Much more than MP3
MPeg-4 is taking audiovisual streaming over the Internet to new levels

Despite attempts by both the music industry and Microsoft to displace it, MP3 still reigns supreme as the online music compression format of choice. Its rise and continuing dominance is all the more impressive given the fact that it was never formally promoted, and that it first appeared as an extremely obscure technical standard more than a decade ago. Its success is testimony to user power, and the way in which this can be greatly amplified by the Internet.

Strictly speaking, MP3 is MPeg Audio Layer 3 . The main MPeg (Moving Pictures Expert Group) home page has a related FAQ on the subject.

There are a variety of MPeg standards alongside the well-established MPeg-1 and MPeg-2. MPeg-3 is not a standard, being a derived audio definition from these earlier specifications.

MPeg-4 has been around for a few years now, and there are signs that it is starting to develop into a major audiovisual standard.

Basically, there are two sides to the new standard. One concerns compression algorithms that are technically superior to those currently employed in MP3 and elsewhere. The other is designed to allow detailed control over elements in an audiovisual scene. For example, MPeg-4 streams allow live feeds and computer-generated objects to be mixed, moved and transformed. Another important facet is interactivity - users can click on MPeg-4 objects to instigate further actions.

An MPeg-4 industry forum has been set up, and its home page is a useful starting point for finding out more about the latest developments in this field and following the implementation of the standard in products.

One of the biggest names behind the standard is Philips. Alongside a short introduction to the standard there are details of some of its MPeg-4 products, which include authoring software and an MPeg-4 encoding workstation.

One area where MPeg-4 may flourish is in the world of mobile communications. The standard is designed to allow video streaming even over low-bandwidth connections. A company active here is PacketVideo which has a number of products for the wireless video market based on MPeg-4, as well as some white papers on the technology.

Also worth noting in this context is Emblazecam, a miniature camera for mobile phones that does MPeg-4 compression on the fly - maybe those long-promised videophones are finally just around the corner.

The other key application for MPeg-4 is streaming across the Internet. The Internet Streaming Media Alliance has been formed to promote standards in this area. Its membership includes most of the major players in the online streaming world, with the exception of the top two companies, Microsoft and RealNetworks.

Microsoft's absence was to be expected, since it is currently pushing its own proprietary approach. But RealNetworks may well decide that it would be better to work with the Internet Streaming Media Alliance rather than against it in order to bolster its competitive position with respect to Microsoft.

Such a move would not be technically too difficult for RealNetworks - there is already an MPeg-4 plug-in for its player from Envivio. Also available from this page are sample files in the MPeg-4 format.

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This was first published in January 2002

 

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