A fledgling company formed to develop MPEG-4-based video-on-demand systems has tuned in Comcast Corp. as a joint venture and system trial partner.
The Japanese company e-BOX Corp. — a joint venture between consumer electronics and technology companies Pioneer Corp., Sharp Corp., National Semiconductor Corp., Sigma Designs, CMC Magnetics, iVAST Inc. and Modern VideoFilm Inc. — is looking to create video-on-demand and interactive TV systems based on the Moving Picture Expert Group's new video standard. The company will focus on the North American, Asian and Japanese cable markets.
As its partner, Comcast will conduct field trials of the resulting delivery system — including headend gear, software, content-protection systems and digital set-top boxes — early next year.
Paul McCormick, senior marketing manager for National Semiconductor's set-top box group, said it was too early to set specifics of the trial, including where and how many users would be involved. But e-BOX and Comcast are working on the technical aspects.
"We are working with them. They are participating in our engineering and technical meetings that are defining the system level specification and the specs for the boxes that go into the system," McCormick said.
BUILT FOR ON-DEMAND
MPEG-4, the newest of the MPEG standards, is the first developed specifically for Internet and interactive media.
The new standard promises video quality that is equal to MPEG-2, but compression ratios that are three to four times better than those of its older sibling. MPEG-4's forte, though, is its interactive abilities.
MPEG-4 allows programmers to identify distinct objects within a content frame — such as an audio track attached to a video file or text set alongside video. Programmers can then manipulate these elements separately and even allow the end user to manipulate them in a two-way interactive setting.
For VOD systems, this means embedding DVD-like extras along with the video stream.
"When it delivers video on demand or a movie that has been selected by the subscriber, they don't just get the movie in the system — they get a movie that has the look and feel of DVD," McCormick said. "It has a menu, and it allows the viewer to look at additional content — for example trailers or information about the stars in the movie, in the same way that a DVD does today."
But developing a system to rival existing MPEG-2 delivery systems has its challenges. The economics of an MPEG-4 system are key, so e-BOX and Comcast are discussing equipment and deployment cost issues, McCormick said.