IBM Corp. is seizing on enterprise-sector demand for
applications at the cutting edge of broadband technology to accelerate development of
virtual-reality imaging and other Internet protocol-based functions that could quickly
penetrate into the mass-market.
"We're using the phrase, 'Next-Generation internet,'
with a small 'i,' to stress the fact that we need to focus on tools and applications
because the new infrastructure that will support next-generation capabilities is already
in the process of being built," said Rich Wall, program director for advanced
Internet projects with IBM's Internet division.
While there continues to be a lot of research activity
surrounding the construction of an "Internet2," the explosion in network
capacity over long-haul and regional backbones that operate on a foundation of IP
functionality is already pushing the Internet and its tributaries to this next level, Wall
This, in turn, has opened an opportunity to deliver
applications that, until recently, were impossible to provide over existing IP
infrastructures, including the core Internet.
"We're going to see incredible levels of bandwidth as
a natural evolution of networking technology, but the applications we're talking about
will need predictable, end-to-end quality of service and other performance parameters that
will require more than just a lot of bandwidth," Wall said.
There's already strong demand for cutting-edge applications
that can take advantage of this leap in network capacity in areas such as advanced
medical-image transfer, computer-aided-design collaboration and very high-quality
videoconferencing, Wall noted.
Meeting this demand requires close coordination with
customers and suppliers of software tools in the development of applications that make use
of advanced "video-charger" servers; gigabit and terabit router/switches; and
computer-rich end user devices provided by IBM and other systems manufacturers, he added.
The starting point for defining such applications is a
throughput sufficient to support MPEG-1, where 1.5-megabit-per-second end-user connections
allow MPEG (Moving Picture Expert Group) compression to be a natural part of the
applications stream, Wall added.
At the same time, he said, the types of servers used in
these applications are fast and big enough to handle MPEG-2 files, as well, which pushes
the end-point bandwidth requirements into the 3-mbps range and above.
These video-quality levels are just the beginning of what's
required, as evidenced in the capabilities surrounding medical-networking needs.
Collaborative online analysis of magnetic-resonance-imaging
and X-ray files requires not only high bandwidth, but also software tools supporting very
high graphic resolution in three dimensions and fast, real-time responsiveness to user
commands for turning and zooming in on images, Wall noted.
Interestingly, such high-end requirements are dovetailing
with efforts to get more functionality and quality out of the low end of the bandwidth
spectrum, where innovations tightly coupling compression techniques with IP-based
integration and playback of multiple file formats support ever better performance of
content accessed over dial-up lines.
For example, development of the next generation of MPEG
technology -- MPEG-4 -- is addressing both the high-end and low-end requirements in ways
that promise to revolutionize the look and feel of online multimedia, said Glenn
Reitmeier, vice president of high-definition and multimedia systems at Sarnoff Corp., a
participant in the standards-setting effort.
"MPEG-4 uses scalable wavelet technology to make
narrowband applications, as well as broadband, more effective," Reitmeier said.
"When you see what can be done with MPEG-4, you realize that narrowband isn't as dead
as many people think."
Sarnoff has developed a demo clip of MPEG-4 where a video
of a man entering and exiting through doorways into a hall is expanded into multiple
images of the same thing, seamlessly tied together to make it look as if a multitude of
people are going in and out of doors in the same hallway.
All of this is done using point-and-click commands on the
MPEG-4 file in the content-development process, because the individual frames within the
compression stream are broken into separate objects that can easily be manipulated without
disrupting the rest of the stream, Reitmeier explained.
Much as Java applets are currently used to support image
playback in Web pages downloaded via browsers without waiting for more file data to
transfer, MPEG-4 will support embedding of multimedia in the page, but with more
flexibility regarding available bandwidth in the initial download, Reitmeier noted.
"MPEG-4 basically allows you to get a lot more out of
narrowband than you can today," he said.
At the high end targeted by IBM, such capabilities will
allow developers to use existing MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files, as well as new ones, to much
greater effect, since one of the goals in MPEG-4 is to provide a bridge between the legacy
MPEG domains and the IP world, Reitmeier said.
In advertising over digital TV, for example, MPEG-4 will
support playback of ads specific to end-user interests, where one carefully authored
30-second spot carries enough data to deliver a variety of presentations.
"Advertising over digital TV gets very interesting
with MPEG-4," Reitmeier said. "Video objects are dynamically composed and
personalized within the overall display field, and they are easily manipulated to do
Work is definitely progressing on MPEG-4 at an intensifying
pace after moving along for the past few years with limited support from the
multimedia-software community, noted Phil Barrett, senior vice president for media
technology at RealNetworks Inc.
"We're becoming more active in MPEG-4," he said,
acknowledging that RN was less-than-enthusiastic about the technology at the outset.
But there are other things going on directly tied to
currently available technology, such as what RN supplies, which go a long way toward
duplicating the functionalities of MPEG-4, Barrett added. "MPEG-4 is only one of many
things that are being done to support more advanced multimedia applications," he
For example, developers using a combination of Java-based
applications integrated with the set of development and streaming tools encompassed in
RN's "G2" system can perform some MPEG-4-like tasks, Barrett said. "There
are a couple of companies that have already integrated Java into G2," he noted.
IBM is taking such steps with its
current-generation-oriented "HotMedia 2.0" tool kit, which consists of a variety
of streaming and authorizing tools from various vendors, as well as some of its own
software, noted Bill Pence, director of development for the company's Internet-media
The tool kit supports third-party Java applets, allowing
partners to build Java players that can be incorporated into HotMedia, he said.
In one example, users can include 360-degree images
viewable from "within" a space at any angle, using Java applets in conjunction
with Interactive Pictures Corp.'s "IPIX" imaging software, Pence said.
Early users of these capabilities include
designeroutlet.com, which has created a site offering off-price designer clothing where
users can perform such tasks as unzipping a jacket in order to examine the lining.
"We're also seeing wide-scale use of these tools in
advertising and in sites at the grassroots level, where people are downloading our tools
from our Web site and putting them to use on their own," Pense said. "We have a
whole gallery of extensions that allow people to make use of whatever functionalities they
think make sense for their sites."
The flow-through of advanced tools into the mass market
represented by development initiatives like HotMedia will quickly blur the lines between
current and next-generation Internet applications, Wall said.
"As the bandwidth becomes available, this is going to
move a lot faster than the first generation of Internet applications," he added.
At the cutting edge, IBM is involved in several initiatives
with institutional and enterprise partners where existing tools are being put into play to
create futuristic applications that tap the infrastructure resources of next-generation IP
In one case in point, Northwestern University and IBM, with
support from Ameritech Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., have begun operating what they said
is the first global center for development of advanced Internet technologies -- the
International Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR).
An example of what can be expected as the center works with
enterprise partners to develop applications can be found in a commercial project involving
Applied Signal Technology Inc., which is designing airplane-braking systems using 3-D
immersive technologies in a collaborative environment, Wall noted.
"There's a fair amount of commercial activity
involving companies with sophisticated Intranets that represents what the next-generation
Internet is going to look like on a mass scale," he said.
Beyond big corporations' activities, the expansion of these
sorts of advanced broadband applications is being pushed into a larger market base by a
new class of Internet-service providers devoted to hosting these capabilities for
companies that can't or don't want to build the enabling infrastructures themselves, Wall
"We've begun to see many cutting-edge applications
offered through ISPs, such as hosted multiparty videoconferencing and collaborative
computing," he said.
Graphically rich virtual-reality environments will quickly
make their way into the consumer space, as well, starting with e-commerce sites geared
toward users with high-speed access, who will have far more flexibility to explore the
fine points of goods offered online than is generally possible now, Wall said.
Today, he added, people can unzip a jacket and turn it
around to look at it in 3-D, but soon, they'll be able to "try it on," using
on-screen models proportioned to their dimensions and coloring to see how they'll look
wearing the apparel.