Team fine-tunes Net video feed in the lab

August 14, 2000
Eddie Baeb, Crain's Chicago Business


 Joel Mambretti Channel surfing: Joel Mambretti of Northwestern University is leading the development of a global Internet digital video network. Photo: Todd Winters.

Joel Mambretti refers to the Internet as we know it today as "the past."

"We live in the future," says Mr. Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR) at Northwestern University.

From a nondescript office building near downtown Evanston, Mr. Mambretti and his team of researchers are developing what they hope will be the next generation of Internet technology.

Last month, iCAIR demonstrated the latest version of its 10-country Internet network — the Global Internet Digital Video Network — that aims to deliver live, full-motion broadcasts from around the world to users' desktops. Rather than the grainy and choppy images of today's Internet broadcasts, iCAIR's network features TV-quality video accompanied by CD-quality sound.

The recently unveiled network, which connects 15 regional supercharged Internet networks built by other researchers, is akin to what auto manufacturers call a "concept car": It's been built to demonstrate that scientists' theories can become reality. To Mr. Mambretti, the successful display of the network last month means that widespread commercial adoption of "streaming" video via the Internet may be just a year or two away.

"With cable, there are about 100 to 200 channels that broadcast shows according to their schedules," says Mr. Mambretti, a New England native who has spent most of his career as a university researcher. "The new technologies will bring about hundreds of thousands of different channels that will be very specialized. It also gives control to the viewers, and has broadcast networks biting their fingernails."

The recent iCAIR display, which included live discussions with researchers in Sweden, was shown at iGRID, an event sponsored by Internet researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"ICAIR did the most complex application, in that they had 10 countries involved," says Maxine Brown, associate director of UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory and an iGRID organizer. "The significance of what (Mr. Mambretti) is studying is worldwide. He's got this super Web of advanced research networks, and he's studying the problems and requirements of streaming video around the world."

The data for iCAIR's video network travels along fiber optic lines buried in the ocean floor at speeds up to 155 megabits per second. A T1 line, which currently is considered high-speed, transmits data at about 1.5 megabits per second.

But Mr. Mambretti says it's more than the super-high-speed transmission that makes the video quality so good. The key is a technology known as "differentiated services" that recognizes different forms of data — text, audio or video — and prioritizes them.

The technology will go into regular use early next month, when iCAIR launches a new Web site (the address is not yet determined) that will feed C-SPAN cable network programs live to universities that are part of a Midwest-based iCAIR research network.

For the general public, Mr. Mambretti believes high-quality video delivered online will soon enable companies to use the Internet to create their own broadcast channels.

"Corporations will be able to go directly to customers with a multimedia, interactive Web site," he says. "They've never had that power before."

An automaker, for instance, could have a Web site with video devoted to a certain car — sort of like an infomercial, except that the viewers are in control and able to look for whatever information or video images they desire.

"This will change how we think about broadcasting," says Mr. Mambretti, "and it will be here very quickly."

©2000 by Crain Communications Inc.

Last Updated: 17 March 2010