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MPEG-4 the multi media format of the future ?

Posted 01 April 2003 17:28 CEST by DoMiN8ToR

Would you like to fit an entire DVD quality movie on a CD-R or would you like to stream a movie to your mobile phone while you're travelling? Or do you prefer to have your music compressed in a format that offers better quality, using less space? Does that sound too good to be true? Well it's not! During Cebit several companies announced products with MPEG-4 support and also companies like Ahead are currently developing MPEG-4 related software products. Yes, MPEG-4 is the new keyword that you should remember. This standard will likely be the next big thing in the coming years. In this article we will try to explain why MPEG-4 is important and how it works.

First of all it's important to understand that MPEG-4 has nothing to do with MP3. MP3 is a part of the MPEG-1 standard, just like the Video CD is part of the MPEG-1 standard. MPEG-4 is not really a follow up of MPEG-1 either. It's a new standard that aims to become the standard for digital media while MPEG-1 was mainly focussed to deliver content the way we know it today.

The MPEG-4 technology works, simplified, by splitting the content. A small movie can, for instance, be seen as Audio, Video, Titles, and Subtitles. Four different objects that together form the complete movie. If you want the best quality using the lowest amount of disc space you will need to analyze each of these objects and choose the appropriate compression format. You can imagine that if in the movie someone is only making a phone call you could use an audio compression format that needs less quality than when you see an orchestra playing in an opera house in the same movie. You can also imagine that in case the person is making a phone call and he only moves his lips, you need less movie quality than when you're showing an entire moving orchestra playing a powerful song.

Important in MPEG-4 are the so called profiles. Profiles describe somehow the content of an MPEG-4 object. E.g. the phone call would use the Speech Audio Profile, while the orchestra would require the High Quality Audio Profile. For video, the same rule applies and both movies would require a different visual profile. The profiles are designed to make sure that a device knows if it can play a certain MPEG-4 file. An MPEG-4 capable audio device is for example unable to play an MPEG-4 compatible animation.

This phone call/orchestra movie is only a small example. MPEG-4 objects can also appear standalone. E.g. the audio format used in the phone call could also be used for software that is able to set up phone calls over the internet. The audio format that is used for the orchestra movie could be used for audiophiles to store their music on their computer. Besides taped audio and video the MPEG-4 format also allows drawn pictures and animations. Also, MPEG-4 content does not have to be limited to movies or audio, it can also be used for interactive content and games. By combining multiple MPEG-4 technologies, you make one .MP4-file that contains everything you like and that can be played on a wide array of devices.


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