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Network Video Computing.

The Open, Scalable Solution to Video-enabling NT, IP Networks

Educators, sociologists and psychologists have known for many years that people retain more of what they see and hear than what they read ... and, they retain it longer. For years, organizations struggled with analog data. With the emergence of easily developed and managed rich digital data (relational, spatial, text, image, video, and audio) they wanted to be able to deliver full-motion video across their networks. Advancements in Internet technology and its universal Internet Protocol (IP) paved the way, and numerous LAN-based video systems emerged to address specific applications. However, because these systems use proprietary protocols, sharing of data and applications with other LANs can range from difficult to impossible.

The growing demand for cross-platform interoperability is only a small part of a much broader revolution in information technology called Network Video Computing (NVC). NVC lets any network user instantly and interactively access any network-attached video content. The video content can be live videos or collections of prerecorded video files. With NVC, video is seamlessly integrated with other media such as text, graphics, and images, and becomes an integral part of computing. NVC brings together the functions of network-centric computing and multimedia computing, and lays the foundation for the ultimate digital convergence of computing and entertainment.


The spectacular growth in any-to-any Internet computing makes it clear that the availability of full-motion video content on the Internet and IP networks such as Extranets and Intranets will stimulate economic opportunities for forward-looking firms in the U.S. and around the globe. Forrester Research, International Data Corporation and other leading international market research firms have forecasted that there will be billions of dollars in commercial opportunities for organizations that can quickly deliver all types of information inside and outside their corporate walls. Analysts at these firms project that the new delivery, management, and reception technologies will realign the entire communications industry. NVC creates the opportunity for a new class of extremely powerful communications, collaboration, training, and education solutions that will catalyze the growth of distance learning, point-of-sale kiosks, multimedia catalogs, remote healthcare services and a host of other applications.

It is a flexible solution that can incorporate newly developed applications on legacy systems, as well as the existing client/server environment. It is an efficient solution that leverages the capabilities of today's advanced multiprocessor systems to improve overall response times. Finally, it is a scalable solution that will grow to accommodate the user organization's changing requirements.


The core of NVC is video streaming--the innovative technologies that enable efficient play of full-motion video content over networks with guaranteed quality. Inherited from analog TV, full motion video is essentially a sequence of images played out at constant intervals. For example NTSC, the standard analog video format in the United States, specifies 30 frames per second. If the sequence of images is not played out at constant intervals, the quality of video rapidly degrades to a jerky motion and the sound breaks. This rigid timing property is referred to as the isochronous requirement.

File servers are designed to minimize transfer latency during conventional network transfers and are insensitive to video's unique timing requirement. As a result, delivery rates are irregular and produce erratic playback, as depicted in Fig 1.

Video streaming technologies are real-time network transfers that maintain the video's critical timing property throughout the entire delivery period, as depicted in Fig 2.

The ability to distribute video content in a rigidly timed stream is just as critical in Video-On-Demand (VOD) applications as it is in Video Multicast (VMC) applications. In addition, they each have their own set of unique requirements. VOD is a client/server application and requires a video-streaming technology that emphasizes supporting as many simultaneous users (and their interactive controls) as possible. VMC applications, which are primarily used for video broadcasting, require highly efficient video streaming for distributing content over a network. Instead of duplicating data infinitely, multicasting sends the same information to multiple users just once, saving network bandwidth.

VOD and VMC video-streaming technologies are the core of NVC. All of these technologies must be able to communicate with system middleware (i.e., databases, the World Wide Web, system management, distribution, etc.) to establish complete solutions.

A fully integrated NYC is illustrated in Fig 3. Utilizing a three-layer architecture, the NVC consists of the innermost layer, which has the core video-streaming technologies; the second layer, which includes the middleware functions such as Web access, system management, and distribution; and the outer layer, which is an expanding set of NVC-enabled applications.

The success of this architecture relies on the openness of the streaming core. Every application requires seamless integration of the streaming functions and a subset of the middleware functions. If the core streaming functions are open, application developers will have complete flexibility in selecting the best components for optimizing their designs.


NYC is generic and applicable to a diverse spectrum of commercial, professional, and personal activities and interests. A few of the applications that have emerged include:


Professional sports organizations like the National Football League use their video libraries continuously. Videos of past games showing important plays and tactics may be their most critical training tool. These video assets are stored, searched, retrieved, and played for many reasons, including coaching, practice, and production of game highlights.


Increasingly, public libraries such as the New York Public Library maintain large collections of rare and precious videos. In many cases, these audiovisual assets are fragile and require elaborate, expensive care to maintain and support public viewing. By converting these videos to digital format and storing them in digital video libraries, public and corporate libraries can extend the useful lives of their video collections while making them easily accessible. The digital technology also improves the quality of their videos and saves substantial maintenance costs by eliminating many of the expensive and cumbersome maintenance procedures required by analog videos.


"Large venue training" is a prime example of the educational possibilities made possible by a well-designed NVC. These cost-effective simulated operational exercises are utilized by military forces, law enforcement, fire fighting organizations, and other groups that provide training, which is indispensable in preventing loss of life, injuries, and property damage.

The U.S. Army "Battle Lab" project illustrates how modern training programs utilize full-motion video to simulate hands-on field situations. An urban combat scenario is played out in a mock village with video cameras mounted at numerous points to record the exercise from all possible points of view. After the exercise, the video images are used to provide interactive simulation exercises for soldiers who may someday have to react in emergencies under real combat conditions. The interactive aspect of using PCs for this type of training provides trainees with abundant opportunities to learn by critiquing their performance before they have to confront the dangers of actual field operations.


Automated information kiosks have emerged as a key commercial application for high-quality, full-motion video. These units are becoming ubiquitous in shopping malls, airports, train, and bus terminals. They offer travelers the convenience of quickly obtaining the information they need about restaurants, overnight accommodations, sports and entertainment events, libraries, museums, health care; attractions of all kinds, and the other details that can be so important to weary travelers. Simply by accessing the facility's local database, users can find out where to go for, say, a late-night seafood dinner in downtown Chicago. Unlimited access to video libraries stored on servers will add a whole new level of convenience as users find they can quickly access more information than ever before.


At horse auctions, for example, buyers decide whether or not they will bid and how much they will bid for a horse by examining (a) the horse's heritage in the on-line catalogs, (b) the horse's physical condition, which is the reason horses are onsite, and (c) how the horse runs. Traditionally dealers prepared VCR tapes of videos showing the horses running on tracks or fields. When requested, the dealers loaded the corresponding tape, cued it to the right position, and played the video. Only one buyer could watch the video of a horse at a time.

New, on-demand playback of digital videos offers substantial improvements over the old, time-consuming and inefficient procedure. Simultaneously, buyers can independently play the video of any horse from any kiosk. Users have complete control, such as playing the same video many times or jumping to another video. The viewing statistics also provide invaluable information to the auction organizer for controlling the bidding process.


Financial information services are incorporating up-to-the-minute videos to enhance their value-added services. The information providers package up-to-minute video clips into existing data-oriented transmissions. At each subscriber's premises, the video clips are delivered in realtime to every desktop PC. Users can tune-in to watch these videos just like watching cable TV The videos can also be stored on the on-site video server for on-demand replay. Users can replay any video within the last, say 24 hours, at any time.


A typical analog business TV system has an Audio Video Center connected to a set of TV monitors via analog cables. The A/V Center has an array of audio and video devices, such as a satellite dish, cable, and VCRs. TV monitors are strategically located in conference rooms, cafeterias, hallways, and lobbies. Employees must leave their offices to watch a video broadcast.

This system can be seamlessly replaced or enhanced with an NYC system. Videos from the same array of video sources are converted to digital formats in real-time and broadcast over corporate networks to every desktop PC in the organization. A system like this can quickly pay for itself by reducing the time expended on managing videos and providing more efficient distribution. Employees simply tune-in and watch any broadcast at their desktop, dramatically improving productivity.

The digital system also makes it possible for management to set up a recording VOD server to simultaneously record any broadcast video. Employees who miss a live broadcast can easily replay any part of the program at any time. Employees can also view an instant replay while the broadcast is still going on.


Conventional analog VCR-based surveillance systems are significantly improved with NYC solutions. Each camera can be connected to a digital recording system to ensure continuous 24x7 recording of full-motion and full-screen video.

All recorded videos are time-stamped and can be easily and instantly accessed. In parallel, all videos can be transmitted over wide area networks (WANs) to central monitoring and archiving facilities. The transmitted videos dynamically adapt to the available network bandwidth (as illustrated in Fig 4).

This digital surveillance solution is far superior to conventional VCR-based analog systems because it offers higher video quality and remote monitoring capabilities. There is little or no need for manual operation.


VOD is ideal for providing movies-on-demand for hotel guestrooms, hospital patient rooms, karaoke rooms, airline seats, cruise ships, etc.


Groupware such as Lotus Notes provides sophisticated collaboration support to business operations but lacks streaming video capabilities. To provide real-time video playback, Lotus enhanced its product family with VideoNotes, which is compatible with leading third-party video servers.


On-line help is becoming more critical as system applications become more sophisticated. The user-friendliness and therefore productivity of an application can be greatly enhanced by video-rich, on-line help. At the same time, interactive Web-based support costs are microscopic compared to voice-response or human intervention. META Group estimates that a typical customer service transaction is $5 for a live call agent and 50 cents for voice response but only pennies for Web-based problem resolution.


Broadband connectivity to private homes via cable or ADSL modems is creating the ultimate NVC market. Video-rich Web sites can be established at ISP or cable operator's locations to provide premium services such as home shopping, CD/DVD-stored learning on-demand and movies-on-demand.


Many of these applications utilize several video streaming techniques, i.e., multicasting a live video and storing it for later VOD distribution. They may also incorporate middleware for two or more capabilities such as video management and distribution over the Web. With an open, fully integrated NYC, all of these features are easily accessible.

The benefit to strictly adhering to an open architecture also enhances the system's scalability. First, it simplifies the process of adding new applications. Second, new applications will generally be more cost-effective to deploy if they can leverage on existing off-the-shelf components. Other considerations in selecting an open NYC solution follow.


Open video streaming functions must support all international and industry video format standards such as MPEG1, MPEG2, DVD, MPEG4, Indeo, Cinepak, QuickTime, and Motion-JPEG. While every video format has its strengths and weaknesses, the ultimate selection of video format should be driven by application considerations and should not be constrained by the limitation of video streaming technologies.


Open video streaming should work with any commercially available video encoders and decoders. This allows users to choose from a wide range of products to take advantage of the price/performance advances of the entire industry.


Open video streaming must support all existing and emerging networks. Existing networks include all LANs such as (Fast) Ethernet, (Fast) Ethernet Switch, Token Ring, FDDI, and ATM with Classical IP and LAN Emulation, and all IP Wide Area Networks (WANs). The emerging networks include Gigabit Ethernet, ADSL and Cable modems, and native ATM with Quality of Service (QoS) supports.


Open video streaming solutions should support all types of storage devices and hierarchical storage management (HSM) systems for maximum flexibility in solution configurations. Most video servers only provide video streaming from hard disks and ignore the importance of video streaming from secondary storage devices such as CD, MO, and DVD devices. Advanced products provide video streaming from any storage device and are compatible with any HSM. The principle behind HSM is to offer a tiered approach to storage with the most frequently accessed videos on faster, more expensive hard disks, while the least frequently accessed videos are stored on a somewhat slower but less-expensive devices such as a CD or DVD.


Video streaming must seamlessly support existing applications, content, and development tools. This enables users to instantly transform existing standalone multimedia CDROM titles to client/server applications. This transparency preserves the organization's investment in existing applications, reduces deployment costs, and avoids the awkwardness of forcing title publishers to change their development tools.

While many businesses and schools want to deploy robust video applications, they also want to protect their significant investments in client/server technology, applications, and integration with existing legacy systems. Deploying different proprietary solutions for each video-streaming application required won't offer this protection. Nor will it ensure interoperability between the applications. The solution is to seamlessly integrate existing environments and applications with platform-independent video-enabling technologies that will enhance their business processes.

The long-term promise of Network Video Computing is that it leverages today's assets and paves the way for tomorrow's. the volume and diversity of applications, as well as the valuable enhancements to productivity that are possible with NYC, have just begun to unfold.

Monsong Chen is the president of Info Value Inc. (Elmsford, NY).
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Title Annotation:News Briefs
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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