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Setting the Standard

- HP Labs Helps Shape the Future of Digital Media

May 2003

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The MPEG 21 standard looks set to be useful for much more than just manipulating video. (Image courtesy of Interuniversity Microelectronics Center (IMEC)

The work of setting technical standards may not sound like the most exciting research project, but that's only if you don't think about how much standards contribute to the smooth operation of the technologies we rely on.

Think CDs, digital photographs, the Internet. When established and followed, standards allow whole industries to grow around them. For those whose work contributes to major standards -- HP Labs played a key role in developing the JPEG-LS and JPEG 2000 standards for image compression, for instance -- the payoff comes in the form of licensing rights to their intellectual property.

HP Labs also worked on early algorithms developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (or MPEG 1) - which have become the standard for moving multimedia files such as audio and video.


The lab's most recent contribution to standards came from work that researcher Debargha Mukherjee was doing independent of the MPEG group has direct relevance for their newest standard, MPEG 21.

"I was trying to think of a universal transmission and adaptation architecture that would work with any scalable media," says Mukherjee, who works with the Palo Alto (Calif.)-based New Media project team.

The challenge was to allow people to communicate and collaborate online with devices of very different bandwidths and other characteristics. "Existing collaboration software won't work that well if you have one person on a high bandwidth connection and others on PDAs and some others on laptops," he says. "You need something else."

Better Sharing

His answer? A concept he called Structured Scalable Meta-format (SSM), in which any scalable content transmitted between two nodes would have a description attached to it that is derived from a fundamental model intrinsic to all scalable bit-streams. That description would allow the device receiving the content to download only a version appropriately scaled by a universal adaptation engine in the network. People on fast networks would get large, rich versions of the content and people on PDAs would get tiny versions.

The other key was to have the transfer of the content secure. Susie Wee in HP Labs' Streaming Media Systems group had shown how you could stream media that was scalable and do it through a server you didn't trust.

In Mukherjee's framework, secure transmission could be achieved by following an extension of the same principles, but in a completely format-independent manner. That framework envisions a secure universal adaptation engine that would work for a wide class of formats that exist today or would evolve in the future, as long as the fundamental model is not violated.

When Mukherjee presented his work to his Labs colleagues, Wee saw its potential relevance to the new MPEG standard being created. In July 2002, Mukherjee's colleague in HP Labs, Giordano Beretta, presented the ideas behind SSM to an international MPEG meeting.

Although some were initially skeptical, Beretta says that members of the standards body later "recognized the value of the fundamental technology."

Integral Part of MPEG-21

In the end, the proposal received a lot more attention than the researchers expected, says Mukherjee. The team was approached by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute about a collaboration, and then invited to present material at two major electronic imaging conferences this year.

The Labs team was also asked to return and present a revised version of their ideas to the next MPEG meeting.

In the nine months since HP's initial presentations, Mukherjee's model is likely to become an integral part of MPEG 21. That's after Geraldine Kuo developed a software implementation demonstrating the feasibility of a universal adaptation engine and five further MPEG meetings attended by Mukherjee and his HP Labs colleagues Sam Liu and Giordano Beretta.

HP Labs' Contribution

How does the SSM model contribute to the MPEG 21 standard?

Earlier versions of MPEG (there's been a version 1, 2, 4 and 7) were more or less concerned with how to encode and compress high bandwidth-using media like audio and video.

MPEG 21 is all about enabling transparent and augmented use of these compressed multimedia files across a wide range of networks and devices by using a variety of descriptors so they can be handled in an intelligent way.

Part 7 of the MPEG 21 standard deals with Digital Item Adaptation, which outlines protocols for the descriptions used on the content 'envelope' to enable intelligent adaptation. It is here that Mukherjee's work turned out to be relevant.

"Think of this as putting a file in an envelope," says Gary Sasaki, a manager in HP New Business Development who works closely with HP Labs. "We've described how you tell a dumb pipe that is delivering the file what it can throw away, without it having to know what's inside," he says.

Infrastructure for Video Manipulation

As it evolves from a company known for managing still digital images into one that manages moving images, HP has a strategic interest in helping determine the standards for manipulating those moving images.

And thanks in part to Debargha Mukherjee's work, the MPEG 21 standard looks set to be useful for much more than just manipulating video. "If you capture the right, basic information in the descriptors," Mukherjee says, "then you can adapt any media type to it. The same infrastructure that you create today should work 50 years from now."

If technical standards enable whole new industries to grow, MPEG 21 ought to be enabling industries that we haven't even dreamed of yet for some time to come.

By Simon Firth

» MPEG 21 Overview
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