MP3 and MP4: Multimedia standards from Germany enjoy global success
On 14 July 1995, a revolution in the storage of music and in the electronic entertainment market
was announced, not with a fanfare but by an email: “The file extension for ISO MPEG Audio Layer
3,” declared Jürgen Zöller, an employee of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Switching, “is
Although he ended his email with the somewhat cryptic observation “There is a reason for it,
believe me :-)”, neither Zöller nor his colleagues had any idea how the MP3 process developed by
the team was about to take the world by storm.
The German optician and physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826) laid the foundations of
scientific telescope making in the beginning of the 19th Century. However, it was less for his
discoveries but rather for the pragmatic way he went about things — combining work in the exact
sciences with its practical application to produce innovative new products — that Joseph von
Fraunhofer became role model and namesake of today’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der
angewandten Forschung (Fraunhofer Society for the Promotion of Applied Research). Founded in
1949, this incorporated association has made it its goal to carry out application-oriented research of
immediate use to enterprises and to the benefit of society. In the Erlangenbased Institute for
Integrated Switching (IIS) alone, around 12,700 researchers carry out research to the value of over a
billion euros a year.
The MP3 procedure is the brainchild of Karlheinz Brandenburg. As early as 1989, the electrical
engineer and mathematician described in his doctoral thesis techniques which formed the basis of
many modern audio coding and compression processes. As a section head in the Fraunhofer’s IIS,
he and his team have been researching possible spacesaving digital techniques for the storage of
audio signals — i.e. music — in collaboration with AT&T Bell Labs and Thomson since 1987.
Admittedly, there were already processes for encoding music or the spoken word digitally in files,
but these were very memory-intensive. In their research, Brandenburg and his team relied on
findings from psycho-acoustics: the human ear cannot distinguish sounds that are very close in
frequency; nor are very soft sounds perceptible if they follow immediately after loud passages. So,
the research group removed all those sounds that could not be perceived by human hearing anyway
from the source material, and in this way was able to achieve considerable reductions in data
volume. Now, three minutes of music required less than three megabytes, or in other words 10 to 12
times the length of audio signals could be stored in the same space — without any appreciable loss
In 1992, the audio process was standardised by the audio group of the Moving-Picture Expert
Group as ISO/MPEG Layer-3; three years later, it was given its definitive name of MP3. Now one
should not picture the researchers at the Fraunhofer IIS as some kind of music freaks — they were
primarily concerned with the development of audio technology for digital radio and audio and video
conferencing. More as a sideline, they put their discovery on the Internet ... and triggered an
avalanche in the process. At first, it was only a few American students exchanging their CDs via the
MP3 format, but from 2000 music exchanges such as Napster and KaZaA started to boom.
Observing this development, the music industry did not know whether to laugh or cry: because data
can be easily copied, they lost their easy cash flow; but on the other hand a whole new market for
portable MP3 players opened up, from the little USB stick to prestige products like Apple’s iPod
with its built-in mini hard drive. Around 4.6 million MP3 players were sold in Germany in 2005.
However, the Fraunhofer IIS is not resting on its laurels. So, in the meantime, the researchers have
come out with “MP3 Surround”, an extension of stereo sound into surround sound, as well as
Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), which allows even higher compression ratios. Maybe some time
soon another email will be written in the Institute with the now legendary sentence: “There is a
reason for it ....”
The Joint Video Team received the Technology & Engineering Emmy® Award in the "Daytime"
category for developing the new MP4 video standard (MP4 is short for: H.264/MPEG4-AVC).
The standard was already recognized with the Technology Emmy in the "Primetime" category the
previous year. Thomas Wiegand of the Fraunhofer Institute now has his second Emmy. The
developers of the MP4 technology are the only ones to ever receive two Emmys in different
Source: dpa, www.land-of-ideas.org