may need to handle multiple streaming, variable-length decoding, interpolation filters and deblocking filters to make next-generation graphics capable of accelerating emerging MPEG-4 applications.
MPEG-4 will also demand much more intelligent decoders, equipped with a shape-decoding algorithm to decode objects of arbitrary shapes, a compositor for overlaying objects and memory to render such interactive components, said Mark Banham, director of engineering for core technology at PacketVideo.
At the International Solid-State Circuits Conference earlier this month, Matsushita unveiled the industry's first dedicated MPEG-4 chip capable of encoding and decoding multiple objects of arbitrary shapes for handheld devices.