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UW innovations: Playing on a personal computer near you

You can already use the Internet to download snippets of films or videotaped news, and you can tune in to a live video webcast such as the racy, server-crashing fashion show served up last February by the folks at Victoria's Secret.

But taking in a popular feature-length movie via the World Wide Web has, so far, not been an option. A popular film, one that might be requested simultaneously by hundreds or thousands of viewers, would simply consume too much bandwidth, one of the Internet's primary limiting factors.

Now, however, a new technology developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison industrial engineering and computer science Professor Mary Vernon and colleagues Derek Eager of the University of Saskatchewan and John Zahorjan of the University of Washington, could put popular movies just a few clicks away from the networked personal computer or TV.

Vernon and her colleagues have developed techniques that permit entertainment servers-the computers where one would go by way of the Internet to access a movie or other popular offering-to simultaneously deliver feature-length movies to hundreds or thousands of viewers-with viewers able to start the movie any time they choose.

"Bandwidth has been one of the major problems, and we have part of the solution," Vernon says.

Vernon explains that servers deliver content in streams, and the techniques she's developed help servers conserve bandwidth by enabling users to share the movie-bearing data streams. When a user picks a movie, Vernon says, she would immediately be assigned a data stream that may already be some minutes into the movie. She would also be assigned a new data stream to pick up the first missed minutes of the movie before being seamlessly switched over to the shared data stream and freeing up the stream that delivered the first segment of the film.

With the new techniques in place, a server can provide immediate delivery of a two-hour movie to a thousand viewers over that two-hour period using only 12 data streams.

"The idea is pretty simple. And we think it can be used for lots of content, not just movies. It could be used for distance education to deliver lectures" or, for news junkies, it could be used to catch documentaries and other news programs.

The patents for Vernon's inventions are pending and will be held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

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