Dirac from the BBC

With ambitious plans to shake up the video-compression space, the
research arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is
widely hailed for its research work in the areas of digital television, digital
radio and multimedia technology, developed a
prototype video coding algorithm based on wavelet technology
.

Seeking open source help to turn it into a
commercial product, the BBC’s R&D unit released
the Dirac
general-purpose video codec to developers on SourceForge, banking on its
capability of being “competitive with other state-of-the-art codecs.”

The codec, named after British math genius Paul Dirac, combines the use
of wavelets, motion compensation and arithmetic coding, and it can achieve
a two-fold reduction in bit rate over the widely deployed MPEG-2
format.

Wavelets are mathematical functions used to compress digital images and
the BBC boasts that the new approach to high-quality video compression is
different from that used in the main proprietary or standard video
compression systems, typically from tech heavyweights like Microsoft , Apple and RealNetworks .

Although a note posted on the BBC R&D Web site claims the codec can also be optimized for Internet
streaming resolutions, Dirac remains simply an
early-stage research tool in need of major development.

The BBC admitted as much when it released the source code to the open
source community. “A lot remains to be done to convert our promising
algorithm and experimental implementation into practical useable code. This
includes optimization so that it can decode in real time. Algorithmic
enhancements are needed to improve the compression performance still
further,” the company said.

“The resulting codec needs to be integrated with other parts of a
compression system, such as players and interfaces using standard IO
formats. We welcome help and support in creating an open and freely
available compression system based on this technology.”

Even as the BBC is pushing to use an open source codec to tilt the scales
away from the established formats offered by Microsoft, RealNetworks and
Apple, digital media analysts are expressing doubts.

Yankee Group analyst Mike Goodman believes a new video compression codec
would find it really tough to win adoption, particularly among content
producers.

“It is pretty hard to establish a new codec in today’s market, even if
you go the open source route,” said Goodman
in an interview with internetnews.com.

“Unless there’s something about this codec that offers significant
improvement over other available codecs, why will anyone migrate?
You already have [RealNetworks’] Helix out there as an open source video codec, so
this is not something new or unique. If it’s
just an incremental improvement, companies aren’t going to make another
investment in a new format. It will be a very tough road to hoe
for the BBC.

“The other issue,” continued Goodman, “is whether devices will support this codec.
If nothing supports it, what use is it?”

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox believes there may be room for
competition in the area of video compression, but, like Goodman, warned that technology
offered by existing companies, particularly Microsoft, was already enjoying
widespread adoption at the enterprise and consumer levels.

Wilcox, who tracks the digital media marketplace for the Microsoft Monitor Weblog, said
the BBC’s Dirac would have to offer significant improvements over existing
formats if it is to find a niche.

“There is still room for competition
because of how segmented the market is,” said Wilcox. “Video streaming has gone beyond the
Web and onto cell phones and wireless devices. And there may still be
opportunities for newcomers, because this is still a very young market.”

Still, by releasing the code on SourceForge, the BBC might be able to
drum up enough interest from volunteer developers to make it work, Wilcox
said.

“The BBC name doesn’t hurt. A BBC effort that is truly
open source could be very appealing, especially in Europe where there are
strong feelings about not letting an American company become too
dominant.”

Yankee Group’s Goodman agrees.

“The fact that this came from the BBC
gives it some legitimacy. A lot of these open source efforts fizzle out, so
in terms of a potential lifespan, Dirac has a fairly robust backer.”

Still, Goodman thinks it will be quite a stretch to cut into Microsoft’s
dominance.

“Microsoft is giving away a lot of the technology for content
owners to encode their offerings. The content guy will tell you they’re
already paying nothing. Unless this product is technically superior and
blows everything away, the content guys aren’t going to bother with it.

“It’s a catch-22 when you’re dealing with Microsoft,” Goodman continued.
“On one hand, you’re
dealing with the 80-pound gorilla. And, on the other hand, you have to give
Microsoft credit for doing a very nice job developing their codecs and DRM.”

Despite the doubts, the BBC is plodding ahead.

“The philosophy behind
the Dirac codec is ‘keep it simple,'” BBC R&D said. “This is an ambitious aim since video
codecs, particularly those with state-of-the-art performance, tend to be
fearsomely complex. [We] would like to collaborate with
the open source community, academics and others to produce an open codec. It
is therefore important for us to keep the principles and design as simple as
possible and to provide copious documentation.”

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