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TI Advocates for Moving Transcoding From the Core

Streaming video and audio formats continue to proliferate, many times with no regard to past formats or future compatibility. As such, transcoding-the act of converting digital video from one file format to another-and transrating-the act of changing bitrates while maintaining the same format or codec-have become a standard part of large-scale streaming media distribution systems. But the ability to transcode or transrate at the point of need, when consumers want to move content from one player or format to another, still continues to lag.

In a new Texas Instruments-sponsored report from IDC, titled Transcoding: The Future of the Video Market Depends on It, the case for transcoding is laid out in detail. While the premise of the report (found here, free registration required)-that the evolution of video entertainment will cease without multi-format transcoding-is a bit overblown, the essence of the report is sound.

Sounding a note from TI's DaVinci playbook, the report synopsis notes that real-time transcoding is the key to growth in the video market:
Multi-format transcoding is the most important challenge to overcome for manufacturers and service providers to solve before realizing the potential tremendous growth in video. Consumers have an insatiable appetite for immersion in entertainment, and transcoding multiple formats in real time will be a necessary function for all future video products to be successful.

TI is well-positioned to take advantage of the growth in video, albeit primarily with on-demand content. As noted in a previous article, TI has moved away from just providing chipsets to providing a solution that allows developers to rapidly implement audio and video solutions. TI's DaVinci platform combined TI's core expertise in digital signal processing (DSP) with software that allowed product developers to monitor the throughput of processes across the DSP.

On top of that, TI also recently added several of its own and key third-party codecs to the DaVinci platform, providing developers with bundled, cost-effective encoding and decoding solutions. Several of TI's chipsets also allow for on-the-fly flashing, meaning that the DSP can play content in one format but then, in a very short period of time, dump the current codec and load another codec. This is especially important for products such as next-generation DVD players (HD DVD or Blu-ray) which are required to allow content playback in MPEG-2, VC-1, or H.264.

TI has not been content to rest on the laurels of DSP flashing, however. The company makes chips that go into everything from cell phones to robust servers, and TI is aware that content encoded and played on its high-end DSPs will choke a low-power chipset in a cell phone, as these small chipsets trade off power for battery life. To solve the problem, TI has begun to evangelize the need for transcoding in order to deliver content to the consumer in a format that is appropriate or desired for a particular playback device.

Jeremiah Golston, CTO of TI's Streaming Media division, has been especially vocal in evangelizing transcoding, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. In a recent blog posting on the TI website, Golston paints a scenario in which high definition (1080i) is either too much or too little resolution, opening the door wide for the need for transcoding.

"In some cases, HD is not needed at all," said Golston. "Standard definition is still the best tradeoff in applications like IPTV . . . where limited network bandwidth makes delivering even high-quality SD still a challenge. Conversely, there are cases where HD is not enough. Medical imaging applications such as ultrasound require an even higher resolution than 1080i. State-of-the-art ultrasound applications require 4Kx2K to produce the detail needed to make proper diagnoses."

Golston goes on to say, in a point echoed by the new IDC report, that manufacturers have to consider versatility of design to handle changing consumer demand.

What TI and the new report are espousing, then, is a change in mindset on the part of product manufacturers. Rather than tying a device to one particular format, TI argues that product manufacturers should provide-where appropriate-the ability to play back content in multiple formats on a single device. Barring the ability to do so, TI counters its own argument with a push toward real-time transcoding, either at the core or at the consumer. Either way, TI is positioned to take advantage of both trends.

"Transcoding is a life-or-death issue facing manufacturers and service providers as they try to realize the explosive growth in video entertainment," predicts Gene Frantz, TI's Principal Fellow. "Consumers have an insatiable appetite for immersion in entertainment, and transcoding among multiple formats will be mandatory for all future video products to be successful. Digital signal processing technology will be an essential piece in laying the foundation for transcoding among multiple consumer devices."

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