Raising the Video Streaming Quality Bar

One of today’s leading streaming proponents actually doesn’t consider himself part of the streaming media "industry" at all. Joe Kane, CEO of Joe Kane Productions, views his mission as one of providing tools to media professionals, whether they be broadcasters, Webcasters, home theater buffs, or church AV integrators.

"The advent of HD-quality streaming codecs provide many benefits to end users, especially the ability to compress HD content in small file sizes," Kane upon the early March release of his Digital Video Essentials Professional (DVE Pro) , a six-DVD set sponsored and distributed by Extron, a leader in AV integration products. "Streaming technologies lack the proper tools, though, to accurately calibrate display and projection systems."

DVE Pro features an comprehensive suite of diagnostic tools for A/V professionals to optimize the display of live or on-demand streaming content, whether for a plasma-based home theater, large boardroom, or church projection systems. DVE Pro builds on the popular consumer version (released in 2003), adding more than 130 new video test patterns designed for professional use. Test signals and demonstration materials are offered in both NTSC and PAL, and, for the first time ever, in 1080p and 720p Windows Media Video (WMV) high definition.

"DVE Pro will elevate system calibration of home theaters and commercial A/V systems to new levels," says Kane, CEO of Joe Kane Productions. "Many of the new visual test and demonstration materials will serve as an indispensable proof of performance reference for today's HDTV displays."

Kane says many broadcast and studio execs still think of streaming technologies in 20th-century terms. "Two weeks ago, a group from a major studio came to my shop and were shocked at the quality of what they were putting up on the Internet," says Kane. "They thought they were still using the ‘postage stamp-sized images’ and–once they saw the images demonstrated on a fully calibrated projection system in the proper setting, they were shocked at the quality of what was available on their own Web site!"

Much of the content on the six-DVD set is encoded in Windows Media 9, which Kane began using almost a year ago when he realized MPEG-2 could provide the quality his customers would expect for HD display calibration tools. But, he notes, his content—including standard display calibration tools such as cross-hatch and single-pixel inverts—provided an almost insurmountable problem for today’s most advanced codecs.

"Our intent was not to improve the quality of streaming codecs," Kane says, "but rather to use HD-capable codecs to provide the best possible quality for our display tools. Along the way, however, we found that many industry-standard test and calibration patterns were more than last year’s codecs could handle."

Kane began courting both the H.264 and Windows Media camps, looking for someone to provide HD codecs capable of handling the intense visual patterns without breaking down. Microsoft took up Kane on his challenge almost immediately, and he began to send Microsoft examples of where the Windows Media codec was breaking down. As each of the clips was analyzed, Microsoft was able to optimize its codec to handle these more complex patterns.

The H.264 camp didn’t respond as quickly, although Kane now says the release of his DVE Pro products may provide the impetus for H.264 codec improvement. "The H.264 camp finally called me yesterday," he said. "I’ve been trying to get their attention for quite some time, but now that the studios are telling H.264 to get lost, they’ve called and said they are willing to show how H.264 can meet our stringent demands, and have agreed to improve it in areas in which it may be deficient."

The work is ongoing; Kane says that some patterns in DVE Pro will be re-encoded in the near future with an enhanced Windows Media codec and posted on his Web site free of charge for owners of the DVE Pro set. As an example of the need to re-encode some test patterns, Kane showed several patterns that significantly confuse today’s codecs and cause the moirĂ© patterns that are common ailments of compressed content in MPEG-2 and Windows Media 9.

Kane also noted that—due to the inclusion of H.264 and WindowsMedia 9/VC1 on next-generation DVDs—he intends to provide H.264 encodes of his most complex test patterns when the H.264 codecs meet his demanding specifications. "If the end result of our work is better HD-capable codecs from multiple vendors, that’s a beneficial byproduct to our primary need: providing our customer—the AV integrator who needs to calibrate today’s HD plasma and projector systems—with the best possible calibration tools."

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