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Pulling Back the Curtain on MPEG-4

MPEG-4 has earned a somewhat dubious reputation as a magical streaming architecture. So when we got the chance to rack up an MPEG-4 system — Philips' WebCine line — to test it for ourselves, we felt like we had finally arrived in Emerald City. We half expected to meet the Wizard of Oz himself, but what we found instead was an ordinary — albeit very capable — encoder along with server and player. It seems we were done in by our own "MPEG-4" hype in spite of the fact that the system was not misrepresented by Philips at all. Its WebCine Encoder, Server and Player deliver on the basics of MPEG-4 as advertised and pave the way for streamers who seek to go beyond Kansas in search of the futuristic MPEG-4 goodies we’ve all been dreaming about.

So, what does the first major MPEG-4 solution to hit the streets look like? The hardware for the WebCine Encoder 1.0 includes a Matrox Video Grabber card inside a dual-Pentium III Compaq workstation. Because it has the Matrox professional video card, the encoder can capture live video from a camera or on DVD, in addition to encoding .avi, .mov and MPEG-1 files. The first generation WebCine Encoder creates ISO MPEG-4 files for on-demand streaming, but the soon-to-be-released WebCine Encoder 1.1 will be both ISO and ISMA 1.0 compliant and will support live streaming as well as on-demand. It is a fully configured unit with WebCine Player software, WebCine Encoder software, Internet Explorer, and all the usual Windows desktop utilities set in a Windows NT/2000 workstation. It is based on the Simple and Core MPEG-4 profiles, and sells for around $25,000.

The WebCine Server 1.0 is also a self-contained, fully configured unit as a Pentium II rack-mount system with 256MB of RAM and 40GB of disk storage (capable of storing 155 hours of content encoded at 500Kbps). It has two 10Mbps/100Mbps Ethernet ports and runs a Linux operating environment with the Samba application to take files from the Windows 2000 WebCine Encoder and stream them according to RTP/RTSP protocols. It is a unicast server for streaming UDP sessions, so it is intended for point-to-point sessions and isn’t able to multicast live feeds. It sells for $15,000. An enterprise version of the server will be available under an OEM arrangement with Sun Microsystems, which may bring down the price on the system. The WebCine Player, which can be downloaded from Philips’ Web site (www.mpeg-4player.com), is free.

Okay, it’s MPEG-4, and it’s exciting. At $40,000, it’s affordable only for organizations with deep pockets. Let’s pull back the curtain and find out what it will do, and how well.

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