After sending out the first satellite transmission of an MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Expert Group) video signal, signing a key deal with a pair of Hollywood heavyweights and opening a brand new development studio, iVAST Inc. is flying high these days.
All three of these achievements may help boost the start-up video technology company, even as the newly minted MPEG-4 standard gets off to a decidedly rocky start.
In a Jan. 31 trial broadcast, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based iVAST beamed multimedia MPEG-4 content via the ClearStar Satellite Network from Mount Airy, Md., to an Everest Connections Cable Co. link in Lenexa, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. Satellites have been used to beam MPEG-4 Web content, but this was the first broadcast-video transmission.
"To the best of our knowledge, it is the first time it has been done, at least in the sense of an interactive, streamed-media experience," said iVAST vice president of marketing Kent Libbey.
It's an important step if iVAST wants to court the broadcast video market.
While one transmission does not make a technology, Libbey noted that MPEG-2 took a similar path years ago. That technology eventually provided cable programmers with a front-haul network, bouncing signals off satellites from the source to downlink stations.
That opened the way for more additional tiers and more multiplexed channels. "There simply would not have been space in the orbital spectrum if it hadn't been for MPEG-2," Libbey said.
With its superior compression, "MPEG-4 opens up the opportunity for [networks] to move from six or eight channels per transponder, depending on the transponder and the modulation, to potentially 20 to 30," he said.
Equally important, MPEG-4 can define separate objects within a visual frame, making it possible to transmit multiple versions of a commercial within a single file. That could give cable networks the ability to send out ads tailored to several markets in a single transmission, Libbey said.
While the ClearStar test is a good step, iVAST does face challenges in attracting MSO customers. The biggest stumbling block may be that existing set-top box lines do not have the decoder hardware needed to read MPEG-4 content.
The company is working with chip manufacturers to add MPEG-4 capabilities to MPEG-2 systems, and some set-top box makers have shown interest. But such products are not yet available, Libbey said.
On the Internet side, iVAST inked a major partnership deal with EarthShipTV, a Web site run by John Cameron and his brother, Titanic
auteur James Cameron. The site will use iVAST's MPEG-4 system to develop interactive content.
"They really want to be able to offer not just compelling linear programming, but also offer, really, at the defining edge of interactive programming, and part of that is to be able to deliver compelling interactive programming across devices," Libbey said. "They had developed this whole model, this whole philosophy before we sat down with them."
That relationship also will benefit from iVAST's new state-of-the-art development studio in Los Angeles — conveniently located in Culver City, just one mile from the entrance to the Sony Pictures movie lot.
"It's really about reinforcing our presence in the development community and specifically in Los Angeles and Hollywood," Libbey said.
The content deal comes as proponents of MPEG-4 — including iVAST — face controversy over a proposed licensing plan for the newborn standard.
The MPEG-4 Licensing Authority, formed to collect and distribute the standard's licensing fees, has proposed a scheme that charges the equivalent of 2 cents per hour.
The move has drawn plenty of critics, who argue that a time-based fee will scare off high-volume content providers such as video-on-demand providers.
The plan is far from final, noted Libbey. The MPEG-4 licensing agreement also included a clause stating the arrangement for licensing the standard for broadcast formats has yet to be determined, he said.
"I don't think it is fair or reasonable to expect one single, simple licensing model to work ideally for all of those parties, especially on the first cut," Libbey said.
There are strong incentives for MPEG-4 to be successful, so Libbey thinks the licensing snafus will be worked out.