Video formats are continually evolving to maintain pace with new technologies, targeting mobile multimedia devices, which typically do not support the legacy video formats many of us are more familiar with. While there are an increasing number of platforms offering mobile multimedia services, current major technologies enjoying "widespread" market appeal are Windows Mobile-based devices such as cellphones and PDAs, Sony's PlayStation Portable and Apple's Video iPod.
Let's take a closer look at these devices, the video formats they use and some of the things that producers need to know in order to make the most of them:
MPEG-4: Common Ground
Easing the process of developing a working knowledge about the video requirements of current and next-generation devices is their near-universal reliance on MPEG-4-based codecs, albeit with some variation between "flavors."
An ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) standard for audio and video coding technologies, MPEG-4 builds upon the previous MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards with features well suited for streaming media delivery and other high-datarate applications that benefit from advanced compression and digital rights management, like digital television broadcasts.
A remnant of the MPEG-2 standard, AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) serves as the main MPEG-4 audio codec. The standard also includes two video codecs: Simple Profile (SP) and Advanced Video Codec (AVC).
Developers need to be aware that while MPEG-4 offers an advanced, interactive feature set, the individual playback devices do not necessarily support all of these new options, instead they rely on "profiles" and "levels" suited for their intended application, requiring cross-platform testing of distributed content.
Apple's Video iPod
Apple's Video iPod relies on the MPEG-4-based .m4v file format, which is comprised of the h.264 video codec, used on other mobile devices along with 128-Kbps AAC audio, optimized for the iPod.
While the Video iPod's too-small screen (a 2.5-inch, 320x240 pixel TFT display) makes for a relatively poor playback platform, its ability to provide a video signal to an external monitor is a boon to consumers on the go who may, for example, plug the unit into their hotel room's television, bringing their favorite porn with them and avoiding those pricey hotel pay-per-view charges. Couple this with access to iTunes and its estimated 14 million users, and you can see that this platform has definite market appeal.
A major drawback of the iPod is its reliance on a host computer to download content (via a common USB cable). This means that publishers need to target an intermediary device (the home PC) to market and deliver the content, relying on consumers to then manually transfer this material to their iPod. This inconvenience may be balanced, however, by the relative ease with which publishers may currently use automated podcasts to offer their content wares via the iTunes network.
Targeting this device is an exceptionally easy process, with content owners being able to repurpose standard-definition video clips as "teasers" for this new platform. All that is needed is the latest edition of Apple's QuickTime Pro software to convert most common video formats into the Video iPod's .m4v format.
Sony's PlayStation Portable
Sony's PlayStation Portable not only serves as a high-end gaming device, portable theater for viewing Hollywood movies released on UMD-formatted discs and multimedia display unit for storing, organizing and viewing photos, videos and audio clips, but its integrated Wi-Fi capability allows for high-speed web surfing on the go.
Unlike the Video iPod, the PSP does not require a wired computer connection to load files on to it, making it a great platform for direct video-on-demand download websites. While it lacks a video-out feature preventing users from hooking the device up to a larger display, the high-resolution (480x272), widescreen display offers truly stunning images.
The PSP uses the MPEG-4-based video codec MPEG-4 AVC, which supports 16:9 widescreen video, making this an excellent target platform for high-end producers shooting and distributing hi-def content. As with the Video iPod, converting content for use on this device is a snap, using a $20 software application available from Sony called Image Converter 2 that transforms AVI, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, QuickTime and WMV clips into the MPEG-4 AVC format, with the option of processing for widescreen.
Windows Mobile-based Devices
While the Video iPod and PSP have gained a lot of press surrounding the "uniqueness" of their mobile video solutions, Microsoft has been not-so-quietly promoting the technology for several years, primarily through its Pocket PC, Smartphone and latest next-generation Portable Media Center devices, which will only gain in popularity.
Although the Smartphone will typically have a small display (mine displays WMV video at 208x160), many Pocket PCs have displays as large (or larger) than the iPod's, making for an effortless viewing experience. Couple this with the more affluent demographic that the business-oriented Pocket PC user represents, and you may wonder why this market seems under-served.
Moving content to Windows mobile-based devices is free and easy, requiring only a copy of Windows Media Player 10, which transcodes most common video formats into the size and flavor required for your target device. This can be as simple as working with the WMV files that most publishers are already familiar with. While the Smartphone also can record and playback the 3GP video format, staying with WMV-formatted video for distribution might be a more sensible approach.
As for targeting the Portable Media Center (which does not support interlaced content), users of Microsoft's Windows XP Movie Maker can download a default encoding profile that has been optimized for these devices from the Microsoft website.
What's most interesting from the Microsoft camp is the "new" VC-1 codec released with Windows Media 9. With marked efficiency and quality gains over MPEG-2 and h.264, there already is widespread industry support for the technology. VC-1 is a part of the Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld (DVB-H) specification, and is included in the latest broadband, cellular and Wi-Fi systems, as well as the HD DVD, Blu-ray and FVD specifications. Given the format's benefits and potential, it is well worth taking a closer look at.
Working webmasters should benefit from the basic overview and resource suggestions that will allow any size operation to distribute its video content to a wider audience and do so across three major platforms for a total software cost of around $50. Given this low barrier to entry, there's no reason not to take your video content mobile.