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Telecom Student Papers: Kivlehan - California Western
Fall 2004 Telecom Student Papers: Kivlehan

MPEG 4 and Beyond:  The Future of Video Compression Technology

By Erin Kivlehan

            When it comes to entertainment, consumers know what they want and they want it immediately.  The technology industry has reacted to this demand with countless innovations in the way consumers access their movies, television, and music.  What was once an evening out at the movies or a trip to the store to purchase the latest record, tape or compact disk is now just a few remote control strokes or mouse clicks away in the comfort of one’s own living room. 

Many people now have access to Video On Demand (VOD) technology through their Cable Company or Internet Service Provider (ISP), or the ability to download the latest music releases or box office hits from a number of companies on-line.  All of this availability is made possible through the use of data compression technology.  The most common form of video compression currently used is a “block-based method”.  Each still frame that a moving picture consists of is taken individually and divided into blocks.  Objects that stay the same from one frame to another, such as a background, are then filtered out to avoid having to transmit that data for each frame. Only the objects that change from frame to frame, such as people walking or moving cars, are recoded, which provides for smaller transmittable files.  This process can reduce the size of full length films to approximately 100 megabytes, allowing them to fit onto a hard drive and still play with the quality one might expect from a DVD.

Though there are numerous formats that can be used to accomplish this type of video compression, MPEG technology (short for Motion Picture Experts Group) is among the most common standard used.  The MPEG-4 technology is more flexible than some other compression software available because it allows for the video to be played by a number of commercially recognized players including RealOne Player and  Quicktime, rather than only being compatible with a specific program.   MPEG-4, the successor to MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, was created to move past the levels of standard DVDs and CD-ROMs and allow for video files to be compressed small enough to be quickly transferable over DSL and cable lines for home use and streaming on-demand video over the internet.

Among other things, the MPEG-4 standard allows for advances such as interactive media viewing.  Viewers can change objects on the screen into alternative colors or track the moves of a specific player in a particular sporting event.   For example, in the Netherlands, Philips NV came up with the idea of pay TV programming called “Buy the Ball” in which soccer games would be broadcast, but without the view of the ball – to see the ball on your screen would be an extra charge.  This concept was made possible with MPEG-4 standards.  In essence, the consumer ends up with a choose-your-own-adventure TV viewing experience.  They can do everything from downloading any movie they want to see to having their choice of commentary on a news program.

The next likely mainstream use for such compression is on-line companies offering movie rentals over the web.  The service is available now, but most consumers have yet to connect their computer to their TV, in order to watch a movie in the traditional format, and the quality is not quite up to hard copy DVD standards.  For around the price of a video rental from the local video store, though, anyone with a DSL connection or faster can download a movie without leaving the comforts of their own home.  The one drawback to this seemingly ideal advance in home entertainment is that, even with the compressed video data, it still takes up to two hours to load an entire movie, which is the only way to gain viewing control such as pause, stop, rewind.

            It is not just the consumer that is reaping the benefits of MPEG-4 technology.  Providers of High Definition TV (HDTV), the latest must-have in home entertainment, are using the technology to provide more channels and more content to their viewers, in hopes that it will increase their subscribership.  HDTV companies are hesitant to create more channels and spend more money until more consumers are subscribing, but at the same time, consumers are deterred from subscribing because they want more options before upgrading.  By being able to provide more channels with more content that takes up less space, HDTV providers using the MPEG-4 standard can reduce their costs and increase their profits.

            The marketability of this standard is high because of the cost benefit to the providers and the end result to the consumers.   Most consumers are willing to pay a little more for convenience and quality, and providers are ready to fulfill that wish.  The MPEG-4 standard works with numerous platforms and gives providers an opportunity to offer more than just TV and movies, such as interactive learning and interactive gaming.

            The MPEG-4 standard affects every aspect of the multi-media market, from music and gaming to movies and TV.  It gives consumers more control over what they want to watch or listen to and gives the providers an opportunity to offer more content to their customers at higher speeds.  There are downsides to every technology, however.  One of the downsides associated with MPEG-4 technology is compatibility.   Though it is a standard, currently MPEG-4 files created for use in different applications are not always compatible with competing vendor’s applications, making universal use of the files challenging for someone who doesn’t use the same application for all files.   Another downside to MPEG compression technology is the diminished quality of the compressed materials.  When video in an MPEG file is edited, the quality decreases because with each compression and decompression of the data, bits are lost. This creates fuzzy images and quality loss in some high motion or high detail scenes.  The more advanced the MPEG compression technology gets, however, the higher quality compression files will be produced.

            In a world where we have computers the size of our palms with wireless internet access and cell phones that can tell you the score in last nights playoff game with the push of a button, consumers demand that their technology keep up with the speed of their lifestyles.  While even more advanced compression technology is on the horizon, with MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 already in the works, the MPEG-4 standard provides a level of clarity and speed that the ever-demanding consumer base is quickly becoming accustomed to. 



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Bill Lammers, New satellite service promises more choices for HDTV owners, Plain Dealer (Clev.), Dec. 4, 2003, at E8.

MPEG-4 The Media Standard:  The Landscape of Advanced Multimedia Coding (2000), available at, supra. (MPEG Industry Forum, What is MPEG-4?)., p. 2 ( IPV Update on Encoding Standards). (Summary of Digital Technology Quality).

MPEG-7 The Generic Multimedia Content Description Standard (2002), available  at

MPEG-21:  Goals and Achievements (2003), available at