Draft Of Video Standard Includes University Of Rochester Animation Technology

December 03, 1997

Web enthusiasts and video junkies will have the University of Rochester and several other institutions to thank for the sharper images that pop up faster than ever on computer monitors, TV screens, digital video disks (DVDs), and maybe even video telephones around the turn of the century.

At a recent meeting in Fribourg, Switzerland, 300 computer experts from companies and institutions around the world agreed on a potential new multimedia standard, MPEG-4 (MPEG stands for the Moving Pictures Experts Group, which creates such standards). MPEG-4 brings together and standardizes audio, video, and animation technology from about 25 companies and a handful of university groups. Its developers say it will also bring point- and-click ease to video editing by the masses.

Computer jockeys hope MPEG-4 will make the "World Wide Wait" a relic of the past by lightening the load of information needed to create seamless video. The standard should also improve the quality of the jerky, low-resolution video common on the Internet today.

Among the technologies included in the final draft is a formula for animation that was created by Murat Tekalp, professor of electrical engineering, and research associate Peter Van Beek. The team relies on computer power to automate the monotony of 2-D animation technology, which usually involves tedious frame-by- frame manipulation. They've created a geometric mesh that the software will use to run and compress animated sequences.

"This mesh is one tool in the MPEG-4 toolbox," says Tekalp, who is chair of the IEEE Technical Committee on Image and Multi- Dimensional Signal Processing and the author of Digital Video Processing. "We spend our bits wisely to produce the best video."

Van Beek says MPEG-4 is especially exciting for the flexibility and control it offers users. Unlike most video coding, where information describing an entire scene flows through a computer in one giant file, MPEG-4 is an "object-based" formula that separates the data, or bit streams, that define each object in a scene. This makes it much easier to move objects around on the screen, bringing point-and-click freedom to ordinary viewers as well as video specialists.

Of course, video and graphics trickery has been part of Hollywood for nearly 20 years. In Forrest Gump, for instance, Tom Hanks is shown shaking hands with presidents who were dead long ago. Today such video is fabricated through a very tedious and expensive process using specialized equipment.

"In a Hollywood studio, these effects cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Tekalp. "The new technology automatically encodes this kind of image manipulation. MPEG-4 will bring special effects to the desk top, and you'll be able to do this with a $2,000 computer."

To change the scenery behind a boat skimming along the water, for instance, an MPEG-4 software user might simply be able to click once on the scenery and pick a new background. The change would be effective for whatever length of video the user specified. Achieving this with today's commonly used software would be a laborious process that would involve precisely outlining the scenery frame by frame.

MPEG-4 also creates other possibilities: A family might add personal touches to home movies; a TV viewer would interact directly with a program, manipulating the content directly; or a content provider might beam different versions of a video to separate audiences.

"Today the only way you can control what you see is to switch the channel or the Web site -- that's all," says Van Beek.

The video standard attempts to bring together knowledge in previously separate areas, including broadcast and video, represented by MPEG, and graphics, often represented by VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). Unlike VRML, MPEG-4 will be a "streaming" standard -- images will appear on a monitor or TV as soon the data enters so the user won't have to wait until the entire file downloads.

Next the MPEG-4 draft will be voted on by the standards committees of several nations that are part of the International Standards Organization. If those nations agree on it, MPEG-4 will become an international standard by late next year. After that it should appear in Internet software, perhaps as a "plug-in," and in special TV hardware.

Rochester is one of only a handful of universities to contribute to MPEG-4; most of the technology comes from the electronics and computer industries. The proposal by Tekalp and Van Beek found support from several companies, including Sharp, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, and General Instruments. Several other engineers have contributed to the technology, including Ibrahim Sezan of Sharp Laboratories and former graduate students Tanju Erdem of Kodak, Candemir Toklu of Siemens, and Yucel Altunbasak of Hewlett-Packard.

The team's work is supported by the University's Center for Electronic Imaging Systems, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, New York State, and several industrial partners.

University of Rochester

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