Breakthrough in Video Compression

Fraunhofer HHI, Europe’s largest research organization recently announced a new video codec, H.266, or Versatile Video Coding (VVC). This represents a huge breakthrough in video compression technology and promises to reduce the size of transmitted video by 50%. This is big news for ISPs since video drives a large percentage of network traffic.

Codec is an acronym for compressor/decompressor. Codec software is used to prepare videos for streaming over the Internet. Codec software compresses video signals at the sender’s end and is used at the viewer’s end to decompress video. The decompressed video file you watch on your TV, computer, or smartphone is much larger than the video file that is transmitted to you over the Internet.

Codec software is used to compress video signals of all types. It’s used by online video vendors like Netflix and YouTube TV. It’s used by networks like ESPN that broadcast live sports. It’s used by online video games. It’s used in online chat apps like Zoom. The codec is used to compress images from video cameras that are transmitted over the web. Any video you receive online has likely been compressed and decompressed by codec software. Fraunhofer claims its codec software is included in over 10 billion devices.

Reducing the size of video files will be a huge deal in the future. Sandvine reported in October of 2019 that video represented over 60% of all downloads on the web. We know the amount of streaming video has exploded during the pandemic, aided by massive cord-cutting. Cisco predicts that video could grow to be 82% of downloaded web traffic by the end of 2022.

The new H.266 codec standard will replace earlier codec software H.264 and H.265. Interestingly, the H.265 codec reduced the size of video files by 50% compared to the predecessor H.264 codec. Fraunhofer says the software is particularly well-suited for transmitting 4K and 8K streaming video for flat-screen TVs and for video with motion like high-resolution 360-degree video panoramics.

The new codec won’t be introduced immediately because it has to be designed and installed into the network gear that transmits video and into all of the devices we use to watch video. Hopefully, the new codec will hit the market sooner than its predecessor H.265. That codec software was announced on a similar press release by Fraunhofer in 2012 and has just recently been implemented across the network.

H.265 got embroiled by a number patent disputes. The new H.266 codec might encounter similar problems since the team working on the codec includes Apple, Ericsson, Intel, Huawei, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Sony. Fraunhofer is trying to avoid disputes by implementing a uniform and transparent licensing model.

There also might be an eventual competitor for the new codec. The Alliance for Open Media announced a new codec in 2015 call AV1 which is a competitor of the current H.265 codec. This is open-source software and free and is supported by Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Cisco. (Note Microsoft is backing both sets of codec software). This group has been working on a forward-looking codec as well.

Even should everything go smoothly it’s unlikely to see the H.266 codec affecting consumer video for 3-4 years. Carriers could deploy the codec on network gear sooner than that.

New Video Format

alliance-for-open-mediaSix major tech companies have joined together to create a new video format. Google, Amazon, Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix, and Mozilla have combined to create a new group called the Alliance for Open Media.

The goal of this group is create a video format that is optimized for the web. Current video formats were created before there was wide-spread video using web browsers on a host of different devices.

The Alliance has listed several goals for the new format:

Open Source Current video codecs are proprietary, making it impossible to tweak them for a given application.

Optimized for the Web One of the most important features of the web is that there is no guarantee that all of the bits of a given transmission will arrive at the same time. This is the cause of many of the glitches one gets when trying to watch live video on the web. A web-optimized video codec will be allowed to plow forward with less than complete data. In most cases a small amount of missing bits won’t be noticeable to the eye, unlike the fits and starts that often come today when the video playback is delayed waiting for packets.

Scalable to any Device and any Bandwidth One of the problems with existing codecs is that they are not flexible. For example, consider a time when you wanted to watch something in HD but didn’t have enough bandwidth. The only option today is to fall back the whole way to an SD transmission, at a far lower quality. But in between these two standards is a wide range of possible options where a smart codec could analyze the bandwidth available and could then maximize the transmission by choosing different options among the many variables within a codec. This means you could produce ‘almost HD’ rather than defaulting to something of much poorer in quality.

Optimized for Computational Footprint and Hardware. This means that the manufacturers of devices would be able to maximize the codec specifically for their devices. All smartphones or all tablets or all of any device are not the same and manufacturers would be able to choose a video format that maximizes the video display for each of their devices.

Capable of Consistent, High-quality, Real-time Video Real-time video is a far greater challenge than streaming video. Video content is not uniform in quality and characteristics and there is thus a major difference in the quality between watching two different video streams on the same device. A flexible video codec could standardize quality much in the same way that a sound system can level out differences in listener volume between different audio streams.

Flexible for Both Commercial and Non-commercial Content A significant percentage of videos watched today are user-generated and not from commercial sources. It’s just as important to maximize the quality of Vine videos as it is for showing commercial shows from Netflix.

There is no guarantee that this group can achieve all of these goals immediately, because that’s a pretty tall task. But the power of these various firms combined certainly is promising. The potential for a new video codec that meets all of these goals is enormous. It would improve the quality of web videos on all devices. I know that personally, quality matters and this is why I tend to watch videos from sources like Netflix and Amazon Prime. By definition streamed video can be of much higher and more consistent quality than real-time video. But I’ve noticed that my daughter has a far lower standard of quality than I do and watches videos from a wide variety of sources. Improving web video, regardless of the source, will be a major breakthrough and will make watching video on the web enjoyable to a far larger percentage of users.