What's The Video Equivalent Of MP3?
International Digital Video Standard Needed
By Trevor Marshall
April 10, 2000
Several days ago, I downloaded a program called Napster (www.napster.com). The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed a lawsuit against the college student that wrote Napster, and it has good reason to be afraid of it.
MP3 For Audio
For the danger of Napster to traditional (old-economy) business is that it forms the nucleus of a new community -- a community that need not be constrained by barriers of locality, culture, law, or nationality. People joining this community agree to share their MP3 music clips with others in the community. The Napster software facilitates easy exchange of the MP3 files.
The RIAA lawyers describe such exchange as piracy. Clearly, the participants in the Napster community do not agree with the lawyers. And as the size of the virtual community grows, it could well become a political constituency with enough clout to challenge the fundamental legal precepts that support music distribution, the copyright laws themselves.
After all, music distribution has always protected itself with its sheer size and political muscle, and the artists usually get only a small fraction of the total revenues. So it stands to reason the RIAA understands the need to keep these virtual communities from growing, until it can figure out a way to extract revenues from this "new-economy" concept for music distribution.
In many ways, the Napster community is similar to the open source community. Thumbing their collective noses at conventional big business, setting their own rules and quality standards, and working at the bleeding edge of technology.
Meanwhile, MP3 audio compression technology has become a standard, universally accepted as providing "near perfect" sound quality. It is not perfect, of course, even a 192K encoding rate does not reproduce some of my music clips without audible degeneration, but it has been accepted as "good enough." And rather better than cassette tapes.
Will A Standard Arise For Video?
What are the prospects for a similar standard for worldwide video exchange? What are the technical barriers to the sharing of video within these virtual communities, and how they are being overcome, both by hobbyists (the industry calls them 'hackers') and also by some sections of the industry itself?
Well, streaming video is already a universal standard. Although the European Union complained this week that American companies were starting to dominate the Internet, it is unlikely that the EU, the motion-picture industry, or anybody else, will be able to roll back the clock on the dominant streaming-media formats. They are here to stay.
But the quality of streaming media is abysmal. On my website there is a page I created to catalog my memories of Bon Scott, the AC/DC lyricist, whom I knew in the early 1970s. I have a video clip off an old VHS tape that I think best captures Bon's impish humor, and some time ago, I converted it to streaming video and put it on my Web server. But even at an 80-kilobit data rate the video is choppy and low resolution. Better than nothing, but only barely.
I get lots of e-mail from people wanting to buy the videotape and asking where they can buy it. At this point, I have a problem. You see, the videotape is in PAL format (because I bought it in London) and has not been released in the NTSC video format used in the United States. Yes, the tape can be ordered from an Internet store in Europe or Australia, but American customers will not be able to play it on their TVs or VCRs.
Sometime early this century, an alternating current frequency of 60 Hz was selected for use in the United States.
Europe standardized on 50 Hz. When television arrived, the early cathode ray tubes (CRTs) were poorly shielded and very susceptible to stray electromagnetic fields. If you tried to use a 60 Hz CRT in Europe, for example, the screen would 'shimmer' at a 10 Hz rate due to pickup of stray radiation from the 50 Hz mains. Stroboscopic effects in the camera tubes were even more severe, and the use of a TV scan rate not synchronized with the lighting power source would have quickly necessitated stage lighting run completely from direct current.
That did not happen, of course. Different standards for television sets sprung up in different regions of the world.
The 50-Hz systems evolved into a color TV system called Phase Alternate Line (PAL), and the 60-Hz color systems became NTSC (Never The Same Color or National Television Systems Committee). France protected its own manufacturers with a variation on PAL called Sequential Couleur avec Memoire (SECAM), which is also used in parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Did you note that key concept, "France protected its manufacturers." Well, so did just about every other country.
If you are in South America you will probably be using PAL/M or PAL/N. Australia uses PAL/D, while you will find PAL/B, PAL/G, PAL/K and PAL/I in various parts of Europe. SECAM/L is used in France, but SECAM/D and SECAM/K are variants in use elsewhere. The Japanese use our own NTSC system, but have a totally different frequency for the color subcarrier. What chaos!
VGA And SVGA Computers
In the past decade computer monitors evolved to the point where scan frequencies no longer needed total synchronization with the mains frequency to prevent shimmer. Additionally, the SVGA is a pixel-based standard, rather than a scan-line based standard. Consequently, anybody, whether they are in Asia, in Europe, or in America, can view the 320 pixel by 200-pixel streaming-video clip on my website oblivious to the format in which it was originally recorded.
In 1993, I was lucky enough to attend the definitive rollout of European HDTV, organized by Meckler Media in London. The highlight was a 30-ft projection screen set up with the best HDTV technology of the day. It was amazing -- hard to distinguish from 35-mm movies.
One of the keynote speakers was Microsoft vice president Nathan Myrhvold, who astounded the assembled television executives by delivering his whole presentation using his laptop with HDTV video (laptops were novel in 1993), and got very frustrated at the attempts by those broadcasting executives to pour cold water on this new technology.
"In the last 10 years we have created an entire industry" he fumed "and in the next 10 we will create another, whether you help us or not."
Well, we are seven years on, and the broadcast industry has done its best to slow down the HD-standardization process. But Nathan's prediction has three years to run, and I suspect he will prove correct. The adoption rate for large LCD computer displays, to show video from DVD and DV sources, increased tremendously in 1999, and I believe there is no looking back.
DVD, A Universal Standard?
Unfortunately not. Or at least, not yet. Not only are both PAL and NTSC versions of DVDs manufactured, but DVDs are also "region locked." The industry has divided the world into eight regions, and DVDs from one region cannot normally be played in another region. More about these zone locks can be obtained from the DVD FAQ website. This FAQ also has a comprehensive explanation of the DVD PAL/ SECAM/ NTSC issues at FAQ 1.19
There is, however, a plethora of websites describing how to override these zone locks. Some manufacturers, for a fee, also sell players that can be programmed to view DVDs from any specified region.
DV, The Camcorder Format There is another format for digital video that has gained popularity recently called DV. This uses the interface called iLink by Sony, and FireWire by Apple. Many new computers are now being delivered with built-in interface connectors for DV, and driver support was incorporated into Windows 98. During the past year, the prices for DV camcorders have dropped significantly, and a check of my local superstore showed that DV cameras with IEEE 1394 computer interfaces are now selling for around $600. DV delivers professional video quality to the desktop.
Next month, I am going to look at DV camcorders and examine ways of using computers and DV technology to capture and convert videos between PAL and NTSC formats, with essentially no generation loss.