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Mpeg, story of a format that changed music explained by its inventor

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For the first ten years, the MPEG meetings took place in March, July and November. Others were added to cope with the feverish pace of development of the early standards. The total number of meetings was 43, or about 4 per year. Taking into account that until its conclusion, in June 2020, the MPEG had 130 meetings (32 years), the average frequency remained constant at 4 meetings a year. So the development of Mpeg standards remained feverish … Without taking into account the ad hoc meetings: at first I counted them, but in the end I gave up. My estimate is a total of about 200-300 specific encounters.

The first two Mpeg standards (Mpeg-1 and Mpeg-2) were approved in November. This November I would like to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the MPEG-1. In the collective imagination, the MPEG-1 is the younger and less famous brother of the MPEG-2, with all its immense importance. I do not intend to compare them, because all Mpeg standards are my children, but I would like to emphasize the different merits that distinguish the Mpeg-1.

1. It was the first standard produced by a group that emerged out of nowhere, proposing something that no one would question today but that until then no one had ever admitted, namely that digital media worked very well in entertainment but not so well in entertainment. scope of communication. Of course, the consumer electronics industry was very keen to develop standards in this regard, but was unable to agree on a single protocol. For companies in that branch, a standard could emerge only following the approval of a patented product, sanctioned by market success.

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2. Precisely for this reason, the second merit of MPEG-1 is that, despite not having a corporation, indeed having an “adverse” one, MPEG has managed to emerge, thrive and produce standards. Mind you, these things never happen “by chance”: someone makes them happen, and often there is no lack of “midwives”. In the case of MPEG, here is a preliminary list.

A. I. I have never told the story of the small efforts I made for MPEG myself. Maybe one day I will.

B. Cesare Mossotto, the director of CSELT (the research center of Telecom Italia, when it still existed). Despite having spent a considerable portion of his professional life with ITU-T dealing with signals, he supported me (I don’t dare say he was initially confident in the success of this venture).

C. Hiroshi Yasuda of NTT. Founder and president of JPEG, he offered support to the newborn MPEG and also played an important role in defending MPEG against “Herod”, who took the form of Roland Zavada of Kodak (then omnipotent in the field of still and moving images), president of a high-level ISO group that coordinated projects related to images. Rollie had come to “inspect” this never-before-heard group of experts dealing with moving images (moving pictures, which to him meant motion pictures), and his role grew like a mushroom meeting by meeting.

Q. A large part of the group of individuals who participated in Cost 211, a European collaborative project initiated with the aim of a 2 Mbit / s standard for videoconferencing. They were at least curious about this unexpected group, and helped to propagate its impulse.

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E. A few friends of Cost 211 and the few others who joined the Esprit Comis (Coding of Moving Images for Storage) project, which I inaugurated to support MPEG-1 standardization and promote its use in European industry.

3. The third merit was to manage digital media together, and not as separate video and audio (digital or not). Today it is taken for granted that media should be coordinated as a single entity, but at the time in companies and standardization groups, audio and video belonged to separate, sometimes distant, departments. Even in the ITU-T they headed to different study groups and in the IEC to different subcommittees.

4. The fourth credit was the change it brought about in media broadcasting technologies. When the ITU-T developed the video-telephone multiplexer, it used technologies (Frame, Multiframe, Supermultiframe) dating back to the 1960s, when multiplexers for digital speech were studied. Mpeg -1 adopted a modern multiplexer package that would later influence the MPEG-2 Transport and Program Stream and lay the foundation for such important results as Dash and Cmaf.

5. The fifth credit was for being the first digital media standard that impacted the mass market. Of course, the ITU-T’s G.711 (digital speech) and Red Book compact disc (digital audio) had a huge impact, but they “limited themselves” to digitizing their respective speech and audio signals (big step forward, mind you) . The H.120 (the standard that sanctioned the codec of COST 211) and the H.261, also of the ITU-T, applied compression (creating digital media as I understand it), but the former had a number total of less than 100 pieces, and I doubt the second had more than 1000. About a million Video CD players were sold using MPEG -1 Video and MPEG-1 Audio Layer II (MP2).

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6. The sixth merit was the use of digital technology not only to improve an already good quality, but to propose an innovative use of digital media. On November 2, 1992, when MPEG approved MPEG-1, there were still those who opposed the creation of a complex coding standard such as MPEG Audio Layer III, aka MP3. They pursued their own agenda, but they were not wrong: while MP3 had a fast track to DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), which involved a change in broadcasting infrastructure, MP3 emerged with much more effort. Until the development of a software codec that spread like a fire, forever changing an infrastructure (the distribution of recordings) and people’s relationship with music.

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