Saturday, 15 March, 2008

Media content repurposing - A view from India

These days I've been getting a lot of queries on this - media repurposing. Sounds like a new buzz word, but this can become serious business in the next few years.

Media repurposing consists of taking existing media - 35mm print/neg, DigiBeta/BetaSP/U-matic/VHS/DV tapes, an other media - and converting them to a format more friendly to new media vehicles. And playable on mobile phones, portable media players, or sent over a wire or wireless to homes and offices.

IPTV and VOD are two such new vehicles. IPTV is Internet Protocol Television and VOD is Video on Demand.

IPTV consists of sending video to viewers over the normal Internet. In India MTNL (and other services) show many cable TV channels over their broadband internet line - sent to homes over a telephone line.

VOD is when a viewer can go through a menu or index, and choose what he/she wants to see. That content is then played immediately, or downloaded over the Internet or wireless to view later.

Where IPTV and VOD differ from normal TV is that in normal TV many TV channels are being broadcast simultaneously all the time over a cable. In IPTV, only the channel the viewer wants to see is transmitted.

In VOD, only the actual program the viewer wants to see is beamed for as long as the viewer wants to see it. So VOD is sort of like watching a movie on a flight after selecting it from a menu. Like movies downloaded over the iTunes store for AppleTV. Or, in India Movies on Demand from Eros.

But Eros's Movie on Demand only work with PCs as it needs to detect Windows Media Player, which no Mac has. So if you have a MacBook, or iMac or any other Mac, forget Eros.

Other VOD examples are, of course, YouTube, or for really good-looking movies, Vimeo.

While repurposing media, it is also possible to break the programme down and classify it intelligently - like chapters in a DVD so viewers can see a portion of the entire programme. Like songs in a Hindi movie, or important scenes. Or like innings or overs in a cricket test match, ODI or T20 match.

How about going through a list of Hindi film songs and narrowing that down to Shahrukh Khan-Rani Mukherjee songs and selecting one you'd like to see. Or through a list of cricket matches and selecting one of Sachin's heart-breaking nineties collection. Or centuries by Rahul Dravid. Reliving that World Cup semi-final 2003. Whatever. And whenever. Without having to see a TV schedule.

To get to this level of choice to a viewer, one would have to convert tapes and films of entire movies or match coverages to digital files. And along the way, or after digitization, intelligently break down these files or 'mark' them with interesting 'chapter points'.

In India there are quite a few parties who own or have access to many thousands of hours of programmes - entire feature films, TV serials, cricket matches. And now want to convert them and make them available to users in the future via new media vehicles like Internet, Video over mobile, DTH TV (Tata Sky and DishTV), cable set-top boxes and other future 'pipelines'.

The challenge in repurposing media is to work out systems and infrastructure that can handle an initial load of thousands of hours while still being commercially viable handling the lower ongoing load over time.

Meaning you might need a certain number of systems and infrastructure to convert and classify, say, 10,000 hours of programming in a reasonable time of, say, 3 months. But after that is done, new programing may need to be converted at only 1000 hours or less per month. This earlier infrastructure is too large for that small a load leading to wastage. The trick is in creating an ideal size of setup that can do both.

The other issue is standards. What file format does one convert to? MPEG-2, H.264, VC-1, WMV, Flash...? Many formats exist. And the servers that handle and deliver these files also work with one or more of these standards. So the delivery vehicle and its standards dictates what the encoding is done as.

But typically, encoding to either of these formats is a one-way street. Meaning if one does the conversion, then changes the delivery architecture or provider, and a different standard is needed, then cross-conversion is not lossless and can even ruin the picture.

So, typically, converting to a low loss intermediate standard first then the final compression can permit some standards independence. Or, of course, one can convert to multiple standards and keep all available.

There are other challenges - secure storage, Digital Rights Management (DRM) or anti-piracy, restoration before repurposing, edit-ability of converted material. More on that sometime later.