Digital Video, MPEG and Associated Artifacts

Mr Shanawaz A. Basith
Mr Stephen R. Done

Departments of Computing & Electrical Engineering
Imperial College, 180 Queen's Gate, London, SW7 2BZ
email :,

June 14, 1996


Compression and digital video is introduced, transform coding, motion compensation and the need for compression are discussed. The technology and objectives behind the MPEG digital video encoding and decoding standard are described. A comparison of a few competing standard for compression of digital video is presented and the associated advantages and disadvantages are given. A few applications of digital video are discussed. Finally problems with digital video compression are described.


1. Introduction
2. Compression and Digital Video
3. MPEG : The Standard
4. Contendors in the Compression Market
5. Applications of Digital Video
6. Problems with Digital Video
7. The Future of MPEG
A.1. Appendix One

1. Introduction

Reducing the amount of data needed to reproduce video saves storage space, increases access speed and is the only way to achieve motion video on digital computers. This document looks at digital video and explains some techniques of reducing the storage space needed.

It was in the late eighties that the audio and video industry faced the prospect of saturated markets and over capacity. What was required were new products and services that would captures consumers' imagination. The data capacity of existing digital storage and their transmission links limited its potential for further exploitation. What was needed were standards that the industry could follow.

This document also looks at one such standard, this methodology was not borne out of the desire for commercial overpowering, but by an independent body that recognised the problems at the time.

After looking at the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) standard, an objective look at some of its many competitors in the same market place is looked at. Some applications of digital video are presented.

Digital video is not without its problems, many of which are shared by all digital medium. These problems are discussed to some length.

2. Compression and Digital Video

A great deal of research has gone into image and video compression and indeed it is quite difficult to invent something new in this field. A diagram showing the many compression techniques are shown in figure 2.1. The assumption is that the input is always a PCM digitised signal in colour components. The output of the compression process is a bitstream. Lets consider each technique briefly :

Figure 2.1 - Compression Techniques

Simple Compression Techniques

Various techniques exist, including :

Interpolative Techniques

This technique aims to send a subset of the pixels and use interpolation to reconstruct the intervening pixels. This technique is particularly useful for motion sequences, as certain frames are compressed by still compression ; the frames between these are compressed by doing an interpolation between the other frames and sending only the data needed to correct the interpolation.

Predictive Techniques

This relies on the fact that there is nearly always some redundancy between frames in a sequence. There are two common methods :

Transform Coding Techniques

A transform is a process that converts data into an alternate form which is more convenient for some particular purpose. Transforms are ordinarily designed to be reversible. Useful transforms typically operate on large blocks of data and perform some complex calculations. In general transform coding becomes more useful with larger blocks. The Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT) is especially important for video compression.


The DCT is performed on a block of horizontally and vertically adjacent pixels (typically an 8 by 8 block of pixels). The outputs represent amplitudes of two dimensional spatial frequency components. These are called DCT coefficients. The coefficient for zero spatial frequency is called the DC coefficient and it is the average value of all the pixels in the block. The rest of the coefficients represent progressively higher horizontal and vertical spatial frequencies in the block.

Since adjacent pixel values tend to be similar or vary slowly from one to another, the DCT processing provides opportunity for compression by forcing most of the energy into lower spatial frequency components. In most cases, many of the higher frequency coefficients will have zero or new-zero values and therefore can be ignored.

The decoder performs the reverse process, but due to the transcendental nature of the DCT the reverse process can only be approximated and hence some loss takes place. The trick is to use some cunning methods of keeping coefficients so that the loss is minimally visible.

Statistical Coding (or Entropy Coding)

This takes advantage of the statistical distribution of the pixel values. Some data values can occur more frequently then others and therefore we can set up a coding technique that use less bits for these values. One widely used form of this coding is Huffman encoding. This technique has the overhead that a syntax has to be pre-defined or sent for the decoder to work.

Motion Compensation

Consider the case of a video sequence where nothing is moving in the scene. Each frame of the video should be exactly the same as the previous one. In a digital system, it should be clear that, we only need to send one frame and a repetition count. Consider now, a dog walking across the same scene. The scene is the same throughout the sequence, but only the dog moves. If we could find a way of only sending the motion of the dog, then we can save a lot of storage space. This is an oversimplified case of motion video, but it reveals two of the most difficult problems in motion compensation :

We can try to answer these questions by some form of comparison between adjacent frames of the sequence. We can assume that the current and previous frames are available for the comparison. The simple comparison technique is too simple and is like a frame-by-frame DPCM. This has a few problems :

Therefore, more sophisticated techniques are needed. This problem is usually addressed by dividing the image into blocks. Each block is examined for motion. If a block is found to contain no motion, a code is sent to the decompresser to leave the block the same as the previous one.

If enough processing power is available, still more powerful techniques may be applied. For examples, blocks may be compared to previous block to see if there is a difference between the two. Only this difference (motion vector) is sent.

Need for Compression

Compression is needed to simply reduce the amount of space that video would otherwise take to store. There are many factors to consider when choosing a compression technique :

Compared to traditional analogue video, digital video provides the following advantages :

When dealing with digital video a number of points have to be kept in mind :

Video 'Standards'

With so many techniques, you would expect many companies to be competing for a position in the market place. This is in-fact the case and there are many competing technologies.

The above discussion of techniques and decisions introduced the building blocks available for creating algorithms. An actual algorithm consists of one or more techniques which operate on the raw digitised images to create a compressed bitstream. The number of algorithms possible is nearly infinite. However, practical applications (see below) require that all users who wish to interchange compressed video must use exactly the same algorithm choice. Further sophisticated algorithms will benefit from the development of special hardware. All this expresses the need for standards to allow the orderly growth of markets which utilise video compression technology.

Driven by these needs, there has been a strong effort to develop international standards for motion video compression algorithms, underway for several years in the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). It is the Motion Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) which considers algorithms for motion video compression.

3. MPEG : The Standard

The MPEG committee began life in late 1988 by the hand of Leonardo Chairigloione and Hiroshi Yasuda with the immediate goal of standardising video and audio for compact discs. A meeting between the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in 1992 resulted in a standard for audio and video coding, known as MPEG-1. MPEG-2 became a bone fide standard in 1994 after a five day meeting of ISO and ITC in Singapore. The technology behind MPEG-1 and 2 are inherently the same.

The MPEG system consists of two layers :

Only the MPEG-1 standard will be described in detail here.


The MPEG standard is designed to be generic, meaning that it will support the needs of many applications. The objectives include :

Figure 3.1 - The MPEG data hierarchy


The MPEG standard is primarily a bitstream specification, although it also specifies a typical decoding process to assist in interpreting the bitstream specification. This approach supports data interchange, but does not restrict innovation in the means for creating or decoding that bitstream. The bitstream specification is based on a data hierarchy, shown in figure 2. The data hierarchy is pretty self-explaining and is useful for the following reasons :

The bitstream architecture is based on a sequence of pictures, each of which contains the data needed to create a single display-able image. There are four different kinds of picture, depending on how each picture is to be decoded :

The above description of MPEG has been very terse and a lot of detail has had to be left out. However MPEG is not the only compression technique on the market, there are many algorithms available. The next section presents a brief overview of the competitors to MPEG and looks at the advantages and disadvantages for each method.

4. Contendors in the Compression Market

There are several popular digital video formats (or CODECS) in use today.

When choosing a particular format, it is worthwhile bearing in mind the following points :

With this in mind, the following table outlines the advantages and disadvantages of each digital format.

Format Advantages Disadvantages
Intel Indeo
  • Uses an uncompressed audio format that does not need decoding
  • Inexpensive to compress analogue video
  • Video can be compressed at low frame rates and picture sizes
  • Supports low data rates
  • When using low frame rate, the quality cannot be improved with faster hardware
  • Frame rates are slow
  • Uses an uncompressed audio format that does not need decoding
  • Better colour resolution then Indeo
  • Suffers from the same problems as Indeo
  • Generally lower frame rates then Indeo
  • Uses an uncompressed audio format that does not need decoding
  • Has the same advantages as Indeo
  • Requires apple platform for encoding and editing
  • Higher resolution and frame rates
  • Better scaling
  • CD Quality audio
  • Low data rates
  • May require extra hardware
  • High cost encoding
  • Currently the highest resolution and frame rate available
  • Supports MPEG-1 format
  • Higher data rates
  • Large storage requirements
  • Requires extra hardware for decoding
  • Very high cost encoding

It is very much obvious that all the formats have their problems. However, MPEG is currently the highest quality digital video CODEC around and hence will will be used applications requiring high quality video (see below).

5. Applications of Digital Video

Digital video has many and varied applications, here we briefly look at some applications. The number of applications is growing rapidly as the need for compression and digital transmission grows.

HDTV is defined as having twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of conventional television, a 16:9 picture ratio and at least 24 frames per second. Using this definition, HDTV has approximately double the number of lines of current broadcast television. This combined with the resolution increase means that 6 times more bandwidth is needed for transmission.

This is an ideal place for compression, as this will reduce the data rate and hence the bandwidth.

This is the number one application for digital video. This application includes video kiosks, training, corporate presentations and video libraries. The advantages of using digital video (and particularly MPEG) are :

Multimedia used in student training has also been shown to improve achievement by an average of 38 percent.

Since digital video clips are stored in files, they can be easily integrated into many databases just like text or numeric fields. For example, a travel agency can keep video clips of their holiday locations as well as more mundane information and really show what it is like to go for a holiday in a particular resort.

6. Problems with Digital Video

Distortions that get added to a video signal during digital encoding are known as artifacts. There are several types of artifact that explain the degradation in a video signal quality during digitisation. This section of the report will look at the various artifacts. These will be demonstrated by applying them the picture shown in figure 6.1. Please note that the comparison of these pictures is best done on a machine running at least 16-bit colour.

Figure 6.1 - 24-bit Colour Reference Image

General Problems

Artifacts Caused by Compression

Implementation Problems

Both encoding and decoding of video information requires a significant amount of processing power. In general though, the encoding is far more demanding.

7. The Future of MPEG

The digital video market in which MPEG is a contender is not without competition. It has many competitors including Cinepak and Intel's Indeo. No single standard has yet attained supremacy in the marketplace. So far, two MPEG standards have been implemented (1 and 2) with support for multiple resolutions and channels of audio. By 1998, MPEG 4 will become a ratified standard for very low bitrate compression, increasing the range of applications to which the MPEG standards may be applied. Also the multimedia standard MHEG is currently being designed and will integrate a lot of media into one format.

With real time software decoding now feasible on most machines, and 'add-on' hardware cards available for the estimated 80 million legacy machines not powerful enough, MPEG has the potential to reach an extremely large market. Given a powerful PC, the quality of reproduction using MPEG is superior to any of its competitors. But Indeo and Cinepak do perform better on low-end machine. This causes an obvious split in the market. Most businesses involved in digital video appear to be 'sitting on the fence', waiting to see which way the market will go. The uptake of MPEG has not been as fast as some might have wished. But this is a problem for the whole digital video industry. It is a 'Catch-22' situation. Consumers will not buy digital video playing equipment without something to use it for, and suppliers will not provide their titles in digital form without a large, stable market in which to sell their products.B

A.1. Appendix One

This appendix lists any related articles produced by I.S.E for SURPRISE '96, references used in the project and further reading.

Related Articles

Our Articles

Other Articles

References Used


These references were obtained by using the Alta Vista search engine. All references in the sub-sections are listed by order of readability, usefulness, presentation and articulation.

Powerwebs MPEG site
- Contains various links including the MPEG FAQ
MPEG Pointers and Resources (Tristan Savatier)
- Contains a wealth of links to all the MPEG related sites
MHEG Information
- A lot of information on MHEG
MHEG Related Links

Papers and Magazine Articles

D. Ruiu
'MPEG-2 Digital Video Technology and Testing'
BSTS Solution Note 5963-7511E (Hewlett Packard)
R. Rubenstein
'Unleashing a Broadcasting Revolution'
New Electronics on Campus, Autumn 1995
D. Thon
'Multimedia Design Reaches a Higher Level'
New Electronics on Campus, Autumn 1995
D. Boothroyd
'Never Mind the Quality, Look at the Quantity'
New Electronics on Campus, Autumn 1995


J. Koegel Buford
Multimedia Systems
Addison-Wesley, 1994
- a very useful book, covers all aspects of multimedia
H-M. Hang and J. Woods
Handbook of Visual Communications
Academic Press, 1992
- a huge collection of papers, covering all aspects of the subject
J. Showrank
Multimedia Exploration
CPM Books, 1994
- covers a lot of issues concerning multimedia
R. Gonzalez and R. Woods
Digital Image Processing
Addison-Wesley, 1993
- a wealth of information about image processing and compression
A. Luther
Using Digital Video
AP Professional, 1995

Further Reading

For economy of space, the further reading section of Shanawaz Basith's second article has not been put here, please consult that document for those references. The format here has been somewhat tidied up.

J. Buford and C. Gopal
'Standardizing a Multimedia Interchange Format: A Comparison of OMFI and MHEG'
1994 IEEE Intl Conf on Multimedia Computing and Systems, May 1994
C. Gopal and R. Price
'Multimedia Information Delivery and the MHEG Standard'
Massachusetts Telecommunication R&D Conference
R. Clarke
Digital Compression of Still Images and Video
Book - 1995
J. Watkinson
Compression in Video and Audio
Book - 1995


A special thanks to Dr J Barria for the kind support that he has given throughout this project and Dipan Patel for the advice and help. Finally thanks to Dr N Dulay for his efforts in co-ordinating SURPRISE '96, we hope it is as enlightening for future I.S.E students as it was for us.

All trademarks acknowledged.

© Stephen Done and Shanawaz Basith, 1996