MPEG’s First Online-Only Meeting

By Philip Merrill

The Moving Picture Experts Group had scheduled its 130th quarterly international meeting for Austria’s Alpbach from April 20th through the 24th, 2020, but instead of meeting in the Tyrol, the 130th became MPEG’s first online-only meeting. More than 600 participants used MPEG’s own custom and modified tools over the internet, while meetings for 10 subgroups and 30 other meetings of breakout groups and joint meetings between groups were livecast using Zoom. Overall the experience was smooth however timing and time-zones made those five days, plus other days the week before feel even more non-stop than usual.

Fortunately the routine demands of MPEG meetings had already resulted in the development of sophisticated software to manage quarterly activities and interactions such as the input and output documents for every meeting. Christian Tulvan and his collaborators switched to several new systems two meetings ago, at the 128th. Some of the results were unexpected. “Sometimes you can’t stop members from trying new things,” Tulvan said, describing how both the calendar subsystem as well as the management interface for MPEG’s reference software repository became deployed for new uses. These experimental innovations came in handy when the travel which was a routine part of MPEG’s conference structure had to be adjusted to work around home quarantine.

In an homage to space rockets, the core area within MPEG’s members-only software ecosystem has been dubbed “mission control.” In addition to handling input and output documents and calendaring, this has one main content repository as well as two others for dedicated uses: conformant-bitstream files and reference software packages supporting many MPEG standards. The reference software repository in particular had been using indexes for issues and tasks and these were reworked on the fly into different subgroups’ systems for making progress at the 130th. Even with 10 subgroups and flexible breakout sessions, there is still intense activity in even more specific work items. The calendar functions in the ecosystem also got unexpected workouts.

At the 130th meeting, many of these unexpected hangouts were especially useful between major meetings. Because members live all over the world, different time-zones were filled, in an equitable spirit, with their own assorted events. This was a very different experience from being in one place and it meant people also were in different time zones for their in-between time, after one live Zoomed activity and while waiting for another. Everyone around the world had a different experience with this, which resulted in its own special non-stop feeling. As for the software infrastructure, one expert remarked, “I certainly used it more than the previous one.”

Many thanks to Zoom for holding up under the enormous unexpected load placed on its back end these past months. Its contract for services with ISO put it to the test with up to 350 MPEG live participants at a single meeting, in that case one held at a convenient afternoon time for Europe. When MPEG started a generation ago, there was great speculation about what a future with online video might be like. We certainly inhabit that future today as our present. There is something of a fun reflection to the thought that the MPEG group, so fundamental to today’s online video environment, held one of its meetings entirely over the internet and using internet video. For those in MPEG, this underlines the potential of what we can all do next and the power of standards.