For Tech's Sake: Video's growing role in government services

Gary Arlen

Video. It's not just for television anymore.

And the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention isn't just about TV and radio.

Video is increasingly being integrated into enterprise applications: for training, security, videoconferencing, distance learning and staff communications. Thanks to streaming media and desktop video ? along with the handheld videophone coverage seen during recent war coverage ? video is joining data and voice services as essential components of the total digital environment.

For the past few years, the annual NAB convention has devoted more attention to such multimedia systems. At this year's NAB's gargantuan gathering, April 6-10, the conventional radio and TV agenda was overwhelmed by non-broadcast video and multimedia tools.

Technologies for encryption, compression, streaming, digital asset management and digital production of closed-circuit programs dominated the new South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, showcasing initiatives from Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Sony, Motorola and hundreds of small and mid-sized vendors.

Although many of the tools from these companies fit into broadcast stations and production studios, suppliers were focusing on the video and advanced audio needs of enterprise users, including government agencies ? which were well represented among the conventions' 90,000 attendees.

(Of course, conventional broadcast products for the digital era were rampant in the older wings of the sprawling convention center, as were the broadcast industry's core concerns, such as media ownership limits and digital broadcasting implementation.)

By general consensus, however, the real buzz stemmed from the convention's multimedia domains. Several exhibitors aimed demonstrations specifically at the government market, while others featured applications that would work in commercial operations (TV stations) as well as enterprise solutions, such as security services.

For example, NDS Ltd. unveiled its "AlertStorm" system ? ostensibly an automated weather, flood and hurricane warning service for TV stations. But the NDS infrastructure ? as demonstrated ? can be used by hospital, fire, police and National Guard officials and, as NDS notes, for "terror" and "air raid alerts."

The distribution networks, including satellite and Internet content delivery systems, can accommodate national and locally updated input, for dispatch to first responders as well as to the general public via TV or online networks, as part of an integrated package. (www.NDS-Americas.com)

IBM's security line-up included a demonstration of the "VIPER" (Video Identity Parade Electronically Recorded) system, for which it provided the IT infrastructure. VIPER is being used as part of the British Home Office's Street Crime Initiative, launched last April. During the past year, VIPER has been used in 15,000 "parades" of images, seeking to match short digital video clips of a suspect against a visual database of more than 9,200 images.

IBM says the cost is 10 percent to 20 percent the price of conventional "live" parades, and has cut the search time to as little as 15 minutes vs. six to 10 weeks in conventional video or live search systems.

Security was also showcased in a variety of "convergence" demonstrations, exploiting the new Digital Television spectrum. For example, the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety exhibited its alliance with NJN [New Jersey Network] Public Television, to use the network's data transmission capability for transmission of emergency management data to desktops at appropriate agencies.

SpectraRep, a Chantilly, Va., startup offering digital content delivery technology, also demonstrated a similar service that it packaged with Rocky Mountain PBS (another regional public TV group) to stream data to public safety, education and enterprise locations.

Just before the NAB convention, SpectraRep ran a pilot project in the Denver area, sending digital content for distance learning and public safety communications using two 1-megabit per second bandwidth, pre-encoded video streams, a live encoded 1 mbps camera feed and file transfers with up to 7 megabytes of data per transfer.

Compression Confrontation

As the need for top-quality video becomes widespread, there's a battle emerging over which compression systems should be used. It's easy to say MPEG-4 has taken hold, but don't say that to Microsoft, which believes its Windows Media 9 (WM9) compression format should dominate the market. Microsoft is making headway in Hollywood with MW9, and hopes to leverage that presence into the enterprise sector.

Moreover, the MPEG-4 camp is split into several somewhat incompatible camps. A few compression vendors, such as iVast and Envivio (both based in Silicon Valley) are rising to the top, but there is no solid leader. Meanwhile, renegades are creating alternative video compression formats, albeit still under the global standards umbrella known as H.264.

This evolving conflict, which discreetly played out in backrooms during the NAB convention, is worth watching because it will affect not only the encoding software eventually used by producers and Internet servers, but also the decoding software at the desktop receiver. The format battle may deter enterprise ventures from adopting the tougher compression projects of these Advanced Video Codec (AVC) alternatives.

At least for the time being.

Asset Management and Streaming

The NAB exhibit halls and conference sessions also confronted operational issues as more content ? both video and data ? are pumped into communications networks.

Digital Asset Management is overwhelming even the staunchest archivists. Broadcasters and producers saw new tools to search for and find specific video clips ? even a voice-activated system to seek out specific visuals from a production library.

The avalanche of DAM operations prompted the creation of "GSAM," the Global Society for Asset Management, which held its organizational meeting during NAB week. Founding members include Ascent Media Group, Artesia Technologies, Avid Technology, RightsLine and eMotion.

GSAM (www.G-SAM.org) calls itself "the world's first international trade and professional association" dealing with DAM; its goals include "actively influencing standards that promote openness and interoperability" and "reducing the complexity" of DAM systems.

The need for such grandiose visions was underscored throughout the NAB halls, where dozens of asset management vendors plunged ahead with proprietary projects for tracking and accessing the avalanche of digital content.

Separately, the staggering content distribution opportunity promised by streaming media promoters was also omnipresent. RealNetworks and Microsoft, the dueling technology providers leading this assault, sat across the South Hall from each other, promoting their visions of streaming audio and video. Scattered between and beyond them were dozens of streaming media ventures, many emphasizing the value of on-demand desktop video to enterprise applications.

For example, SkyStream Networks, a Sunnyvale, Calif., provider, demonstrated technology similar to that which it has provided to federal agencies for an emergency response communication system. Its capabilities feature delivery of streamed services such as image mapping and video clips, including automatic Web site replication for disaster recovery requirements.

At NAB, SkyStream, which recently opened a Reston, Va., office to focus on government and military sales, unveiled its Mediaplex Video Services Router and Edge Video Router. The package can handle advanced video services for delivering a combination of video and data services over xDSL, fiber, Ethernet and wireless networks. (www.skystream.com).

AnyStream Inc. of Sterling, Va., demonstrated its new "AgilityPresenter" software for PowerPoint, which uses streaming technology to enable video and audio content (from a Web camera and microphone) to be inserted into traditional PowerPoint presentations. The company spent more booth space, though, pushing its Agility Enterprise line-up, which automates media encoding and transcoding of streaming, broadcast and production formats.

AnyStream's fundamental feature, the ability to adjust bandwidth usage to the reception capability of the individual desktop (or portable) device, is being used in government agencies as well as enterprise and media applications. (www.anystream.com).

And then there is the gee-whiz aspect of NAB ? often accompanied by a "How did they do that?" Among the companies falling into that category this year was a four-man Herndon, Va., firm: Vision III Imaging Inc. Privately (mostly to Hollywood studios and potential technology partners), Vision III showed its system for creating three-dimensional video that doesn't require special viewing glasses.

The company's lenses and software will be integrated with conventional camera lenses to create a breathtaking depth of vision that give the impression of 3-D. Ideal for training and security ? but first likely to be used for entertainment. (The trick, apparently, is super-saturating colors and outlining images to trick the eye into "seeing" foreground and background images.) (www.v3imaging.com)

Like so much else at NAB, this demonstration offered a vision of what the emerging world of integrated video and data might look like soon. And not just on a television screen.

Gary Arlen (GaryArlen@columnist.com) is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm.

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