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September - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Video Revolution
Arun Netravali
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
It was over 30 years ago when I wrote my first technical article on video compression. It has taken a long time to realize the dreams we in the Bell System had back then about how ubiquitous video telephones would become in a decade or two. Although slow in coming, applications of video communications have already far exceeded anyone’s dreams. Moreover, many believe that this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Technologists believe that video communications will overwhelm the bandwidth available from today’s network and render today’s architectures obsolete, while offering entertainment, sports, and news at our finger tips anywhere, anytime and in any form. Video businesses of today see enormous threats to their current models, but others see an opportunity to disrupt old models and create new offerings. Social scientists worry about the impact of ‘always-available video communications’ on the development of children. Civil libertarians are concerned about violation of privacy of citizens whose movements are monitored by video cameras that are ubiquitous in public places. Educators worry about the form universities of tomorrow may take. What is behind the video revolution? Clearly, video enriches consumer experience, whether it is entertainment, education, business or other endeavors. It facilitates the task at hand. Much of this is not new, but with technology driving the costs down, video applications are becoming more affordable.

Images and video facilitate almost any task. As an example, even abstract Math books of today have more illustrations and animations to improve our understanding of the subject. Almost every book is available on-line and any subject can be learned on-line from some of the best teachers on the subject. Universities routinely record courses and keep them on-line so students from local or virtual campuses around the world can take them anytime. Web-casts are used increasingly by businesses to introduce new products, train sales people and communicate with employees. Video conferencing assisted by the web is saving time, money and reducing the wear and tear associated with travel, while promoting collaborative projects among technical people around the globe. Early use of video was in entertainment, sports, and news. Today, with cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcast, there are hundreds of TV channels. Several of these channels are dedicated exclusively to certain types of content (e.g., sports, movies or news). Broadband wireless is the newest transport medium to carry video. The small size of the display in a wireless terminal, combined with the short time spurts available for consumers to use wireless, may limit watching full-length movies; however, 'short-form videos' -- i.e. short clips of news, events, and other content -- are gaining momentum. Finally, the brand new phenomenon of blogging is extending to video blogging. Consumers are capturing interesting video and uploading it into databases provided by a number of companies, so anyone can view it over the internet. The most recent debate between the democratic presidential candidates in the United States showed the power of this new medium. Prescreened questions in the form of videos from citizens were displayed to the candidates and the rest of the viewers who were watching the broadcast channel. Candidates responded over the air, thus debating issues not just with the moderators but also with citizens interested in the issues. Finally, home theaters with larger high-definition TV (HDTV) screens and better quality of sound are luring consumers away from movie houses to watch videos in the comfort of their own homes. Technologies have enabled a variety of these applications and made them more efficient and inexpensive.

We know that television sets and PC's had their form factors based on the applications they served in the past and the networks they were connected to. As the applications converge and video is delivered over the internet, television sets and PC's may morph into new devices suitable for specific applications. A variety of efforts made by PC manufacturers hold promise but a winner has not yet emerged.

Even though the rate of introduction of new technology has accelerated in the past few decades, there is still a lot more to come. It is therefore somewhat dangerous to speculate, but I have stuck my neck out in the following predictions.

* In the 60’s and 70’s, dominant traffic in the network was due to telephony: therefore telephone companies around the world built networks optimized for voice. Since the digital traffic was rather small initially, it was overlaid on the voice networks in the form of modems. As the data traffic continued to increase, a brand new IP-based data network emerged. As the data traffic began to dominate, voice traffic was put as an overlay in the form of VOIP (voice over IP). Most believe that video traffic will begin to dominate soon and today’s Internet will not be appropriate for video, since it does a number of functions not required for video — e.g., deep packet inspection, node by node routing decisions, retransmission of erroneous packets, protocol and frame conversions, queuing, and peer-to-peer exchange of short flows to and from ubiquitous terminals with large numbers of IP addresses. Traffic characteristics of video are very different and therefore I predict that a network interconnecting video storage servers with Ethernet over ë will be created; but the Internet will be used for consumers to get access to these video servers due to its ubiquity.

* As video servers and connecting networks become widespread, they may overlay data and voice signals, creating a very different multiservice than before. As video gets stored globally, user interfaces will include search technology and will provide both channelized video for “common” programs watched by the many and niche programs watched by consumers with special interests.

* With the evolving broadband networks (wired or wireless), we will be able to receive video from anywhere on the web. Moreover, we will be able to search for video that we are looking for from the context, not only from the keywords, as today’s technology does. Models of payment for viewing video, from today’s monthly charge for a package of channels, will evolve. Advertisement-based charging, charging for hosting the content from a producer, and charging consumers for viewing the video of their choice, are already being experimented with. It will be fascinating to see if there is a single winner.

In summary, the future of video communications is bright. A variety of new platforms will emerge to deliver video to consumers in a customized, “on-demand” fashion, with advertisements of interests being viewed. Tools will exist to convert video for the best presentation for the mobile device. Networked video, stored on the web will be delivered to the consumer’s device to provide video services anywhere, anytime, and in any form, and with flexible payment models. Broadband internet will help, but video networking will require a different network to be cost effective. In summary, video revolution is here today. Let us take advantage of it.

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