30 years of MPEG, and counting?

2018/05/10

Thirty years ago this day, in Ottawa, ON, some 29 experts from 6 countries attended the 1st meeting of the Moving Picture Experts Group, to become universally known as MPEG. Twenty-five days ago, in San Diego, CA, 20 times the MPEG experts of the 1st meeting attended the 122nd MPEG meeting.

These 30 years have been an incredible ride.

MPEG’s mission is to produce digital media standards and MPEG did it through without exemption. Here are some facts

  • MPEG has been engaged in 21 work items (SO language for “standardisation areas”);
  • In one case the work item produced just one standard but on the other extreme MPEG-4 counts 34 standards;
  • MPEG has produced a total of 174 standards or an average of ~6 standards/year and is working on a few tens more;
  • Some MPEG standards contain a few tens of pages, some others several hundreds and, in a few cases, over 1000 pages;
  • MPEG has produced several hundred standards amendments (ISO language for “extensions”);
  • Some standards have been published only once, some others a few times and the Advanced Video Coding standard (AVC) 8 times (and a 9th edition is in preparation).

These numbers may look impressive, but have to be assessed in a context. The Joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee 1 (JTC 1), to which MPEG belongs, counts more than 100 working groups, MPEG, with just 1/10 of all JTC 1 experts, produces 10 times more standards than the average JTC 1 working group.

Clearly MPEG has done a lot in the past 30 years, but what about the current level of activity? In the last 30 months (i.e. in the last 10 meetings), MPEG has been working on more than 200 “tracks” (by track I mean an activity that develops working drafts, standards or amendments).

One reason of the interest aroused by MPEG standards is MPEG’s practice to  communicate its plans to, collect requirements from and share results with some 50 different bodies who work on related areas. It also offers – and receives – collaboration from other ISO and ITU-T groups on specific standards.

Publishing standards – like writing books – is one measure of productivity. Not unlike a book, however, it does not help if a standard stays in the shelves of the ISO Central Secretariat. Therefore, to be sure that MPEG has meaningfully accomplished its mission, we must make sure that its standards are used in products, services and applications.

Are all 174 MPEG standards widely used? No. As much as some products of a company sell like hot cakes and other stay in the company stores, some MPEG standards are widely used and some others only to some extent.

“Widely”, however, is an analogue measure. A better, digital, measure is “billion” that applies to a number of MPEG standards:

  • MPEG-1 Video was the first standard to cross the level of 1 billion users (Video CD players);
  • MPEG-1 Audio layer 2 is present even today in most TV set top boxes;
  • MPEG-1 Audio layer 3 (aka MP3) has been in use for the last 20 years, in portable audio players and now in all handsets and PCs;
  • MPEG-2 is used in all television set top boxes, DVDs and BluRay;
  • MPEG-4 AAC and AVC are standard in TV set top boxes since more than 10 years, mobile handsets, BluRays and PCs;
  • The MPEG file format is used every time a video is stored on or transmitted to a mobile handset, so even “billion” may not be the right measure…

Some other MPEG standards are used more “moderately” and for these the unit of measure is just “hundred million”. This is the case for e.g. MPEG-H for new generation broadcasting and DASH for internet streaming.

Such an intense use of MPEG standards explains the many amendments and editions and the “longevity” of some MPEG standards: extensions are still made to MPEG-2 Systems (after 24 years). MPEG file format (after 19 years), AVC (after 15 years) and so on.

Are you surprised to know that MPEG has received 5 (five) Emmy Awards?

Another thirty years await MPEG, if some mindless industry elements will not get in the way.

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