The marriage of video and convenience

How do businesses create good-quality video for their employees and customers? What formats are available? Tim Landgrave explores the current video technology and shares some suggestions in his column this week.

The creation and distribution of video is at a crossroads for businesses: There are myriad applications for video, but distribution is problematic.

Streaming video, for example, works efficiently only in networks with 500K or more of bandwidth per connection. Although some corporate networks have that kind of connection speed available, few home or remote users do.

We’re also in a difficult nexus of video distribution technology. Analog VHS tapes and tape players are commonplace, tape duplication is inexpensive (albeit time consuming), and video quality is acceptable.

Digital video on DVDs, the up-and-coming standard for video distribution, poses several problems. While DVD players are readily available (primarily in home units and on corporate PCs), duplication is expensive. In addition, blank DVDs cost $20 to $30 each, and DVD recorders just broke the $5,000 barrier.

So how do you create inexpensive, easy-to-distribute, good-quality video for employees or customers? Like many other marriages, this one requires all the traditional elements—something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Something old
Before we can distribute any digital video, we have to decide on a storage format. Microsoft introduced the AVI format several years ago, but AVI is Windows-specific and is a very “fat” format.

MPEG formats, on the other hand, have become the most popular standard for digital video. MPEG stands for "Motion Picture Experts Group." This group develops standards for the encoding of moving images. MPEG remains platform-independent by defining the data model for the compression of moving pictures and audio but not for the specific implementation.

The group has released the standards for three formats (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4) and is working on another (MPEG-7). So what’s the difference between these formats?

MPEG-1, released in 1993, was designed to work in low-bandwidth environments with acceptable video quality (comparable to Super-VHS video tapes) and stereo audio. The specification also attempts to allow access to any sequence within the video stream within .5 seconds. For most business applications, the video and sound quality offered by MPEG-1 encoding is more than sufficient.

MPEG-2 was released in 1995. Although the basic structure is the same as MPEG-1, it was architected to allow data rates up to 100 MB. The most common usage of MPEG-2 includes digital TV and DVD videos. (All of the new Personal Video Recorders (PVRs)—like ReplayTV and TiVO—also use MPEG-2 as their recording format.) MPEG-2 has superior audio encoding capabilities and allows scaling of resolution and the data rate. Unfortunately, the data requirements are significantly higher than those of MPEG-1, necessitating more storage space on fixed media or more bandwidth to stream. For example, one hour of MPEG-1 video takes around 600K, but one hour of MPEG-2 video requires around 2GB.

MPEG-4 and MPEG-7 are newer standards that will allow higher video quality over lower bandwidth. MPEG-4 is released, but there are not any commercially available encoders yet. Microsoft has a partial implementation of an MPEG-4 decoder in the latest release of its Media Player, but it probably won’t be updated to the full standard until later this year. MPEG-4 is also likely to be the format used for video transmissions to mobile phones and to devices like Windows CE or Palm computers. MPEG-7 is still on the drawing board and probably won’t be released for another 18 to 24 months.

Something new
DVD players have become the hot new home gadget. They have also become standard equipment on high-end PCs over the last year.

The DVD revolution is being driven by the major movie studios, which have embraced the format as their new default distribution medium for feature films. During the next few years, DVD players in homes will become as common as VCRs are today. In fact, I expect to see combined DVDs and PVRs that replace the common play and record functions provided by VCRs today.

Corporate environments, however, have been slower to embrace DVD for its video capabilities. The primary use for DVD in the corporate environment is as a high-speed CD-ROM. Many new support products (such as Microsoft’s Developer Network subscription) have a DVD option that allows shipping the same or more products on fewer discs. DVD is the preferred option for high-end training videos, but few have made it to market. I think we’ll see more software distributed on DVDs this year, but I still expect that new PCs in the corporate environment will have high-speed CDs, CDRs, or CDRWs 9 to 1 over DVDs.

Something borrowed
So what makes the DVD such an important tool for video distribution? In a word, VideoCD (or VCD). The VCD format was the European precursor to a DVD based on the MPEG-1 format. The VCD format defines specific locations for files on a CD that allow the MPEG-1 video on the CD to be played by PCs, DVDs, and VideoCD players.

The fact that most DVD manufacturers have borrowed the VideoCD format for their players makes this format a low-cost, medium-quality delivery mechanism with searching and fast scene access capability. The resulting VCD can be played on PCs at the office equipped only with a CD player and on DVD players at home.

CD-burning programs like Adaptec CD Creator allow you to create a Video CD from a series of MPEG-1 files. They add all the necessary CD formatting, indexing, titles, and so on, to make the CD play properly on DVDs or PCs. There are also new dedicated Video and Audio CD-burning devices (based on a common design specification and chip set), like the Terapin from TeraOptix. The Terapin allows you to connect any analog video source (composite or S-Video) and analog or digital audio source. Then, by pressing Record, you can easily create a Video CD.

If you have existing training videos on VHS or S-VHS tapes, you can simply copy the tape to the VCD burner. The resulting VCD can be copied using any CD burner, or mass-produced for less than 50 cents per CD, by companies that specialize in CD duplication.

Something (not) Blue
Using CDs as a distribution mechanism for corporate video using the VCD format is cost-effective and requires limited technical capability to create the source VCD. Corporate training departments can create the Video CDs with little training, and the resulting CD can easily be duplicated and distributed.

But be careful with the blue CDs. Recordable CDs, or CD-Rs, typically come with the recordable side colored in silver or blue. The lasers in many commercial DVD players have problems picking up the impressions from blue CD-Rs. If you decide to use this method to distribute your corporate videos, stay away from the blue CD-Rs to guarantee that the resulting VideoCD can be played on most common DVD players.
What format has worked best for you? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below.

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