by January 3, 2001 0 comments

Downloading MP3s from the Net–whether it be music-swapping through Napster
or just visiting sites to search for the music you want–has today become
second nature to most computer users. The prime reason behind this popularity is
the fact that MP3s are small files, easy to download and store on your hard disk
or burn on a CD, and give near CD-quality music. Now, the video front also seems
to be poised for the same scenario.

Distributing good-quality digital video over the Net has been a very
cumbersome task, because videos are huge files that take a long time to download
and are difficult to store on your hard disk. Moreover, the quality of the
downloaded file makes the whole process a task that’s better left undone.
However, the spread of broadband (which translates to much higher bandwidths)
coupled with two ‘hacker’ utilities, DeCSS and DivX, have opened the doors
to online distribution of good-quality digital video. In the process, the two
utilities have also opened a Pandora’s box of issues and controversies, not to
mention lawsuits.

DeCSS is a small utility that breaks the encryption scheme of DVDs and allows
you to copy the contents onto your hard disk so that you can view it on your PC.
DeCSS was initially developed to allow Linux users to watch DVDs on their PCs,
because there were no DVD players for the Linux operating system. It has,
however, now become the subject of lawsuits backed by the Motion Picture
Association of America (MPAA) and the DVD Copyright Control Association (DVD CCA),
on charges of promoting piracy, circumventing copy protection, etc. (See ‘The
Battle Over DeCSS’, page 128, PC Quest February 2001 for more on how DeCSS
works and the legal issues involved.)

Unencrypted DVD content got through DeCSS is, however, difficult to share
online because of its huge size, which is between 4—9 GB. This is where DivX–usually
written as DivX;-)–plays a crucial role. The smiley face is intended to
satirize a now defunct technology by the same name that was intended to prevent
piracy.

DivX allows a 90-minute DVD movie to be compressed to about one-tenth or less
of its original size, thereby making it small enough to download from the Net
and even burn on a regular 650 MB CD, without much loss in quality. With DivX,
it’s possible to download a two-hour movie in 45 minutes to two hours,
depending on your Net connect.

The codec (compression-decompression) was developed by a French video
engineer and hacker, Jerome Rota, and has gained immense popularity in the
hacker world since its release last year. DivX uses MPEG-4 for video encoding
(hacked from a beta version of Windows Media Player) and is available for all
operating systems. You can download and play DivX encoded movies using Windows
Media Player.

How DivX works

Encoding a DVD movie is a long process that can take up to 10 hours and
requires lots of hard-disk space and processing power. You need a variety of
software including DivX for the task. The process begins with using DeCSS or an
application like SmartRipper to rip the files off the DVD and copy them to your
hard disk. These files have a VOB extension and can occupy up to 9 GB of hard
disk space. Then, you use an application like FlasK MPEG that uses the DivX
codec to encode the movie into a DivX data stream. To handle the audio encoding,
you need a codec like Radium MP3, an application to extract the audio from the
VOB file, another one to enhance its quality, and finally an encoder to encode
the file into MP3 or other audio formats. Then, you need to merge the audio with
the video. Software like VirtualDub lets you encode audio and merge the audio
and video simultaneously. It also gives you the option of encoding audio into
MP3 or DivX audio. To play the encoded file, you need the DivX codec to decode
the movie (this happens automatically), and Windows Media Player.

Crystal gazing

Till now, DivX was largely a hackers’ technology, mainly because using it
is a technical task that’s difficult for average PC users. Most DivX codecs
are anyway illegal, because they’re based on Microsoft’s proprietary
technology. However, the DivX code has now been made open source under a project
called OpenDivX, which is also working on developing the second version of DivX,
DivX Deux. The objective of the OpenDivX project, which is being managed by a
startup called Project Mayo, is to develop compression ratios of up to 50
percent (as compared to 10—20 percent currently) and better video quality with
DivX. It will also make DivX easy to use so that it can move beyond the hacker
world to mainstream usage and become the standard for video compression, much
like MP3 is for music.

While DivX was based on Microsoft’s proprietary technology, developers
claim that OpenDivX doesn’t use any of Microsoft’s code. So, any issues
arising from the illegal use of Microsoft’s proprietary software have been put
to rest with this version of DivX. The OpenDivX encoder and decoder, however,
are MPEG-4 compliant.

The ball has been set rolling by OpenDivX, but there are other players as
well in the digital video download field. Another open-source project called
3ivx aims to develop a version of DivX that would make the files even smaller
and allow movies to be streamed–that is, movies can be played as they are
downloaded. This would have the added advantage of making piracy difficult
because movies won’t be saved on the user’s hard disk. At the same time,
Blockbuster, a retail chain store that rents DVDs has decided to distribute up
to 500 videos legally over the Web.

This scenario has interesting implications for the movie industry. The
distribution and download of DVD-quality videos seem to be a real scenario for
the near future, as both the technology and infrastructure are falling into
place. This can be viewed as a threat or as an opportunity. Codecs like DivX and
DivX Deux can promote large-scale piracy as movies are decrypted and distributed
over the Net. However, they could also be used by the film industry to offer
their content legitimately over the Web, for example, license it to Websites and
make money from it.

DivX has the advantage of being compatible with MPEG-4, which makes it an
appropriate standard for digital television broadcasts, because MPEG-4 is
related to the broadcast format used in digital television. Moreover, being
MPEG-4 compliant means that DivX supports Digital Rights Management, a type of
software that prevents illegal distribution of paid content over the Web. Both
these factors make it suitable for distributing digital video content online
legitimately.

The stage seems set for more action and developments as the plot progresses
to its climax. It’s a scenario the film industry can benefit from, or be
troubled with, depending on how the potential of this technology will be
exploited.

Pragya Madan

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