Codec du Jour: What’s Next?

Video Codec

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

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