Broadband Multimedia Systems: Future Opportunities

Irek Defee

Digital Media Institute
Tampere University of Technology
P.O. Box 553
FIN-33101 Tampere, Finland.

Internet and Web technologies have become an overwhelming platform for instant and wide distribution of multi- an hyper-media applications. The applications evolved quickly and matched perfectly with limitations of the current technology, creating new type media which is expanding with enormous speed.

There is, however, approaching now a new wave of digital technologies which might create even greater change and bigger impact than the current Internet and Web. This coming wave will bring to everybody high-quality interactive digital video, audio and animated 3D graphics.

Future which will bring this change is not distant, it is in fact just starting. Several new digital video technologies are just appearing:

These technologies provide high-quality digital video streams which make that they can be equally well supplied to TV receivers and to computers. There will be coming new DVD players and digital satellite receivers but the most interesting is potential of integration of the digital video into computers. Obviously the present computers are not prepared for the processing of high quality video.

There will be thus high pressure on upgrading them and in fact new models of computers with much improved video and graphics will appear in 1997. In the PC area there are several major improvements coming:

On can thus see that standard PC's will be now quickly evolving into high-quality video players supported with fast 3D graphics. Advanced users will have possibility to produce inexpensively professional quality video material by connecting DVC camcorders to PC's via digital outputs, no video conversion will be necessary.

These technological advances bring naturally the next question: How they can be expanded to the network and what will be the effect?

To answer this, one should notice first that current Internet-type networking is absolutely unsuitable for the high-quality, high-bandwidth video streams which have 4-8 Mb/s and may even have 25 Mb/s speed as noted above. In addition, high-quality digital video transmission require very precise timing which makes it even more demanding. To find solution for network satisfying these demands within realistic costs, there are huge activities on-going. For home consumer applications these are:

In the professional area there are several broadband networking technologies: ATM, 100 Mb/s Ethernet, switched Ethernet and gigabit Ethernet.

These technologies are competing although they are still in development so it is not possible to judge their practical performance. Nevertheless, for example HTV in Helsinki announced recently that it will start distributing cable modems in 1997 and expects to have most customers connected in 1998. In the professional area KELA has already built an ATM network for 2000 users.

From this review we can see now that the technologies of high-quality video and multimedia are on a clear convergence track with broadband networking. Once the PC's and home set-top boxes will become digital video and graphics machines, there will be huge demand for networks to bring this type of content to them. Future broadband multimedia systems which emerge will require media servers which will be gigantic by current standards and backbone networks with speeds which are even hard to name, serving potentially similar number of customers as in present TV or telephone systems.

The vision of technology is thus there but there are few questions which are most difficult to answer and there is surely no wizard able to answer them correctly:

What will be the use of these systems? How they will change life and work?

Just barely a few years ago Internet was equal to email and newsgroups. There were of course predictions about the Internet spreading fastly and amount of email growing exponentially. These predictions were based on the extrapolation of current technology and applications. Then came the Web and there was qualitative change which can be described as unpredictable phase transition, or revolution: Now Internet is the Web, email and newsgroups are quite insignifcant additions to it.

In the case of broadband multimedia predictions would be even more difficult: technologies are just emerging and there are no applications yet. This means that there is some field left yet for research before will be ruled by commercial giants, as it was in the (not so) old days of Internet. We shoul push to be first with building such experimental systems to be able to click on Web browsers to play digital television and see the new uses for this technology. This is now a major direction of work.