Wired for sound - Netscape Communications Inc.'s LiveMedia technology to revolutionize World Wide Web - Multimedia

Wired for sound - Netscape Communications Inc.'s LiveMedia technology to revolutionize World Wide Web - MultimediaOne of the most significant developments in the multimedia business took place in January, 1996, when Netscape Communications Inc. announced that 11 major companies are backing its LiveMedia technology.

The technology is a standard that will allow users of the World Wide Web to send and receive real-time audio and video, along with the text and graphics that are currently supported. This could mean a whole new look and feel to the Web over the next couple of years. Indeed, the Web could turn into a combination of MuchMusic and the Encyclopedia Britannica -- a medium that offers both steak and sizzle.

Moreover, pundits expect Netscape's LiveMedia standards will ignite another round of innovation on the Web, with companies scrambling to develop new software and hardware that makes use of multimedia capabilities. This could mean a shift in focus for many resellers, who will find new opportunities in hooking up corporate clients to the Internet using various types of video and audio feeds, new types of videoconferencing technologies, groupware and search engines.

"Wide industry support for Netscape's LiveMedia is proof that multimedia will be developed over the Internet," commented Peter Vanderlee, a Toronto-based consultant who specializes in finance and marketing strategies for emerging technology firms. "And it will lead to new opportunities for developers of peripherals, add-on boards, and software programs and utilities."

The key to the LiveMedia standard will be a group of products devised by InSoft Inc., an innovative multimedia company that Netscape is in the process of acquiring. Based in Merchandising, PA, InSoft came up with Communique! for desktop collaboration and videoconferencing, InSoft Network Television (INTV!) for distributed digital video, and CoolTalk and CoolView for Internet audio, video and data communications on Windows, -- Windows 95 -- and Unix-based platforms. The technologies used in these products will be adopted by Netscape for Internet applications, and will form the core of the LiveMedia standard.

The 11 companies throwing their support behind this project are: Progressive Networks, Adobe Systems, Digital Equipment Corp., Macromedia, NetSpeak, OnLive!, Precept, Silicon Graphics, VDOnet, VocalTec and Xing. Getting down to the nitty gritty details, the LiveMedia framework will be based on the Internet Realtime Transport Protocol (RTP) RFC number 1889, and other open audio and video standards such as MPEG, H.261 and GSM.

Netscape plans to publish the LiveMedia framework on the Internet, license key components of it, and work with the Internet standards bodies to adopt the technology as a formal Internet standard.

Netscape intends to purchase InSoft for 1.96 million shares of Netscape stock. The deal is expected to close by the end of March.

InSoft has become the market leader in desktop multimedia applications such as videoconferencing, according to Stamford, CT-based Gartner Group, a computer industry market research firm. Its product are often incorporated into the videoconferencing products of the industry giants, such as Digital Equipment, Hewlett-Packard and IBM Corp. For this reason, Netscape scored a major coup in acquiring the firm, which had fiercely defended its independence until now.

Critics of the Internet have argued that the global network has trouble enough transmitting text and graphics, let alone bandwidth-heavy applications like voice and video. But consultant Vanderlee points out that infrastructure providers have been rushing to upgrade the capacity of the network. (In Canada, Bell Sygma has been charged with the task of increasing the capacity of the Internet backbone, a project that is currently underway).

In addition, innovative companies are producing new data compression techniques that make it easier to send audio and video. For example, at the same time it announced support for the LiveMedia standard, Netscape announced it also licensed a compression/decompression (codec) technology from Vozware Inc. of Princeton, NJ. Called ToolVox, the technology enables high-quality, real-time voice communication across the Web, while requiring only 2400 bps of band-width. This technique will be used in LiveMedia, and is expected to propel the development of audio applications on the World Wide Web. "Better pipes meeting better data compression techniques will break the tyranny of band-width constraints," commented Vanderlee.

The advantage of having a standard like LiveMedia is much the same as the DOS and Windows standard for desktop PCs -- it allowed developers to produce products for a mass market. What's more, by conforming to the standard, the products of these developers will all be able to connect with each other.

In Canada, developers are already hard at work producting a welter of multimedia products that can be used on LANs, WANs, the telephone system, and over the Internet.

For example, in January Corel Corp. of Ottawa entered the videoconferencing marketplace with Corel Video. The system -- it consists of a card and a camera that are attached to a PC -- enables users to open windows on their PCs to see and hear each other. Multiple windows can be opened simultaneously, allowing many far-flung colleagues to converse and see each other at the same time.

PC Roar Inc., a division of the BCB Technology Group Inc. of Woodbridge, Ont., has developed a card that quickly digitizes and compresses speech. The card, called PC Talk, allows users to send voice e-mail messages over computer networks, including local- and wide-area networks, and the Internet.

The growth of multimedia applications on the Internet has also been driving sales for the major workstation manufacturers, including Silicon Graphics Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Silicon Graphics has been the pioneer in multimedia hardware and software, typically setting the pace for the industry in this area. At a January press conference announcing the latest SGI processors, Dave Black, president of Silicon Graphics Canada Ltd., asserted that the company has boosted the power of its graphics processing by a factor of 10 every 18 months. By comparison, the power of PC-based CPUs have merely doubled every 18 months.

That kind of graphics processing power is making SGI popular in the Internet business, which is racing to incorporate the pizazz of the entertainment world on the World Wide Web. Black pointed out that in the previous five-month period, Silicon Graphics Canada had sold 120 Web servers in the Toronto area alone.

For its part, arch-rival Sun Microsystems isn't sitting back and leaving the multimedia field to SGI. Sun hoped that its new UltraSparc stations -- announced in November -- become the platform of choice for multimedia developers. The main processor chip contains special image processing circuits. As well, Sun worked with Mitsubishi to created 3D RAM memory chips that allow for fast rendering of graphics. The workstations also contain stereo sound and vision capabilities -- ideal features for multimedia. To top it off, the CPUs also incorporate a new generation of networking circuits, something sun had already been famous for.

Sun also plans to become a major player in the virtual reality (VR) business -- whenever this market takes off. Just in case that turns out to be sooner rather than later, the company is now shipping a 3D virtual reality "browser" program with many of its new UltraSparc workstations. The browser is a piece of software that can be used with 3D goggles and other peripherals, allowing computer users to view realistic VR applications. Sun hopes this program becomes a standard for VR, much as another famous browser -- Netscape -- has become a standard for users of the World Wide Web.

"We'll be shipping tens of thousands of copies of HoloView the browser for free," said Michael Deering, who holds the title of distinguished engineer with Sun at its headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, and heads up much of the company's work in graphics. "Overnight, we'll be the biggest supplier of virtual reality systems in the world."