The Need for Speed

Erik Jay
Tom Evslin is a smart guy, a real card-carrying geek. He created the first electronic funds transfer software for banks in the 1970s, developed BackOffice and Exchange for Microsoft and then launched the WorldNet Internet service for AT&T in the 1990s.

One of his main activities these days is informing technology companies about the advantages of working with adult content producers. "If you're inventing, investing in or marketing a new technology," Evslin writes in his blog, "the pornographers may be your best friends. Usually they'll figure out how to use whatever you have long before you know how to evangelize them."

All of the financiers, board members, marketing executives and researchers "who were involved with [the first] ISPs," Evslin continues, knew full well "that viewing porn was one of the important drivers of early demand for dial access. Demand for broadband is similarly goosed by the desire to download more porn faster."

Adult content drives technology, and broadband is growing because people want "more porn faster." The success of broadband Internet in the U.S., then, is dependent on some things getting bigger and some things getting smaller. Some of the current R&D is focused on expanding the structure, reach and speed of the networks. At the same time, a lot of other folks are hard at work downsizing ("compressing") the most in-demand files (audio-video) in order to push as much data through the "pipe" as possible, at whatever speed.

Compression is applied in the final steps of all audio and video production. It has always been this way and, despite what some optimistic futurists say, probably always will be. The challenge is to work with the variables — the hardware and software of electronic devices, and the hardware (eyes) and software (brain) of human beings — to get the best balance of delivery speed and visual quality.

The subject is fraught with misunderstanding, confusing abbreviations and the malign influence of "marcomm" (marketing communications).

On one of the DVD movie forums, for example, one film fan swore he'd never watch any "downloaded flicks" if they were compressed. He would only watch "raw, uncompressed DVDs."

The problem is, there isn't any such thing. In the digital world, everything is compressed, whether you know it (or see it) or not.

Speed, Resolution
Most DVDs are encoded from digital studio masters and compressed using one of two codecs, either the VC-1 method, developed by Microsoft, or MPEG-2. Consumer DVD video is in either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio and stored at a resolution of 720x480 (NTSC) or 720x576 (PAL). Audio tracks are commonly processed using Dolby Digital (AC-3) and/or Digital Theater System formats, ranging from monaural to 6.1 channel surround sound presentations.

The resulting MPEG-2-processed video can still contain visual flaws ("artifacts") depending on processing quality and the amount of compression. At average video data rates of 3.5-6 Mbps, these artifacts are sometimes noticeable, but above 6 Mbps there is no perceptible difference between the master and the encoded video. As MPEG compression technology continues to improve, better quality is achieved at lower and lower data rates.

In the meantime, connection speeds increase. With progress on two separate but interlinked tracks of technology, the journey into the future of "more and faster" is getting another adjective — "better" — as we race double-time toward that much-ballyhooed digital convergence, the "always on, always there" paradigm that's been so long coming.

In Japan, standard $25-a-month service buys 26 Mbps delivery speed, while the average U.S. high-speed cable connection is a mere 4-6 Mbps — still in the heart of "artifact territory."

Adult content producers are, of course, heavily invested in technology, as well as in tracking the ebb and flow of high-tech trends. It pays to play it smart, says Red Light District's "top tech exec" Jon Berg, so the adult companies that advertise broadband and stream the highest quality still have lower speeds available to please their customers. As always with technology, one hand is reaching forward to the early adopters while the other reaches back and keeps hold of the late adopters.

"The intelligent companies," Berg continues, "use high-definition and other newer technologies to effectively attract the new generation of online users, the ones growing up with these technologies. Five years ago you could not have imagined having hi-def technology. Now if you don't have HDTV, you are a dinosaur."

Of course, if it pays to deal with dinosaurs, for the time being at least, Vivid Entertainment and the Walt Disney Co. will both do it. But evolution won't be stopped in its tracks — and remember what happened to the dinosaurs?

Latest, Greatest
The latest (not all would agree it's the "greatest") iteration of mass-distributed MPEG is MPEG-4, the most impressive version of which is H.264, which Apple Computer uses as the movie format in its iPod video players. H.264 is also incorporated into QuickTime 7, and has been optimized to provide high quality across a broad range of bandwidths — from 3G for mobile devices to high-definition for broadcast and DVD authoring.

H.264 and MPEG-4, of course, are members of a much bigger family of MPEG standards.

One more development track comes into play here, the one that Red Light District's Berg mentioned: hi-def for television as well as the new Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, not to mention its role in "tomorrow's television," IPTV. People are already confusing hi-def, a display technology, with source quality, arguing that "HD is better than MPEG," which is a non sequitur. A recent development explains the true relationship.

Flying a tad under the radar, in late October, Universal Home Studios Entertainment released its film "The Interpreter" to HD DVD encoded with AVC MPEG-4 (Advanced Video Coding MPEG-4, another way to say H.264).

The studio had previously used the VC-1 codec exclusively. According to High- Def Digest, the "lone other AVC MPEG-4 HD DVD currently on the market, Paramount's 'U2 Rattle and Hum,' has been met largely with negative response from early adopters." The publication also reviewed "The Interpreter," and reported that the video quality was "rather iffy." (There are no reports of HD DVDs of adult content being so encoded, as of this writing, at any rate.)

H.264 was ratified as Part 10 of the MPEG-4 standard but, as mentioned previously, there are many other flavors of MPEG. Scores of companies are working on more and more advanced compression schemes based on the MPEG standards, and the reason they are doing so — to come full circle — is because of the volume of adult content in the marketplace.

Porn, Progress
Adult content drives technology, and everyone knows it. There is no speed limit in force on this highway, so keeping current with the state of the art means staying abreast of weekly, even daily, developments. The best minds at the best tech firms are working hard on ways to put the latest "Britney Rears" release and Michael Ninn feature in consumers' hands, faster than ever and with ever-improving quality. They know what their discoveries are used for, but technology does not make moral distinctions; these are best left to individual conscience.

In a seminal and influential article in the November 1996 issue of the Federal Communications Law Journal, Peter Johnson pulled no punches. "Pornography, far from being an evil that the 1st Amendment must endure, is a positive good that encourages experimentation with new media. Therefore, while it may be politically impossible and socially unwise to encourage computer pornography, legislators should at least leave it alone and let the medium follow where pornography leads."

And today, 10 years later, it's leading to ever faster, ever better, ever richer and more useful content, with speed and quality unimaginable at the time Johnson was writing.

Different sets of eyes will make different subjective judgments about what's on the screen (whatever the screen size), which is why MPEG-4 research comprises the study of many different, advanced topics — speech and video image synthesis, fractal geometry, the physiology of the human eye, how the brain processes colors and shapes, computer visualization and artificial intelligence.

What's being manipulated are not just images made up of pixels and colors; compression technologists are working on ways to manipulate human perception itself. And they're getting better at it all the time.