Codec du Jour: What’s Next?

Video Codecs

You may have noticed that video codecs are a hot topic these days. It all started when Google announced that its VP9 codec would be licensed royalty-free as an alternative to the MPEG HEVC standard for Internet use. VP9 has not gained much traction outside of the YouTube ecosystem, but this did not stop Google from starting work on its next codec iteration, VP10.

At the 2015 NAB Show we saw a new type of codec, Perseus, from V-Nova, which claims to fit HD in SD bandwidth and UHD in HD bandwidth. The V-Nova website says that Perseus has 3x better compression efficiency than state-of-the-art codecs such as HEVC, which sounds really revolutionary. We have seen a few promising trade show demonstrations of it, a few awards, and some industry endorsements, but no broadcast or Internet deployments for Perseus yet.

Then came the HEVC Advance announcement, in which users of the HEVC/H.265 patent pool would be charged a steep license fee. This led to the founding of the Alliance for Open Media, formed by Netflix, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel and Mozilla as a counter measure to the pay toll requested by HEVC Advance. The DNA of the Alliance founders is clearly from the web, and the codec they are developing will solely cover the needs of Internet delivery, meaning we still need a codec for the good old broadcast world.

Is that all? Not really. Tveon, a Canadian TV everywhere company, came out of the blue with a brand new codec that it claims can deliver UHD at 2 Mbps and HD at 200 kbps, or about a 10x gain vs. any current technology, including HEVC. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

Now, some of the questions you might have are: Where does MPEG go from here, and is there still room for a video compression standard? First, MPEG began working a few years ago on a “royalty-free” codec (as much as it can be before being thoroughly reviewed by patent experts) called IVC (Internet Video Codec). It is today at the Committee Draft stage, and we can expect the standard in the 2016 time frame.

The second challenge MPEG is addressing is more about software-based codec and compression efficiency, which is why it’s launching the Future Video Coding initiative, aimed at delivering a new codec before 2020. As a result, we might see a lot of new tools that will not only improve compression efficiency, but will also enable highly scalable cloud-based encoding. In addition, as we see more software-based decoders on the market, we can also expect more flexible schemes for codec upgrades (e.g., not having to wait 10 years to get a new codec).

What is Harmonic’s position in this new codec world? Our company has always followed standards and has already deployed several HEVC services in OTT, DTT and DTH applications. On the legacy codec side, such as MPEG-4 AVC, we continue to improve encoding efficiency with our software-based Harmonic PURE Compression Engine. Using PURE, we can now demonstrate a gain of 25-30% better efficiency than with our hardware-based Electra 9200 encoder. This is, of course, at the same video quality (subjective testing) and density (number of channels/RU) levels.

If we utilize PURE in a cloud-based architecture, such as with our VOS virtualized media processing platform, even more compute capacity can be made available, resulting in even greater compression gains. The ultimate result will be that “AVC by Harmonic” may soon challenge HEVC as the codec of choice.

Of course, Harmonic will continue to monitor the progress of any new video codec standard, and with our cloud-based VOS architecture, we’re confident that we will be at the forefront of compression innovation, just as we’ve been for the last 25 years. The game has changed from the old days, when a single SD MPEG-2 channel could barely fit in a complete rack. Times are changing!

– Thierry Fautier, VP, Video Strategy

VR 360 Video: An Immersive Video Experience

VR 360 or virtual reality video has been in the limelight with the Oculus acquisition by Facebook for $2B, and more recently with the HTC Vive and Sony Morpheus announcements, all of which are wired experiences where a second device (PC or Game station) is needed to power the experience. The alternative approach is the Samsung and Google one, which favors a powerful smartphone and a head-mounted device ($99 for Samsung, $20 for Google) to enable a full VR 360 video experience. Analyst Piper Jaffray estimates that in 2020, the unwired virtual reality market will be 10x the size of the wired one.

IBC2015 saw several demonstrations of VR 360 video technologies:

  • GoPro showed its new camera rig together with the stitching capability of its Kolor acquisition
  • JauntVR (who has since received a $65M investment lead by Disney) was demonstrating its new 360 NEO camera rig, used for cinematic content
  • Elemental was showing a live Oculus Rift demonstration shooting its own booth in VR 360
  • Fraunhofer was demonstrating capture, stitching and encoding with soccer footage
  • The BBC illustrated how immersive VR 360 can be for events like the migrant crisis in Europe

But the most noticeable demonstration, because it was the only E/E demo with an immersive UHD experience, was the Viaccess Orca, Harmonic and VideoStitch E/E system that showed a 360-degree, live recording, while navigation was driven by the movement of the eyes on a Samsung Gear VR Innovator and Galaxy S6. The power of this platform is that the demo was not pushing the limits of the technology, and therefore, will be technologically valid for some time to come.

In terms of the workflow, the content is captured with multiple cameras and stitched in real time by VideoStitch. It is then encoded at UHD resolution (3840 x 2160) using the HEVC Main 10 codec by the Harmonic VOS platform. The stream is then sent to a Galaxy S6 that can decode natively, which by itself is impressive, given that last year we could barely decode HD HEVC on a high end tablet! The result is a truly immersive experience that was never before demonstrated on a consumer device.

Therefore, this innovative platform provides an end-to-end solution as it serves all the elements of a VR 360 video chain: Capture, stitching (VideoStich), encoding live, VOD, encryption, streaming (Harmonic), secured player and 360 UI (Viaccess Orca).

The possibilities are endless, as the demonstration has caught the interest of leading content & service providers looking at new ways to deliver immersive content to their customers. A representative from Samsung who saw the demo remarked: “If this is what a live feed will look like, then this will be a breakthrough for live sports”.

The Viaccess Orca, Harmonic and VideoStitch solution will continue to participate in live trials in 2015.

Harmonic would like to thank the Viaccess Orca and VideoStitch teams for their active contribution to this endeavor.

-Thierry Fautier, VP, Video Strategy

VidTech InFocus: ProView 7100 IRD and an End-to-End HEVC Capable Ecosystem

HEVC is really just starting to ramp up. One of the reasons is the availability of professional quality HEVC-capable receivers, such as the ProView 7100 integrated receiver-decoder, transcoder and stream processor. In this episode of VidTech InFocus, the team talk about industry adoption of HEVC and Harmonic’s end-to-end HEVC capable ecosystem.

Want to learn more about the future of video encoding? Feel free to download our white paper on encoding with the HEVC standard or guidelines for HEVC deployment.


The Top 4 Topics at IBC2015 – HDR, IP, COTS and HEVC


And so we return from another busy IBC, a show that was mostly consolidating previously launched technology and lots of rain!

My time was divided between the Media over IP showcase in the Harmonic theatre and various 4K / UHD presentations, amongst the wealth of customers trying to make sense of a very complex media landscape. Good content always wins though, and having compelling Ultra HD NASA material encoded by Harmonic, certainly attracted a lot of attention.

Another topic generating huge interest was High Dynamic Range (HDR). With many IBC attendees cautiously endorsing the picture quality, the concern is what is practical on consumer grade screens and how such a feature will co-exist alongside existing HD services and the already significant Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) UHD install base.

Backwards compatibility is the trickiest of issues and certainly exercising the best brains in the business. This issue deserves a dedicated explanation of the latest thinking. Stand by for my next blog when I’ll try and scope out the key issues!

The BBC’s Hybrid Log-Gamma paper quite rightly won the Best Conference Paper Award and a whole host of interest from broadcasters who are viewing this as the solution to a dilemma that has dimmed enthusiasm for HDR amongst broadcasters contemplating launching a UHD channel.

The almost universal support for SMPTE 2022 amongst vendors prompted lots of discussion about how IP will emerge in a production environment. To date IP has dominated in the distribution and file storage arenas, tackling synchronous switching in a COTs network domain will herald IP being universally applied across media workflows. COTs based switching sounds easy and has obvious appeal, but is a tall order, especially if you want attractive TCO comparisons with existing SDI infrastructures. For now, proof of concept demonstrations tantalized forward thinking visitors to IBC, but expect to see these transition to full blown software based products, ticking all the Software Defined Network, Virtualization and layer based processing boxes at future shows.

Solutions were split between a true COTs based video switch, albeit probably high-end multilayer network gear, an SDI switch reworked with IP inputs and a hybrid interim solution for those needing to purchase now. Timing and control differentiated the various methods, with some adopting network based Precision Timing Protocol feeding SMPTE 2059 epoch/profile while others are distinctly old school, with Black and Burst!

What was clear from IBC was that once in the IP domain, processing audio, video and metadata of individually time stamped streams makes for a superior solution than dealing with an MPEG multiplexed stream. This is not to decry SMPTE2022, which comprehensively addresses IP carriage of compressed and uncompressed video away from legacy ASI and SDI connectivity. The point here is that once in the asynchronous IP domain the need to support MPEG TS and SDI techniques lessens to such an extent that alternative methods, more appropriate for a production environment, are actively been considered. Of course any workflow will have to eventually interface with existing SDI infrastructure, as legacy equipment cannot be ignored in the short-term. However, there is significant momentum behind a drive towards all IP workflows and so, in the fullness of time, IP from ingest to screen will become a reality in the long term.

Clarification on HEVC licensing and royalty payments was sought by many at IBC2015. I did expect to see at least the beginning of the end for Quad SDI interfacing and the emergence of 25 or 40G interfacing for baseband UHD. 10G was definitely the emphasis for IP interfacing, allowing for multiple HD or lightly compressed UHD, hardly surprising given the cost associated with these next generation high bandwidth Ethernet interfaces.

For those wishing to see more about media over IP, feel free to view the Theatre presentation I used on the Harmonic Booth.

– Ian Trow, Sr. Director, Emerging Technology & Strategy, Harmonic

What Will be Featured at IBC2015?

Media over IP, the state of the emerging 4K/UHD market and workflow optimization will continue to be the headline issues. Undoubtedly many attending the show will be trying to assess to what extent IP has continued to advance on the few remaining broadcast specific islands of functionality and how they’ll influence future purchasing decisions. To those with file-based workflows it’s clear that IP already dominates, where capture and ingest are the last stand for SDI.

The main areas of interest for those involved with video infrastructure at IBC this year concern live or hybrid scenarios which require IP networks specifically configured for non-blocking behavior with a reasonable solution density and percentage bandwidth utilization, to truly make the CAPEX and OPEX arguments stack. There’ll be many approaches demonstrated showing significant variations in terms of implementation, reliance on existing SDI technologies and use of COTs network infrastructure. There’s some way to go in terms of a workflow devoid of a bespoke broadcast kit, but SMPTE 2022, Precision Timing Protocol (PTP) and significant thought given to organizing the various control, media and timing planes brings the end goal much closer.

As well as the move from SDI to IP, the industry is absorbing the need to separate video applications from underlying processing capability. This manifests itself in Virtualization and Software Defined Networks (SDNs) being actively considered for inclusion in future video workflows. The approaches shown will range from evolutionary to revolutionary, where the suitability of specific Virtualization and SDN techniques depends on how much legacy infrastructure exists, the adherence to open standards and expertise in commissioning and running datacenters.

The pace of 4K/UHD adoption is running at different rates depending on where you are within a video workflow. For production, the desire to commission in 4K is key in order to future proof content. This is driving the industry to rapidly reassess network storage and the role of more widespread compression usage in an environment where quality, editability and visually lossless post production are essential. For 4K storage those seeking solutions are holding back until a truly network-based solution exists. This has as much to do with which high bandwidth Ethernet variant triumphs in the long term for uncompressed video interfacing as it concerns how current 10G transport lightly compresses content.

25, 40 and 100G may be regarded by some as too far removed from what’s realistic, given the 10G restriction imposed by current networks. Many IBC attendees will be keenly evaluating TICO and LLVC as challengers to AVC and HEVC. The criteria for such comparisons will undoubtedly be suitability to process and encapsulate within IP networks, availability of both software and hardware codec solutions as well as widespread industry adoption. Fundamental to all the technology on show at IBC will be the desire to further rationalize workflows and evaluate when UHD will transition from broadcast novelty to mainstream viewer expectation. I look forward to seeing you at IBC, my next blog will provide a post-IBC analysis!

Harmonic will be at IBC2015, Stand 1.B20.

– Ian Trow, Sr. Director, Emerging Technology & Strategy, Harmonic

Industry Spotlight: TATA

TATA discusses why they chose to work with Harmonic, and how our virtualization solution, VOS is central to their infrastructure. VOS brings together the technologies that have made Harmonic the leader in broadcast playout, pay-tv encoding, IPTV headends and multiscreen transcoding. It leverages the computing power of contemporary servers to host a robust set of dynamically deployable application modules which can be selected individually, or in combination with any of the others. Playout with HEVC encoding for multiscreen? No problem – just add the modules.

– Joel Marsden, Sr. Video Producer, Harmonic

Triple-Play Service for MDUs

Harmonic NSG Exo_MDUsTelecom operators have historically had two tools available to them to connect broadband and video services to subscribers: fiber and copper. The most common approach to broadband delivery involves the use of a digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) that connects the DSL network to the subscriber over a digital fiber link, with twisted-pair copper, or local copper loops, covering the last mile to the subscribers’ premises.

This architecture is commonly deployed, but has a key drawback: the copper loop distance between the DSLAM and subscriber severely limits DSL speeds, which typically ranges from less than 1 Mbps to 25 Mbps. With new technologies these speeds are increasing, but are still constrained by loop distances that diminish throughput the further away the customer is from the DSLAM: anything over 200 meters can result in excessive data slowing.

In recent years, FTTH—an architecture in which the last mile of copper is replaced with fiber—has emerged as a technologically advanced alternative to DSL. Where available, FTTH offers the highest broadband speeds by eliminating the distance limitations of copper. However, the labor and infrastructure cost of deploying FTTH has generally confined its penetration to newly built homes. The challenge is even greater for subscribers in buildings without fiber wiring, as is common in MDUs. Running fiber to individual units in an existing apartment complex is not only expensive—it’s also extremely disruptive to the occupants.

Harmonic now offers an alternative for delivering high-speed, triple-play services to MDUs: the Harmonic NSG™ Exo distributed CCAP system. Compact and cost-effective, NSG Exo is a part of Harmonic’s distributed access architecture (DAA) solution, which allows providers of data, video and voice services to use their existing digital fiber networks to overcome the bandwidth limitations of DSL and to avoid the upgrade costs of pulling fiber to individual subscribers. With NSG Exo, the coax infrastructure provides far greater maximum bandwidth to subscribers—up to a gigabit today, and up to 10 gigabit in the near future.

To learn more about this topic, view our NSG Exo Application Note.


Industry Spotlight: SKY PerfecTV!

SKY PerfecTV! discusses why they chose to work with Harmonic, and how our Spectrum media server system and Electra encoders are central to their hardware. As the established market leader in media server and storage technologies,  is the ideal platform for streamlining media production and broadcast operations and implementing file-based workflows. Possessing a modular architecture, Spectrum is used by producers and television professionals worldwide to support efficient tapeless television operations, while ensuring maximum reliability and flexibility.

– Joel Marsden, Sr. Video Producer, Harmonic

All IP Video Production Workflow

Harmonic_IP-VideoCOTS infrastructure for networking and storage now dominates media production workflows to the extent that the talk is of islands of video-specific functionality in a sea of IP, a complete reversal of the situation the broadcast industry was addressing only a few years ago. This trend shows every sign of accelerating now that the last bastion of broadcast, the video switch, shows every sign of succumbing to the inevitable shift towards IP!

So, what’s involved with the absorption of such a major workflow element into the realm of standard network media? Put simply, a lot of standardization and impetus towards a datacenter approach to further drive down CAPEX and OPEX, as well as further signal the demise of SDI. Cisco® presented a proof of concept at NAB this year showing frame accurate video switching during the VBI period.

This is no easy task  ­̶  moving video in an asynchronous, packet-switched environment strikes fear into the hearts of dyed in the wool broadcaster engineers only too aware of the cavalier attitude IP networks have to drop packets and retransmit later, a scenario totally alien to the real-time carriage of live media. First, let’s be clear about the level of COTS equipment we’re dealing with here, a high-end router!

No doubt the intention is to implement on more common IP switches in the fullness of time, but for now this is a glimpse at the way the industry is heading. For some infrastructure providers the move to a full IP workflow based on totally standard hardware is too much and there are already Trojan horse solutions purporting to be totally IP COTS friendly, which in fact are old school video hardware dressed up with IP interfaces. This isn’t a problem though, as the state of COTS based network hardware is somewhere between the two scenarios discussed.

I suspect that there’ll be plenty of IP based video specific products to enable the overall move towards a complete IP based workflow while the high throughput packet handling is switched synchronously according to newly crafted standards like SMPTE 2022. This will no doubt be a hot topic at IBC this year (Harmonic’s Booth, 1.B20) and it’ll be featured in the IP video ebook we’re working on for the show.

– Ian Trow, Sr. Director, Emerging Technology & Strategy, Harmonic

VidTech InFocus: Electra X

In this episode of VidTech InFocus, Keith Lissak, Product Marketing Director, takes an in-depth look at: Harmonic Electra X — the industry’s first fully converged platform for broadcast and OTT delivery of SD, HD and UHD content. During this video he interviews Neil Brydon, Product Line Compression and Stream Processing Director, about the benefits of using Electra X, along with its superior video quality, function integration and bandwidth efficiency. By the end of this segment, you’ll learn why the workflow flexibility of the Electra X is sure to simplify your infrastructure, reduce costs and drive new revenue-generating services.

Learn more about Electra X by downloading our Complete UHD Guidebook.

– Keith Lissak, Product Marketing Director, Harmonic