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New Patents Could Propel Microsoft's Digital Media

Microsoft has just been awarded two United States patents for a proprietary method of packing a high-definition television signal onto a hard drive, internetnews.com has learned.

The development could help propel Microsoft's digital media strategy, whereby the company has, since late 2002, worked to position its Windows Media 9 technology as an industry standard for the delivery of high-definition (1280 x 720) video streams directly to the PC.

Patent 6,510,177, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Jan. 21, is entitled "System and method for layered video coding enhancement."

Patent 6,683,980, issued Jan. 27, is entitled "System and method for compressing data." Both touch on the same development; one is systems oriented, the other is focused on bit-level encoding.

A video-compression expert, who requested anonymity because he is working on related technology, called the concept very interesting. "It gives you a system where a single decoder can handle standard definition video and high definition, too," the source said.

The patents propose breaking up a video signal and storing it on a PC as two bit-streams, one of which is a lower-resolution, or "lossy" video sequence. The second is a higher-resolution, or "supplemental" signal.

This is seen as a highly cost-effective way to send video across the Internet to a PC because it would allow computer manufacturers to effectively build one-size-fits-all media PCs. That is, the PC would need to support only a single Microsoft standard, regardless of the video resolution they're designed to deliver to the user.

For example, sub-$500 PCs utilizing Microsoft's new patented technology might be equipped with cheaper decoders that would only play the "lossy" lower-resolution signal. But more expensive computer models would have higher-resolution codecs and would deliver full-blown high-definition video on plasma displays.

"What you're got is a fixed-bandwidth recording mechanism--the hard disk--and you can shove the lossy signal on it," explained the video-compression expert. "Then you record a supplementary [high-definition] signal on it. If you're happy with the lossy one, you can use that. It could give you a lower-cost decoder."

But the expert added that it's not strictly a split between low-quality and high-quality. Following an analysis of the patent, the source said it appears the low-resolution signal is actually of fairly high quality. "It's interesting in that almost all the quality is in the lossy bit stream, so you could look at this where the lossy signal is an HDTV signal that you could stream over the Internet, though that may be stretching it a little."

In addition, as the filing for patent 6,683,980 describes it, an "advantage is that the encoding and decoding processes are highly parallelizable, which is very desirable for software or hardware implementation. Another advantage is that when the best quality image is desired, all the data that one needs to decompress an image and present it in original (i.e., lossless) quality is available."

Just how closely the encoding techniques used in the patent are related to those applied in Microsoft's Windows Media 9 players and its related encoders is not clear. Microsoft declined to make the research labs employees who invented the new patents available for comment.

While Windows Media 9 is commonly associated in the public mind with the video player included in Windows XP, the player is also associated with a heavier duty "Hollywood" component aimed at supporting high-definition video.

Microsoft kicked off its digital media strategy with the Windows Media 9 launch in Sept. of 2002 at a Los Angeles press conference, where Chairman Bill Gates took the stage, accompanied by James Cameron, director of the movie "Titanic," and Beatles producer George Martin.

"Windows Media 9 is the culmination of years of research and development designed to realize the true potential of digital media on the PC," Gates said at the time.

"We join our partners across the computer, entertainment, and consumer electronics industries to celebrate...software that will help power the next wave of digital media."

Microsoft immediately kicked off a nationwide publicity tour, in which it showed movies in selected theaters equipped with Windows Media projection systems that displayed high-definition 1280 x 720 video onto a wide screen. Microsoft also enlisted Texas Instruments , which said it would manufacture a chip which could encode of Windows Media Video 9 directly using hardware, as opposed to a slower software code.

Currently, Microsoft is positioning a video portion of Windows Media known as the Windows Media 9 advanced video codec (AVC) as a marketplace alternative to the recently approved part 10 video codec portion of the MPEG-4 standard.

Specifically, Microsoft has submitted the codec, which it has dubbed VC9, to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for standardization. SMPTE's consideration of the standard is currently in an early stage, and Microsoft is in the process of submitting supporting documentation.

Although VC9 is enjoying some market interest, its ascension to a standard would provide added momentum for the codec. Potential users would have the assurance of a SMPTE standard. Equally important, chip manufacturers building hardware implementations could be assured that the file formats couldn't be changed on them in future revisions from Redmond.

Microsoft was not available for comment about Windows Media.