MPEG standards
for industry and the masses

by Leonardo Chiariglione, Convenor of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29/WG 11, Coding of Moving Pictures and Audio

Standards come in many flavours. Some result in the optimization of industrial processes. A good example is provided by the standards produced by the first ISO Technical Committee, “Screw threads”. It is clear that having the ability to purchase screws from multiple vendors gives greater design and manufacturing flexibility. The end-users benefit indirectly from the standards, as they can buy better and cheaper machines.

Other standards have an even more direct impact on the masses because consumers can buy new products with more or newer functionalities. This is the case of the Moving Picture Experts Group, also known as MPEG (ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29/WG 11). Its standards have ushered in a revolution whose end is not yet in sight.

MPEG was established once research efforts on “compression” – the bit rate reduction of digitized audio and video signals – were considered to have reached an acceptable level, and the complexity of their implementation in silicon was a good match for the design capability of integrated circuits. MPEG standards gave rise to audio-visual products and services that resulted in a vast increase of information for the end user because:

One of the business areas where MPEG anticipated a now prevailing trend is in the use of intellectual property (IP) that is required to implement standards. Before MPEG standards came to the fore, IP did not provide significant challenges to standards’ implementers. MPEG standards consisted of a distillation of research results, most of which were either patented or coming from a plurality of companies and organizations. With MPEG, there arose a need to offer implementers a practical access to all of these patents, which at the time probably amounted to several dozens of them held by more than 10 patent holders. Patent pools have been instrumental in providing a bridge between MPEG standards – the best game in town – and their practical use.

The existence of this “bridge” has been instrumental in the success of MPEG standards. Hundreds of millions of MPEG-based devices have been sold, millions of hours of MPEG content have been streamed, and billions of files of MPEG content have been exchanged and downloaded. Smart patent licensing schemes have declared the success of MPEG standards, and have provided significant remuneration to patent holders. This positive feedback has helped to fund more research that has been fed to MPEG for more standards.

The MPEG approach of providing standards for the digital representation of audio and video information independent of the application domain – and hence of the industry employing it – actually created an industry that did not exist before. An industry specialized in the design and manufacture of integrated circuits needed by manufacturers of devices that were used at the creation and at the consumption side.

MPEG standards did not just help to increase the quantity of audio-visual information, but also introduced a new dimension in its consumption. In spite of being digital, the Compact Disc (CD) provided a user experience comparable to the one obtained from a vinyl disc. With the MPEG standard MPEG-1, Audio Layer 3 (ISO/IEC 111 72-3:1993Cor 1:1996) – the base for the popular audio format: MP3s – users have been able to accomplish things that were awkward or utterly impossible before: create their own playlists at the click of a mouse; load songs into portable devices weighing a few tens of grams; share songs with friends and much more.

The ability to get, play and share media – a process often facilitated by the actions of new entrepreneurs operating on one side of legality or the other – has created a new dimension in the legal space as well. Of course much of the value of a product, be it a physical or a virtual object, depends on it being “hard to get”. When music and video become bits that everybody could obtain, preserving the value of the content became more difficult. However, MPEG has also provided the means for enabling new ways of doing business with media in the virtual space.

In the past, when the amount of information available to the public was more reduced, a cursory look at a newspaper provided everything that people needed to know for their evening entertainment. At the time, everybody watched or listened to more or less the same content. However, when the amount of available information crosses a certain threshold, users enter a state of “information overload”, and more information becomes less. MPEG standards have provided the means for people to surf the wealth of information received, of course, as long as service providers add appropriate “content descriptors”.

MPEG standards have also been instrumental in facilitating a paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and the audio-visual media. Traditionally, “making” an audio or a video used to be a very engaging and costly exercise due to the complexity and high costs of the devices; now this is no longer the case.

Today a personal computer equipped with appropriate software can be used to produce a song with a fraction of the traditional cost, less effort and better technical results. However, the biggest innovation comes with the production of video material. Here too, inexpensive but high-quality cameras and editing software can be used to make distribution-ready video, which used to be the pride of production houses.

Possibly even more pervasive is the ability of anybody carrying a decently up-to-date cell phone or digital camera, to make a video compressed and stored in a file according to an MPEG standard. In many instances the immediacy of the information is priceless: as a source of visual material for a TV broadcasted thousands of kilometres away, as evidence in a trial or as a message sent by a traveller to the loved ones back home.

But there is more; the technical ability now available to all to create content is empowering millions of people, and allowing them to express their creativity. Of course, having the technical tools does not make you a successful movie director, but it does give you the opportunity to show that you can be one.

This is the story today, where millions of video files are generated and posted in the so-called user-gen­erated content web sites, and watched millions of times a day.

It is easy to conclude that MPEG standards are reshaping the way people communicate and do business with digital content – of course in synergy with a host of other technologies coming from disparate technology fields.

It is now almost 20 years since MPEG came into existence. The world of “liquid” audio and video that thousands of researchers had dreamed of is now with us, and its results are changing the world we know. Certainly, for those involved in MPEG, the changes effected on technology look more impressive. However, MPEG has also influenced manufacturing, distribution, product and service design and IP licensing. The role of end users has dramatically changed with more empowerment, and the ability to play new roles.

The social effects of MPEG standards is felt every day on an increasingly stronger basis, so that the consequent need to revisit the role of legislation and regulation of digital media is all the more pressing.

About the author

Leonardo Chiariglione obtained his Ph. D. from the University of Tokyo in 1973. During his career he launched several initiatives. Among these are MPEG in 1988, Digital Audio Visual Council in 1994, Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents in 1996 and his latest initiative, the Digital Media Project in 2003. He is currently CEO of the consulting company that advises a number of multinational companies in the area of digital media. Dr. Chiariglione is the recipient of several awards: among these the IBC John Tucker award, the IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics award and the Kilby Foundation award.