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Commercial Software Offers Storage, Retrieval Solutions to Federal Agencies

February 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Looking at the big picture, government entertains options designed to ease video, audio data management challenges.

Federal agencies with specialized image archival requirements are meeting their storage and retrieval needs by maximizing the capabilities of software first used by Hollywood’s entertainment industry. Government organizations with large image databases can use this software, which employs innovative search techniques, to help analysts sift through incalculable amounts of digital information. The software eliminates typical problems involved in tracking important reference material and can assist agencies by also housing information gathered from analysis of image files.

Specialists in the field recognize the technology’s applications, citing the intelligence community and the military as potential users of the media management software. Government agencies with image files that are used by several people for a number of different purposes can be housed in one central location, and data about the file can also be stored in the same place.

Marketing departments across a number of industries are benefiting from the technology, which has even been suggested for use in the burgeoning arena of electronic commerce. In both government and industry, the technology stands to decrease unnecessary time spent on searching for specific data.

The product’s inventor, Cinebase Software Incorporated, Los Angeles, has demonstrated its product’s use in both commercial and government markets since it was founded in 1996. Originally, the company offered its solutions to customers such as The Discovery Channel and Warner Bros. Imaging Technology for cataloging the companies’ vast files of film and video clips. The company’s chief operating officer, Michael Abrams, notes that Cinebase’s “bread and butter” is in the entertainment industry, but the company, which has opened its products to government testing, is finding useful applications for its media management solution in a number of federal departments.

“Government is managing more and more data all the time. In particular, video is becoming a more important data type,” says Paul Hashfield of the National Information Display Laboratory (NIDL), Princeton, New Jersey. Hashfield is head of systems solutions, wireless communications and networking, Sarnoff Corporation, Princeton, New Jersey. The company is the host organization for NIDL, one of three distributed laboratories established under the National Technology Alliance. Through NIDL, technology from private industry and academic institutions is studied for potential government use. The goal is to promote technology transfer between industry and government. Noting the growing importance to federal agencies of storing massive image files, NIDL has been involved in testing the Cinebase software to determine its usefulness for various agencies.

In early 1997, the National Imaging and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Bethesda, Maryland, through NIDL, tasked Sarnoff with studying the Cinebase product to evaluate its possible applications for the agency. The idea was to build a prototype digital library to test the software’s applicability to government information. For this Defense Department agency, storage of large image data is crucial, and being able to catalog images along with the analysis performed at the agency is also a valuable tool.

Demonstrations of the technology were completed last June, and Hashfield characterizes NIDL’s estimated 15-month-long research of the Cinebase software as “highly successful.” Pending operational testing, the software will be employed in government agencies for a number of image storage and retrieval uses, and Hashfield believes the technology can be beneficial to anyone who needs a large multimedia database.

The Cinebase software is a client-server-based asset management system that runs on Silicon Graphics systems. It can be customized to fit customer requirements on a number of different levels. The technology can store terabytes of data and metadata, or information about the data, allowing the storage of image files such as films, video, animation and photographs.

Users can access the files within an image library through the software’s graphical user interface, which eliminates the need for a structured query language or knowledge of special syntax for searches. Options for searching include keyword, hierarchy and attribute searches. The software can also be customized to search through other user-specific methods.

Search results are displayed on the screen in keyframes. Users click on a keyframe to play a motion file in real-time through Cinebase’s media player. The motion file is viewed with accompanying audio and can be scanned by using the scroll bar to fast-forward through the file. Keyframes also house textual information placed with the image that can include information about content, format, resolution and file size. A viewer enables the manipulation of still images, including resizing an image for purposes such as inspection.

Internal media conversion engines automate the format conversions of an image file and allow users to change an image into one of more than 23 different media types, moving between still and motion picture options. For example, with the translation framework, a user can convert video to a motion pictures experts’ group, or MPEG, file or can place several video images into one still image.

Abrams notes this as one of the software’s greatest attributes for government use. Government, he says, can take advantage of the software’s conversion abilities to avoid the problems inherent with legacy stovepipe systems. These systems often make data analysis difficult for agencies with several nonconnecting systems that only accept certain formats. “Cinebase provides a transparent means of collaborating these systems,” Abrams says. Hashfield confirms the benefits of the conversion engines stating that government organizations “can easily integrate any government or commercial application into the system.”

Created with security in mind, the software allows for storage of compressed or uncompressed files and its related text files in a system high-level security environment where content access can be restricted at both the user and server levels. For the entertainment industry, rights management issues led to the need for security of image files. “You’d be surprised at how security-conscious Hollywood is,” says Cinebase’s Vice President of Marketing Bill Harris.

Last July, the company introduced a web access extension for the product that provides Internet or intranet access to a user’s digital assets through either a Netscape or Microsoft web browser.

Abrams summarizes the software’s ability to see and store data in three ways—through the actual media content, metadata and workflow. Users can view the actual media content of still images, desktop publishing files, tiled imagery and video ranging in quality from QuickTime files to production, master-quality photography images. Accompanying audio for the files allows the user to further inspect actual media content. Related metadata about an image file, such as file size, date of creation and colors in the file, can also be stored. This information can aid users searching for specific image files.

In addition, workflow information can be housed with the file to allow it to go from point to point in a production process. The entertainment industry employs this feature to move a product from one person to another and to allow manipulation throughout various stages in the production of a film or movie. For the government, this capability can be employed when analyzing images because it allows many different specialists to view image files and store their findings in one central location. All relevant information about a file can be used throughout an organization instead of by only one specific department. This capability can benefit agencies, particularly in the intelligence field, where the ability to create a cohesive, unified environment in which specialists can analyze and store data is critical. A warehouse of maps, images and related data can contribute to intelligence teams with highly specialized needs.

Harris notes the software’s benefits for private companies as well. He points to its potential uses in web-based commerce. Cinebase can manage graphics, film and music to create an electronic business, he says. Industry marketing departments are also prime candidates for the software that can house valuable media archives of information, such as commercials and promotional material.

Museums are yet another potential customer for the software as they use the product to store image files of their assets that are rarely displayed to the public. These files can then be made easily available for use by students and other professionals in the field.

Abrams further notes the software’s potential benefit for simulation techniques. Because Cinebase can house and retrieve image files, they are readily accessible for simulation applications. Through the software, agencies can provide simulation-based training utilizing real scenarios offered in real-time. The simulation can be updated as the database files are updated.

Abrams says the software’s scalability and extensibility is another feature that makes the product useful to government users. “It insulates our customers from the risks of change,” he offers. Because of its open architecture, Cinebase software is customized easily and can be enhanced and upgraded, offering feasible options for government agencies with specialized needs.

The company maintains that the software offers efficiency to companies by decreasing the time spent searching for needed files. This ability increases productivity. Based on NIDL’s tests of the software, Hashfield confirms, “The material you have in archives is more readily available, and the user can get to it faster.”

Other agencies are looking at the software product as a viable solution for their image storage and retrieval needs. Among the agencies exploring this technology are the National Institutes of Health and the National Security Agency. As the government moves toward increased storage and use of soft copy, or digital and electronic images, software that can provide multiple search methods and various database features for production and analysis of images will become increasingly important to federal agencies. The use of this technology represents what Hashfield sees as “a key step in the government’s migration to soft copy.”