Video as an enabler for broadband applications

Last week, I gave a brief statement on the importance of video as an enabler for broadband applications at the Public Sphere event of Senator Kate Lundy.

I found it really difficult to summarize all the things that I find important about video technology in a modern distributed online world in a 10 min speech. Therefore, I’d like to extend on some of the key points that I was trying to make in this blog post.

Video provides presence

One of the biggest problems we have with the online world is that it mostly still evolves around text. To exchange information with others, to publish, to chat (email, irc or twitter) or do our work, we mostly still rely on the written word as a communication means. However, we all know how restrictive this is – everyone who has ever seen a flame war develop on a mailing list, a friendship break over a badly formulated email, a host of negative comments posted on a mis-formulated blog post, or a twitter storm explode over a misunderstanding knows that text is very hard to get right. Lacking any sort of personal expression supporting the expressed words (other than the occasional emoticon), sentences can be read or interpreted in the wrong way.

A phone call (or skype call) is better than text: how often have you exchanged 10 or even 20 emails with a friend to e.g. arrange to meet for a beer, when a simple phone call would have solved it within seconds. But even a phone call provides a reduced set of communication channels in comparison to a personal meeting: gesture, posture, mime and motion are there to enrich communication channels and help us understand the other better. Just think about the cognitive challenges in a phone conference in comparison to the ease of speaking to people when you see them.

With communication that uses video, we have a much higher communication “bandwidth” between people, i.e. a lot less has to be actually said in words so we can understand each other, because gesture, posture, mime and motion speak for us, too. While we cannot touch each other in a video communication, e.g. for shaking hands or kissing cheeks, video provides for all these other channels of communication providing a much higher perceived feeling of “presence” to the remote person or people. When my son speaks over skype with my family in Germany, and we cannot turn on the web cam because the bandwidth and latency are too poor, he loses interest very quickly in speaking to these “soul-less” voices.

The availability of bandwidth will make it possible for humans to communicate with each other at a more natural level, feeling more engaged and involved. This has implications not just on immediate communications, such as person-to-person calls or video conferences, but on any application that requires the interaction of people.

Video requirements are the block to create new applications

Bandwidth requirements for most online applications are pretty low. Consider for example a remote surgery where a surgical expert on one end operates on a patient at a remote location with surgical staff and operating equipment. The actual data that needs to be exchanged between the surgeon and the operating machines is fairly low – they are mostly command-control data that has to be delivered at high accuracy and low delay, but does not require high bandwidth. What turns such a remote surgery scenario into a challenge with existing networks are the requirements for multiple video channels – the surgeon needs to be visible to the staff and probably to the patient – in turn, the surgeon needs to see the staff, needs to see the patient from multiple angles to gain the full picture, needs to see the supporting documents such as X-rays, schedules, blood analysis etc, and of course he needs to see the video coming from the operating equipment possibly from within the patient that gives him feedback on the actual operation.

As you can see, it is video that creates the need for high bandwidth.

This is not restricted to medical applications. Almost all new remote applications that we create end up having a huge visual requirement with multiple video streams. This is natural, since almost all remote applications involve more than one person and each person has the capability to look into different directions. Thus, the presence of each person has to be replicated and the representation of the environment has to be replicated.

Even in a simple scenario such as a video conference, a single camera and microphone are very restrictive and do not provide the ability to every participant to interact with any of the other people present, but restrict them to the person/group that the camera is currently focused on. Back channels such as affirmative side chats or mimic exchanges of opinion are lost. Multiple video channels can make up for this.

In my experience from the many projects I have been somewhat involved with over the years that tried to develop new remote applications – teleteaching at Mannheim University or the CeNTIE project at CSIRO – video is the bandwidth-needy channel, but video is not the main purpose of the application. Rather, the needs for information for the involved people are what drives the setup of the data and communication channels for a particular application.

Immediately, applications in the following areas come to mind that will be enabled through broadband:

  • education: remote lectures, remote seminars, remote tutoring, remote access to research text/data
  • health: remote surgery, remote expert visits, remote patient monitoring
  • business: remote workplace, remote person-to-person collaboration with data sharing and visualisation, remote water-cooler conversations, remote team presence
  • entertainment: remote theatre/concert/opera visit, home cinema, high-quality video-on-demand

But ultimately, there is impact into all aspects of our lives: consider e.g. the new possibilities for citizen involvement in politics with remote video technology, or collaborative remote video editing in video production, or in sports for data collection. Simply ask yourself “what would I do differently if I had unlimited bandwidth?” and I’m sure you will come up with at least another 2 or 3 new applications in your field of expertise that have not been mentioned before.

Technical challenges

Video (with audio) is an inherently volatile data stream that is highly sensitive to specific kinds of networking issues.

End-to-end delays such as are typical with satellite-based connections destroy the feeling of presence and create at best awkward communications, at worst destructive feedback-loops in live operations. Unfortunately, there is a natural limit to the speed in which data can flow between two points. Given that the largest distance between two points on earth is approx 20,000 km and the speed of light is approx 300,000 km/s, a roundtrip must take at least 133ms. Considering that humans can detect a delay as small as 10ms in a remote communication and are really put off by a delay of 100ms, this is a technical challenge that we will find hard to overcome. It shows, however, that it is a technical requirement to minimize end-to-end dealys as much as possible.

Packet jitter is another challenge that video deals with badly. In networks, packets cannot easily be guaranteed to arrive at a certain required rate. For example, video needs to play back at a fixed picture rate (typically 25 frames per second) for humans to be able to view it as smooth motion. Whether video is transferred live or from a file, video packets are required to arrive at a certain rate such that the pictures can be decoded and displayed at the expected rate. The variance in delay of packets arriving because of network congestion is called packet jitter. If packet jitter is high, the video will either have to stop and buffer packets until enough video frames have arrived for it to display again, or it will have to drop packets and therefore video frames to keep in sync with a live stream. Typically the biggest problem of dropping packets is the drop-out of audio – while we can tolerate some drop-outs in video, audio drop-outs are unacceptable to maintain a conversation.

In most of the application scenarios, there is a varying need for video quality.

For example, a head shot of a person that is required for communication doesn’t need high-quality video – it is sufficient if the person can be seen and the communication can be held. The audio resolution can be telephone quality (i.e. 8kHz audio sampling rate) and the video can be highly compressed and at a smallish resolution (e.g. 320×240 px) giving standard skype quality video which requires about 400Kbps in bandwidth.

At the other end of the scale are e.g. medical and large-screen applications where a high sound quality is required e.g. to hear heart beats properly (i.e. 48-96kHz audio sampling rate) and the video can’t be compressed (much) so as not to introduce artifacts, which gives at a high HDTV resolution of e.g. 1920x1080px bandwidth requirements of 30Mbps compressed – uncompressed would be about triple that.

So, depending on the tolerance of the application to picture size, compression artifacts, and the number of parallel video streams required, bandwidth requirements for video can be relatively low or really high.

Further technical issues around video are that online video can be handled differently to analog video. The video can have all sorts of metadata associated with it – it can have hyperlinks to other content – it can be accompanied by advertising in more flexible ways – and it can be automatically personalised towards the needs of the individual viewers, just to name a few rich functions of online video. It is here where a lot of new ideas for monetisation will evolve.

Non-technical challenges

Apart from technical challenges, the use of video also creates issues in other dimensions.

People are worried about their behaviour as it is always potentially recorded and thus may not perform their duties with the same focus and concentration as is necessary.

People are worried about video connections always being potentially enabled and thus having potentially a remote listener/viewer that is unwanted.

On top of such privacy issues come issues in data security as increasingly data is distributed remotely.

We should also not forget that there are people that have varying requirements for their communication. A large challenge for such new applications will be to make them accessible. For example the automated creation of captions for remote video communication may well turn out to be a major challenge, but also an opportunity for later archiving and search.

When looking at the expected move of professional video content from TV to online, there are more issues about copyrighted content and usage rights – mostly this has to do with legacy content where online use was not considered in licensing agreements. This is a large inhibitor e.g. for Australia in creating a Hulu-like service.

In fact, monetisation is a huge issue, since video is not cheap: there is a cost in the development of applications, there is a cost in bandwidth, in storage, and a cost in content production that has to be covered somewhere. Simply expecting the user to pay for being online and then to pay again for each separate application, potentially subscribing to a multitude of services, may not be the best way to cope with the cost. Advertising will certainly play a big role in the monetisation mix and new forms of advertising will emerge, such as personalised permission-based advertising based on the information available about a person e.g. through their Google searches.

In this context, the measurement of the use of video in bandwidth, storage and as part of an application will be a big enabler towards figuring out how to pay for all the involved expenditure and what new monetisation models to come up with.

Further in the context of cost and monetisation it should be added that the use of open source software, in particular open source video technology such as open codecs can help bring down cost while at the same time create more interoperability. For example, if Skype used an open codec and open protocols rather than their proprietary technology, other applications could be built using the skype infrastructure and user base.

Approach to developing good new applications

These are just the challenges for video streams themselves. However, in new applications, video streams will just be a tool for creating an integral application, ultimately driven by the processes and data needs of the application. The creation of all the other parts of the application – the machinery, control panels, the data pools, the processes, the human interface, security and privacy measures etc – are what make up the product challenge. A product ultimately has to function in a way that makes it a usable tool in achieving a certain outcome. Unless the use of the product becomes natural and the distance disappears from the minds of the people involved, a remote application does not succeed.

The CeNTIE project, the approach towards the development of new remote applications was to assume no limits on available bandwidth. Then a challenge would be identified in an application area, e.g. in the medical space, and a prototype would be built with lots of input from the domain experts. Then the prototype would actually be deployed into a real working situation and tested. The feedback from the domain experts would be used to improve the application with further technology and improved processes. Ultimately, a usable setup would emerge, which was then ready to be turned into a product for commercialisation.

We have the capabilities here in Australia to develop world-class new applications on high-bandwidth networks. We need to support this further with bandwidth – hopefully the NBN will achieve this. But we also need to support this further with commercialisation support – unfortunately most of the applications that I saw being developed at the CSIRO never made it past the successful prototype. But this is fodder for another blog post at a different time.

Finally, I’d like to point out that we also have a large challenge in overcoming tradition. Most of us would be challenged to trust a doctor and his equipment for doing a surgical operation on our body from a remote location. There are issues of trust and culture involved that may take us a while to deal with and accept.

UPDATE (11/6/09): It seems that CISCO’s latest report, which predicts global IP traffic to increase 5-fold over the next 3 years, agrees with the analysis that most of this increase will be caused by video.

2 thoughts on “Video as an enabler for broadband applications

  1. Thank you for this excellent post.

    “People are worried about their behaviour as it is always potentially recorded and thus may not perform their duties with the same focus and concentration as is necessary.”

    I think the reverse can be also true, more so if the use of cameras is routine.

    “People are worried about video connections always being potentially enabled and thus having potentially a remote listener/viewer that is unwanted.”

    I think this is a good argument for mandating that all video recording devices come equipped with a hardware-activated front LED that shows when a device is recording.

    What’s really interesting here is what danah boyd calls “collapsing contexts,” which is to say recorded statements made available to socially-diverse audiences across physical, linguistic, and temporal barriers. In political contexts, I expect that careful articulation of complex issues will become increasingly important.

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