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NAB 2018: The Alliance for Open Media Talks AV1 Launch
Streaming Media's Jan Ozer interviews Alliance for Open Media executive director Gabe Frost at NAB 2018, talking about AV1's launch, its future, and how it will likely co-exist with HEVC

At NAB, Jan Ozer met with about a dozen companies with stakes in HEVC and/or AV1. This is another in a series of video interviews he conducted with them.

Jan Ozer: Live from the AV1 coming out party at NAB in Las Vegas, I'm here with Gabe Frost, Microsoft employee and executive director of the Alliance for Open Media (AOM).

Gabe Frost: How are you doing?

Jan Ozer: I'm good, how are you? So what are we here for tonight? What are we celebrating?

Gabe Frost: So, we're celebrating the launch of AV1 from the Alliance for Open Media.

Jan Ozer: So, tell me about the process. Tell us how it all started, tell us how it came together, and why this is such an achievement.

Gabe Frost: It all started about 3 years ago when a number of companies, Microsoft, Google, Intel, others, got together and said, "We really just want to go change the world.  We want to do something different." 

The way that things were going, we were finding that it was really starting to become a bit complicated for us in the video space. We thought, wow, a lot of us are contributing, we're innovators in this area, what if we had a bold idea and said, "Let's contribute all of our invention in this area on a royalty-free basis, and can we convince other people to be as crazy as us?"

It turns out, a lot of people are equally crazy and that's how it got started. So, it was just this idea that we think that we have a bunch of invention in this area, and we can do some really big things. And we can really focus on building products instead of just staying down in the weeds and worrying about how much of our own stuff we can get jammed into a codec.

Jan Ozer: So, you took Thor from Cisco and you took Daala from Mozilla. You took all your old VC-1 and WMV. So, it almost seems like you picked partners for their IP. It's like, yeah, we're building a codec, we need this, this, and this. How close is that to reality?

Gabe Frost: It didn't really start that way. I mean, really it was about, we wanted to make sure we had innovators across the entire video ecosystem and so, from folks who have a bunch of experience building codecs, which matters a ton when you want to build a codec, folks who actually know how to productize these.

And folks who know how to build them, not only in silicon, but all the way up the stack. So this is folks down in silicon, folks who build coding tools, folks who build operating systems and developer tools and stacks all the way up into the encoding tool chains.

So, it started from, how do we bring together the best product minds in the world who actually build products that people love and how do we focus on solving real problems along the way. And, it matters a lot that we all have a bunch of history building codecs so that we can bring a great deal of innovation to bear.

Jan Ozer: So, all that said, it's been a 3-year process, lots of contributed IP. Where are we, you know, you've launched the codec, it's frozen. Where is it, when's it going to become usable? When will we see it being deployed?

Gabe Frost: Codecs always roll out in about four phases. Typically, it starts out when you have a launch and you have a party like this and everyone says, "The bit-stream is frozen. Celebrate." And so, it's about first driving clarity, where you freeze the bit-stream so that silicon can get going, so that the folks who create tools can get going. 

And so, it starts with creating that clarity, especially around the licensing terms and those kinds of details. And the next phase is, you start to see some optimization happen in the software, so we created a set of reference software. The goal of that software, as it is with most codecs when first released, is to make sure you have the broad array of capabilities in the encoder and the decoder so that you can produce compliant bit-streams and decode those bit-streams. So, that folks who are wanting to create commercial tools understand how to do it and what it looks like.

And we do that in a non-optimized way. We want to make sure that everyone understands how it works. And so, we start with a bunch of optimization that happens first and then really where you see that software used in that first place is across desktop browsers.

Jan Ozer: So, I'm putting you on the spot here and you can say the companies will make their own decisions, but when are we going to see AV1 decode in Chrome, Firefox, and Edge?

Gabe Frost: So, you're going to see a demo tomorrow of it running in Firefox.

Jan Ozer: And that's been available for a while. 

Gabe Frost: Yeah, so, what happens is you see it in these canary versions on the browsers where they're trying to optimize it a little bit, find ways to actually do some off-loading into the GPU that's on the system. So, you're going to start to see it this year, across all the major browsers that support HTML5 that will be able to consume content on a limited basis from folks like Netflix and YouTube who are going to start encoding content, making it available to those sockets on the endpoint in the desktop browsers is usually where it starts.

Jan Ozer: So, that's this year and then, is it 12 months to chip-level products and then 12 months from that to devices? 

Gabe Frost: Yeah, so, I mentioned unblock the ecosystem. Second, optimize the software, you see it start showing up in desktop browsers first. You start to see the encoding tools come out like the broad array of open-source tools.

The next phase is you start to see a great deal of optimization happening where you can do some offloads, some parallelism with GPUs. That gives rise to the opportunity to see it start showing up in Xbox, and TVs, and set-top boxes, and game consoles.

Jan Ozer: Is that 2 years? 

Gabe Frost: Yes, you're going to see that over the next 24 months. In the fourth phase is when you start to see it showing up in all modern silicon. And we expect that to be around 2020 when you start to see that happening.

Jan Ozer: So, this battle has been projected as AV1 versus HEVC. Is that how it's going to play out or do you expect to dominate broadcast? Or are there going to be two different silos or coexistence? How is that going to work?

Gabe Frost: I mean, there's always coexistence. The best thing that can happen in the industry when you have uncertainty and you really want to drive forward scenarios is competition. And so competition is great, we're going to see what happens as it goes, but we really, really are focusing on, as with any codec that comes out, on the web. Almost always starts with the web. Or at least any modern codec that comes out.

And so, there isn't anything unique and special about AV1 as it relates to the web versus any others or its use in scenarios like broadcast or real-time communications or what not. But that's what e're really focusing right now is, let's make sure that we deliver on the scenarios with real-time communication, with on-demand, with live, game video. 

All the companies that you see that are involved and been contributing heavily in each of these scenarios, and let's really give rise to those. Let's focus on the optimization and let's go from there.

Jan Ozer: So, I'll put you on the spot. One of the criticisms from the head of MPEG was that free codecs stifle innovation. What's your sense of that?

Gabe Frost: You know, I think, Leonardo [Chiariglione], right? We all have such a great admiration for Leonardo and MPEG and the work that everybody has done. I think that he's reflecting on a tough spot that the industry is in right now, with a lot of the governing rules and the practices and what not and so. What I'd say generally is that, I feel like when we talk about monetization of innovation, and we think that that can only happen in one way that that's a fairly narrow view. And when you look at market forces over the last 15 years, what you're starting to see more and more of is monetization happening further up the chain. Further up the value chain.

And so, you've seen subscription services. You've seen folks able to sell devices as a loss-leader in order to focus on content and services up the chain, and that's happening everywhere on the web. So all the companies that are involved, believe heavily that we can take all of our innovation, that we can extract the right kind of value further up the chain in order to do our best and compete and build the best products possible without some of these issues being the things that slow innovation down.

Jan Ozer: So, not to put you on the spot, and this is probably stuff you don't want to talk about. Let me just ask, what's the level of manpower devoted at Microsoft to something like this and what will happen over the next 12 to 24 months? I mean, if you say it's private, that's fine.

Gabe Frost: Well, I'd say that leading the engineering team that does all this work, we have a substantial focus. We look at the work that we've done with AV1 and with AOMedia generally. We believe that's a future. 

The engineering generally has contributed in a big way to what has come out with AV1 and AOM and the good engineering work that's happening and we feel really good about that. As reflected by the set of products that you can go see on the website. We're talking about folks from Skype, Microsoft Teams, Azure Media Services, Edge on the browser side, the operating system, apps.

Jan Ozer: And that's what you mean by finding value, you're not selling a codec but you're finding value within Microsoft for that codec and other products and services.

Gabe Frost: Absolutely. When you want to deliver innovative experiences and you want to reach more customers in more places around the globe, compression matters a lot. And so, in order for us and other companies like Microsoft who want to deliver incredible innovation and reach more customers, it's more than just ultra-high definition.

It's about getting real-time communication with your family across the globe, right? It's about having more vibrant communication with your teams in all parts of the world. It's all that.

Jan Ozer: I'm starting to cry. Listen, I know you’ve got some announcements to make. Thanks for joining us.

Gabe Frost: Absolutely. It's great talking to you.

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