Microsoft is showing the beta of Windows Media Audio and Video 8, unveiled by Steve Ballmer, president and chief executive officer. From the content creation standpoint, the most important development in the format is improved compression. The lossy compression used in Windows Media (and most other audio and video formats) trades off file size for quality.
Windows Media 8 will produce files of "near CD" quality at just 48kbps, Ballmer said. Comparatively, the same quality would have required a 64kbps file with Windows Media 7 and a 128kbps MP3 file. The video compression improves from about 700 kbps for near-DVD quality to just 500 kbps. Ballmer said a final version should be ready when Whistler ships late next year.
Not to be outdone, RealNetworks, Microsoft's fiercest competitor in the streaming realm, has trotted out its new RealSystem IQ. Whereas Microsoft concentrates on file size, Real's new product focuses on how the stream gets to you. RealSystem creates a network that distributes the server's load and responsibility throughout the network, which should help improve many of the problems that now plague streaming, primarily broken streams from overtaxed servers.
While Real and Microsoft are holding court at the show, several smaller companies are showing products that could have an impact on your stream quality as well.
One big focus for companies big and small is how to get streaming content to wireless devices. The problem lies in the limited bandwidth available to phones and personal digital assistants, which now maxes out about 19.2 kbps. Several companies have ideas about how to solve the problem.
A handful of upstarts are experimenting with ways to shrink or better manage the data stream of audio and video files. They're hitting new levels of efficiency and transmission speeds, and offer a preview of the kind of quality and speeds we'd all like to take for granted.
Innovations from the little guys
PacketVideo uses a proprietary encoder to shrink MPEG-1 and .wav files so that they can stream at data rates from 384 kbps to just 9.6 kbps -- small enough to work over today's wireless networks. Of course, you sacrifice a great deal of image size, frame rate, and quality at the low end of the scale. But within a few years, you should see 100-kbps wireless access, which will let you view a decent-quality video stream through the PacketVideo technology.
Another company, TuneTo.com, is announcing a new wireless streaming-audio plan. Previously an Internet radio site, the new TuneTo.com free wireless service streams the same content to your wireless device with sound quality comparable to 128-kbps MP3, which is near-CD quality.
To get that kind of quality, the company fudges the concept of streaming a bit with a multistep process that requires a PC and a memory cache. When you log on to the site with your PC, you download the metadata of the file, which constitutes a majority of the file's size. You then synch your mobile device with your PC. The cached data transfers to the device's memory (you'll get about a half hour of music with 16MB of storage). Then, your wireless device contacts the company's servers, and the remainder of the file, just a 1-kbps stream, activates the song.
Other companies are working on improving the compression quality of files so that you can get more for less. A big movement here is getting video-on-demand streams to your TV, which will allow you to skip the video rental store and use the Net instead to watch any movie you want.
Streambox TV is developing a video-compression technology that reduces a 6MB file to 1.2MB with little visible quality loss. The technology will be used in set-top boxes.
And DiamondBack Vision is showing its new ObjectVideo compression software, now in beta. This compression scheme is designed to improve slower streams -- around 56 kbps -- by isolating moving objects. The more movement in a frame, the more blocks and artifacts appear after compression. ObjectVideo can isolate the objects moving against a background and apply different compressions to them, making the image look better and reducing the overall file size.