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NAB Roundup: The State of HEVC, AV1, and Proprietary Codecs
H.264 still leads, HEVC is starting to gain traction, and AV1 had its coming-out party. To add to the confusion, other codecs offer alternatives to all three. Jan Ozer makes sense of all the codec news from this year's NAB.
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NAB shows are like the proverbial elephant; your impressions are created where you touch the show, and you seldom get a feel for the entire beast. From my perspective, NAB 2018 was about codecs, primarily AV1 and HEVC, but also V-Nova PERSEUS and RealMedia HD. This means that I missed a ton of other meaningful products and related news, which hopefully you can pick up from other articles.

During the show, I spoke with about 20 companies in detail. When these companies provided useful input into the codec situation, I recorded the interviews, which are now available online as both videos and in transcripted form. In this summary, I'll point you to those videos where appropriate. 

The State of HEVC

The HEVC bitstream froze in March 2013, which means that HEVC turned five in 2018. By any non-Trump-related standard, HEVC has had an exceptionally tumultuous beginning, initially because of a fractured, inconsistent, and as-yet-incomplete royalty policy, and later due to the emergence of unexpected competition from the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) and AV1 codec. 

The last twelve months have seen significant highs, like Apple adding HEVC to HLS, and lows, like MPEG Chairman Leonardo Chiariglione calling the MPEG business model "broke." In January of 2018, Apple joined the AOMedia, plugging the only significant gap in the group's technology and distribution portfolio and seemingly detracting from Apple's commitment to HEVC. 

So how is HEVC doing? It depends, but in no case did Apple's decision to add HEVC to HLS announcement immediately break the logjam as some predicted, at least during the 10 months since the announcement. For example, Tom Vaughan, new VP of strategy for codec vendor Beamr, who primarily sells direct to large streaming services, called the reaction to the Apple announcement "strong," but stated, "So, it's on the roadmap of all the top video streaming services" except for YouTube. So, it's coming, but it's not yet here. You can read or watch the complete interview here

Encoding.com serves media companies just below the top tier like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu, who run their own encoding farms. Reviewing the results of their recently released Global Media Format report, company president Greg Heil stated, "What we saw was a big uptick in 2017 in our customers' testing and putting plans in place to refresh libraries in HEVC. However, we didn't see any major production workflows move to that codec yet." (for the complete Heil interview, click here).

Dave Trescott, CEO of cloud encoding vendor Hybrik, agreed, stating, "certainly the Apple announcement has driven a lot more interest. Still the number of people, the number of our clients, who are actually [encoding with HEVC] is still relatively small, and they're all being driven not by HEVC itself, but by other technologies." Trescott then explained that most customers using HEVC were deploying 4K or DolbyVision, but not HEVC in HLS. (For the complete Trescott interview, click here).

On a positive note, Ikuyo Yamada, CEO of Capella Systems, which sells the Cambria FTC software transcoder, noted that the latest version of Cambria supports HEVC in HLS, and that "a lot of customers are quite excited about that." (For the complete Yamada interview, click here).

As we'll discuss in a moment, AV1 is 12-24 months from being ready for prime time for most streaming publishers, leaving a significant opportunity for HEVC. What can the industry do to accelerate adoption? In many, many discussions with potential users, the HEVC royalty issue kept popping up, particularly as it relates to content. 

Though HEVC Advance has stated that it won't seek content-related royalties for non-physical content, and MPEG LA never did, Velos Media refuses to take a stand, with its website Q&A stating "As it relates to content, we will take our time to fully understand the dynamics of the ecosystem and ensure that our model best supports the advancement and adoption of HEVC technology." The posture is absolute lunacy, perpetuating an uncertainty that remains a significant drag on publisher adoption. 

There are also significant implementation-related questions regarding HEVC in HLS, like how many encoding ladders will be needed, their composition, and playback performance on older compatible devices. Coming up with a set of best practices and expectations regarding all these issues could also accelerate adoption. 

AV1

The AV1 bitstream froze in late March, and NAB 2018 was the codec's coming out party, figuratively and literally. At the AV1 launch party, AOMedia Executive Director Gabe Frost defined the four phase implementation cycle, as follows:

  1. Bitstream freeze
  2. Software implementations in browsers and encoding tools.
  3. Optimizations in general and via GPUs.
  4. Encoding and playback in silicon and available in retail products. 

According to Frost, stage 4 will take about 24 months, meaning Spring 2020 before mobile phones, smart TVs, set top boxes, and other hardware devices start to include AV1 hardware-based decode. This leaves at least the 24 month window for HEVC adoption referred to above. (For the complete Frost interview, click here). 

In the meantime, while some initial quality comparisons are quite favorable, encoding times are absolutely glacial, eroding the bandwidths savings for producers who don't deliver videos in seven figure volumes. For example, at one conference session, Facebook released the results of benchmark testing that showed AV1 to be about 36% more efficient than VP9 at 1080p. However, encoding time for AV1 was five hours per second at that resolution. Yes, you read that correctly, five hours per second. 

Related Articles
Jan Ozer spoke with Greg Heil, CEO and co-founder of encoding.com about the results of the Encoding.com Global Media Format Report (2017), particularly as it relates to the actual usage of HEVC and VP9 by Encoding.com customers.
Mozilla researchers Nathan Egge and Michael Bebenita discuss Daala's role in the AV1 codec, and how a codec can be developed without stepping on third-party IP. They also discuss early performance numbers and when AV1 decode will be available in Firefox.
Mux CEO Jon Dahl talks about the company's QoE flagship QoE product and Mux Video, a new API to video hosting and streaming.
NGcodec CEO Oliver Gunasekara talks about how his company uses field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) available on standard cloud computers to accelerate high-quality encoding of HEVC and VP9 video, and what this might mean for AV1.
V-Nova co-founder and CEO Guido Meardi describes how his company has taken the PERSEUS codec launched three years ago and produced a finished product playable in all browsers and mobile devices, and many STB and OTT platforms.
RealNetworks CTO Reza Rassool discusses RealNetworks HD, a powerful, lightweight codec that's gained very substantial share in China and now is coming to the US. He also describes a report showing that his codec delivers better quality than HEVC.
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
Streaming Media's Jan Ozer interviews Beamr VP of strategy Tom Vaughan in the Beamr booth at NAB 2018 about HEVC and AV1
Streaming Media's Jan Ozer interviews Bitmovin CEO Stefan Lederer in the Bitmovin booth at NAB 2018 to talk about the company's $30 million funding, AV1, and its new machine learning-based encoding.
Streaming Media's Jan Ozer interviews Capella Systems' Ikuyo Yamada in the Capella booth at NAB and discusses HEVC, AV1, and Dolby Vision.
Sometimes an industry benchmark—such as Netflix's ISP Speed Index—only tells half the story about video delivery. Before picking a codec, dig a little deeper.
Early testing of HEVC playback in HLS showed positive but inconsistent results. We need StreamingMedia.com readers to step up and help provide more data.
FFmpeg 4.0 gives many video engineers their first chance to test the new AV1 codec against H.264, HEC, and VP9. The results? In our tests, quality was impressive, but glacially slow encoding times make AV1 a non-starter for most publishers until hardware acceleration becomes available.
Is AV1 all that people expect it to be? How much better would HEVC be doing with a fair royalty policy? Look to these charts for the answers to tomorrow's codec questions.