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Streaming 2.0

Sep 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer


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As a store-and-forward MPEG player with internal storage for video clips, the FireFly MZ from Focus Enhancements is part of a class of products that have helped free “video over IP” of its past reputation.

There was a time a few years ago during the dot-com boom when streaming video was something that just about every company seemed to want to get into — at least everyone in the video production and broadcast industries. Of course, that all changed pretty quickly when the boom went bust. “Streaming” became something of a dirty word and a technology that few wanted to admit they once ogled.

In hindsight, both the hype and the hypersensitivity were really the result of unattainable short-term expectations, mostly of streaming as a television-like, show-it-and-they-will-watch broadcast substitute. Of course, just as the first television shows a half a century ago were essentially radio with visuals, it's really not surprising that early streaming emulated TV. But while there may have been wide audience appeal for high-profile events like Victoria's Secret fashion shows and John Glenn's Space Shuttle launch, it wasn't a viable model for much else.

AV OVER IP

A half a decade later, despite the lingering bad reputation of “streaming,” the business of moving video and audio over IP is more robust than ever, and the growing successes are largely in AV communications. VBrick's conscious effort to talk about video over IP as “television-over-IP” or “Ethernet TV” is an attempt to distance today's capabilities from the lower-quality web broadcasts of erstwhile video streaming. (See my review of the VBrick VB6200 on p. 84.) But it also alludes to the facility of using the video over IP to address long-distance AV communication, and it points to why leveraging “streaming” and other forms of video over IP are likely to be the next step in the convergence of AV and IT.

Of course, video and audio data takes up a lot more bandwidth on a LAN than simple control commands, which are increasingly IP-based, and in the past that's been a deterrent for many IT administrators. However, network bandwidth concerns are rarely as dire as they were just a few years ago, thanks both to the migration to higher-speed networks and to more efficient IP switching and hubs, routers, and switches.

Video over IP is already being used in a wide variety of ways to facilitate distance learning for education at all levels. For example, both the Utah Education Network and the New York City public school system allow students at satellite schools and campuses to attend and participate in realtime lectures virtually, thereby offering access to classes and instructors that would be otherwise unavailable to them simply because of location. Physically moving large groups of students through the city can be prohibitive, so the New York City schools even leverage video over IP to bring students on “virtual field trips” to city museums and Lincoln Center. Those installations typically involve just one-way video, often augmented by two-way audio over a simple phone line to enable student participation and questions.

There are plenty of other examples as well. Several U.S. military bases now use video over IP to allow commanding officers to monitor remote field training exercises. Physicians are using it for remote healthcare diagnoses, and medical students are using it to observe surgical procedures. Even rental and staging contractors are using video over IP to monitor program feeds from a main control room or corporate headquarters.

Canopus’ MediaEdge STB is designed to be a versatile LAN-based appliance for video delivery over IP, including regularly scheduled broadcasts, video on demand, and even live distribution.

REALTIME, ANYTIME

Though all of those examples of video transmission over IP involve live “streaming,” another important use for video is as stored, on-demand content. For example, maybe a student missed a lecture and needs to review it. A med school class could review and discuss a surgery, or military brass could analyze video footage to plan future exercises.

Of course, each of those examples is somewhat complicated: there's more involved than simply connecting to video appliances at different ends of the LAN or WAN. All the examples require a video server and greater integration with IT departments. Creating the content and saving the live video images to a file, on the other hand, is really a fairly straightforward operation.

Indeed, video appliances like VBrick's VB6200 have built-in servers that can easily be configured to send files to specific IP addresses, including to video appliances with built-in storage. However, video servers with media management, scheduling, and security settings are likely to be required for administering or distributing any significant volume of media.

That's certainly true for digital signage infrastructures, whether stored content is streamed directly from a server to the displays or copied as files to remote MPEG playback devices like Adtec's Edje, Canopus' MediaEdge, Electrosonic's FrEND, and Focus Enhancements' FireFly. For installations using those devices, a video server can be programmed to push video files automatically during low-traffic off hours, with the remote devices storing the playback script. For larger infrastructures, the script is more likely to be controlled at the server end.

Still, wherever the video is coming from, and whether it's from a file or a live stream, the main point is that today's video streaming for AV isn't the Internet streaming of the late 1990s. Most video appliances and playback devices today — from VBrick, Optibase, Adtec Digital, Canopus, Electrosonic, Focus Enhancements, and many others — use the same MPEG-2 format and quality of broadcast and cable television. And it's that kind of video quality, as well as the facility of the appliance-like architecture, that has enabled a wide variety of uses for video and audio over much greater distances than what's allowed by conventional analog connectivity.

(The VBrick VB6200 uses MPEG-4, and while that format will likely supplant MPEG-2 over time even at higher bit rates, it will not do that in the short term. Today's implementations and common usage of MPEG-4, including those of VBrick, focus on achieving “good” quality at bandwidth levels well below 1Mbps. MPEG-2 bit rates typically run between 2.5Mbps to 8Mbps.)

Traditional connectivity remains by far the most affordable solution for local installations. However, AV communication is increasingly about more than just those traditional local installations. If you're not yet involved with digital signage, videoconferencing, long-distance security or monitoring, or any of the other long-distance installations, there's a good chance that you will be before too long. And understanding video over IP will probably come in handy.



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