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SMW 17: Brightcove's David Sayed Talks Context-Aware Encoding
Streaming Media's Tim Siglin interviews Brightcove VP of Product Marketing at Streaming Media West 2017.
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Tim Siglin: Welcome back to Streaming Media West 2017. We've got several people from Brightcove that we're meeting today. I've got David Sayed, who's the VP of Product Strategy?

David Sayed: That's right. Thanks Tim.

Tim Siglin: Tell me about the HEVC-AV1 Smackdown that you just handed out.

David Sayed: Oh, the Smackdown panel. It was the battle of the next-generation codecs panel and it was basically a conversation about HEVC, VP9, AV1 and other wonderful three-letter acronyms, that most of the world don't care about, but of course we care about them deeply here. We love all of our codecs of this show.

Tim Siglin: One of the things we consistently do as an industry is underestimate Apple. And we underestimated Apple in the DASH world. You and I, of course, worked on Fragmented MP4 conversations long before DASH. And Apple, of course, has now finally come around to fMP4, but on their own terms with HLS. HLS continues to be really dominant.

So having said that, Apple chose to go HEVC. They're not going VP9. They're not waiting for AV1. Does that mean the game is over?

David Sayed: Yeah. I don't think it's ever over. I don't think there is ever a winner. In fact, before the panel ... As you know, one of Brightcove’s products is Zencoder, which is the leading cloud transcoding platform. I pulled some stats and we do over a billion minutes of transcoding a year. I wanted to Wolfram Alpha, because I wanted to get it to tell me what does that actually mean in a meaningful way. It's over 2,500 years of content. That comes from all sorts of different sources. It's everyone from UGC (User Generated Content)-type things to things like we're doing here, to also broadcasters. When I look at the codecs that are being used as output formats, by and large, as you would expect, is H.264. I would say about 80% of our output today is H.264.

Then we have VP9, we have VP8, we have HEVC. We also have Windows Media. That's still something that's out there. I think it's one of these things, where codecs coexist and they kind of age out over time. There's usually a couple of codecs that exist with similar market shares for a period of time, in parallel.

Now it's been very different since the dawn of the iPhone. Right?

Tim Siglin: Right.

David Sayed: Where the industry has predominantly been H.264.

Tim Siglin: I would argue that even before the iPhone, because of what Gary Williams did with ITU and MPEG and being able to take what I had used in video conferencing, which was H.264, figure out to get it to tie into the streaming side ... Ultimately, we had a codec that everybody could rely on and like in the DVD space, we had a common format that everybody could work from. We're past the end of life of AVC, although some would argue, obviously, that we've got things like context-aware encoding, and we'll talk about that in a minute. Because you have this year's worth, can you see historically, month-to-month HEVC is growing, VP9 is growing, or did you just look at it as a snapshot?

David Sayed: Yeah, so I've only really looked at it as a snapshot so far. Anecdotally, since the Apple announcements, there's been a lot more interest in HEVC. Now we announced support for both HEVC and VP9 at NAB 2016. We have people doing some work with VP9, some work with HEVC. Interestingly enough, it tends to be quite geo-specific. So in certain areas, certain regions, where perhaps people aren't monetizing their content very well, not having to pay any kind of royalty, therefore going the VP9 route is actually very interesting to them. It tends to be a tiny, tiny percentage of our overall traffic.

Tim Siglin: Geographically, is it also ... I mean, at this point, Android is either going to be VP9 or AVC H264. Do we have a sense as to whether Google pushing Android toward HEVC, which I doubt will happen because they have AV1, but whether that would tip the scales or whether we're gonna be back in the situation where all Android is AV1 or VP9, all Apple is HEVC, and suddenly we're in a two-codec duopoly--

David Sayed: I think that's exactly what we'll see. I think that's exactly what we'll see. You know, the percentages will be different depending on the region. On an aggregate basis is probably going to be a 40-60 split. Something like that. Where the rubber meets the road for us, which is for our customers who are the content providers, the content deliverers, the streaming services and so on, they are going to be in a world where they need to support both. Because if they want to target the iOS environment they're going to need ... By the way, what we're really talking about here is for UHD content. Because if you're not doing UHD content, then H264, AVC still has plenty of runway.

Tim Siglin: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I've been working on getting a survey ready to go out. Some of the companies who wanna sell HEVC are arguing, "It's just as good for 720p. Just as good for 1080p." However, as you and I have talked about context aware encoding allows AVC/H.264 to continue to have legs. Let's talk a little bit about what context-aware encoding is.

David Sayed: Sure. So context-aware encoding is a technology that we announced around May this year. Essentially, it is our take on per-title encoding optimization. So rather than trying to apply the same encoding settings for every single piece of content, without reference to the actual content itself, we're actually analyzing that content. What's in that content, but also how it's going to be used, and that's the context piece. Over time that's going to become a lot more intelligent and so really being able to take into account the device. How it's actually being used, how it's connected, and so on. We're able to make decisions as to the number of steps in the bit rate ladder, as well as the bit rates themselves.

Tim Siglin: So dynamically creating the ladder. One thing I'm hearing now throughout the show, as I've talked to multiple people, is the extent to which machine learning is actually coming into play for looking at things like context. Looking at things like bit rate ladders. Looking at things like metadata and that type of thing. Are we at a point where you may not necessarily need that person who has the skill set of being a master coder, because the machine learning itself is going to grow and allow the encoding solution to pick contextually what the best model is? Or do you think we'll still have a need for the, sort of, encoder as--

David Sayed: The compression expert. I think that the idea behind context-aware encoding is that it's the Easy Button for video encoding. The idea is that you are paying us as a Brightcove customer to be the video experts. You are trusting us to make the right decisions for your content.

Tim Siglin: So that's part of your value proposition, is that you've got the expertise that then your customer can benefit from?

David Sayed: Right. Now, I should stress that it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. I mean, there is going to be maybe some 80/20 rule, where 20% of customers right or wrongly perceive the need to have very, very fine-grained control over individual codec settings, and for that 20%, who really care deeply enough about having control over the N-degree encoding settings, and setting the B reference frames and all of those fun things that most people don't care about, but at this event a lot of people do, context-aware encoding is probably not the right technology for them.

It is the expert in a box. If you are an encoding expert and you, for whatever reason, decide that you are going to do a better job than we can, then we will give you that control, but it will be through the traditional way of interacting.

Tim Siglin: It's interesting, it may keep the compression expert on their toes, in terms of having to learn how to continually be better and be better. If nothing else, it may force them to consider per-title encoding, as opposed to one size fits all from the other side.

David Sayed: And I think that's kind of an interesting message to our customers, is while there's a lot of interest in HEVC, VP9, AV1 and a lot of the time it's around the higher resolutions, but also there's an argument to be made for bit rate savings, just applying it to SD content ... The fact is that things change. So as soon as you change that codec, other things in your delivery chain actually change.

Your workflow changes, but your delivery chain as well. So you know your player environment may look different. The way you do DRO may look different. So in some situations there might very well be a lot to be said for using something like context-aware coding with H264. Realizing similar bit rate savings with up to 1080p content, because that might the majority of what you're actually delivering.

Now if you are in that UHD world, and by UHD I specifically mean 4K HDR, high frame rates and so on, where you have a 10-bit color of space and you need HEVC, VP9, or AV1. Of course, that's a very different conversation.

Tim Siglin: It is. There, you're gonna be learning along with everybody else, where essentially what you're saying is on the other side if you got a workflow that works and you can ink more benefit out of H.264, potentially stay with that for a while until the rest of the stuff sorts out.

David Sayed: Yeah. I mean look at the end of the day making money out of media is hard. It's a difficult business. If you're out supported business and your primarily doing VOD content, it can be really tough. Reducing your delivery costs is a fantastic way of making those economics look a lot better.

Tim Siglin: So on the final question, we'll segue off from VOD into Live. You all have announced a new publishing platform, is that correct?

David Sayed: Yes, exactly. So we introduced Brightcove Live NAB. We've been doing live for several years and we've been learning with the rest of the industry. The majority of the type of live work that we've been doing has been event-based live. I would say over the last 18 months or so, we've really seen a growing interest in being able to do live linear. So 24/7, simul-casting. Not just taking existing live channels and moving them online, but also creating virtual live channels.

Tim Siglin: Right. Repackaging multiple live things that tie together.

David Sayed: Exactly. In some cases that's really nothing more than a VOD playlist, but maybe interspersed with some actual live content, so it's a little bit different.

Tim Siglin: It gives the chance for content publishers and content owners to try out new channel ideas and see where they get traction on those. Ultimately, that may drive back to adding that back into the cable space, because that model would say we can test out and see whether we've got traction here and then move up the chains.

David Sayed: One of the things we've heard is, over long vacations, having specific-interest channels for kids of different ages. The economics of doing that in a traditional broadcast environment just don't make sense. The economics of doing it in an environment where you need to provision a hardware encoder don't make sense either.

Tim Siglin: In fact, I was visiting some friends just before I flew out here, and this was pre-Halloween, Hallmark has already switched over one of their channels to just holiday movies. I'm thinking from a practical standpoint, that would be an ideal OTT play,. Essentially, what they're doing is taking a channel that everybody is used to doing one thing throughout the year, and then switching it over for three months, and then switching it back.

David Sayed: It will be interesting to see how many viewers they lose as a result of doing that, because it's-

Tim Siglin: Or gain and then lose in January when they go back to the regular schmaltzy Hallmark shows that aren't quite holiday-focused.

David Sayed: Brightcove Live is focused on both 24/7 and event-based live. What we've really tried to do is to really reduce the price point to make it a very, very cost-effective way of doing live.

Tim Siglin: Are there trial accounts that people can sign up for?

David Sayed: Yes. They should contact their Brightcove account manager or just submit an inquiry on our website and we'd be pleased to help them.

Tim Siglin: Fantastic. David, as always--

David Sayed: Tim, thank you very much.

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