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HEVC: Are We There Yet?

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Why am I making a distinction between publishers who use DRM and those that don’t? At this point, the Media Source Extensions seem relatively problem-free in terms of implementation. However, the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), which is the analogue designed to deliver standards-based DRM to HTML5, many implementation details are still up in the air ... While I expect MSE to very quickly take off in late 2014 or early 2015, I think it will take at least another 12-18 months before all the issues surrounding EME are resolved, which will force many premium content publishers who do use DRM to stick with Flash.

HEVC Delivery to Mobile

Are we there yet? Nope, and the general consensus is that we won’t be until there’s a significant installed base of HEVC-accelerated smartphones and tablets.

Since neither Apple nor Google has licensed HEVC, mobile devices share the same player deficit as desktop and notebook computers, a problem that must be resolved before streaming to HEVC is possible. Beyond the player, the big issue with mobile, as you saw in many of the quotes above, is hardware acceleration, which translates to increased battery life and cooler operation. As an example, in an article titled “Media Players and Video Formats: A detailed Battery Live Analysis,” Techspot’s Tim Schiesser compared the battery life of devices playing back 1080p video encoded in H.264 and HEVC. Not surprisingly given its added complexity, HEVC cut battery life on a Lenovo Miix 2 8 tablet by about 50%, from 9.6 hours to 4.26 hours. From this, Schiesser concludes, “Finally, while HEVC is by far the most impressive format ... it’s extremely resource intensive to decode, especially on relatively weak tablet hardware. Until we get efficient hardware decoding for the format in future platforms, it’s unlikely we’ll see it overtake H.264 as the most popular video format.”

Going forward, there may be some confusion about what constitutes HEVC hardware decoding. For example, in an email, Aytac Biber, video product manager for Qualcomm, claimed that “It is important to note as of today, the latest processors in all of our Snapdragon tiers, from Snapdragon 800 series all the way to Snapdragon 200 series, are shipping with HEVC support.”

However, Avni Rambhia, industry manager, digital media for Frost & Sullivan, questions whether “HEVC support” is the same as “full hardware decode.” In response to Biber’s comments, Rambhia says, “For mobile devices, I am not aware of any complete hardware implementations of HEVC decode, which could mean limited battery life, throughput issues, degraded frame rate or potential overheating issues.”

I asked Qualcomm about Rambhia’s comment, and a company spokesperson responded: “Most Snapdragon processors include a low-power, programmable DSP. On devices using the Snapdragon 800 processor, we use this DSP for HEVC playback. For processors with newer architecture, such as the Snapdragon 805 and 810, we support HEVC playback accelerated with dedicated hardware.” Along these lines, Rambhia sees full hardware decode becoming generally available for mobile devices in the next 12-18 months, with general-purpose HEVC mobile deployments following soon thereafter.

Beyond general purpose streaming, there are several intriguing HEVC-related business models that will drive HEVC use and monetization going forward. One of the most prominent is Ericsson’s LTE Broadcast, which is essentially a monetizable platform for deploying multicast HEVC streams to mobile devices. Imagine you’re at a sporting event and can watch instant replays on your tablet or smartphone from your seat. Because of the efficiencies of multicast and HEVC, thousands can watch the same stream at the same time, which normally wouldn’t be possible over 4G or even Wi-Fi in such an enclosed space.

Mobile Delivery to OTT

Are we there yet? Yes, but the installed base is very, very small, and likely will be obsolete in the very short term. And most major content owners won’t remaster for 4K until some additional standards, de facto or otherwise, are set.

To date, most actual HEVC deployments have involved 4K videos within the OTT space, whether via smart TVs or set top boxes. For example, in the U.S., Netflix deploys HEVC on a handful of HEVC-capable 4K TVs. A recent trial by the Vienna State Opera was playable on “UltraHD smart TVs” while the 2014 French Open was viewing on various “UHD TV sets.” With 4K sets at Walmart at $500 and less, this market appears ready to explode.

Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll see a number of issues that indicate a tumultuous next 12-36 months. This will keep most content owners from mastering their content libraries for 4K viewing, and will likely burn most, if not all, early adopters of UHD TV sets, and potentially those investing in ancillary encoding and decoding equipment.

Here’s the story, which I got from a Hollywood executive who desired to remain nameless, and many Hollywood service providers who desired to do the same. Many content providers have significant libraries that can be converted for UHD display, whether it’s film that can be rescanned, digital content that can be upscaled, or content shot in 4K that was originally mastered for HD distribution. TV manufacturers are asking them to prepare this content for 4K distribution.

The problem is, major studios and broadcasters know that on most 4K TV sets at normal living room viewing distances, 4K footage viewed on an existing 4K TV set won’t look much different than HD video viewed on a 1080p display. So they’re waiting for 4K sets that support 10-bit displays, higher dynamic range displays, or both, which will necessitate remastering, but will make their content look much better than existing 1080p displays. In their view, more colors and greater dynamic range delivers a better experience than simply adding pixels.

There are several competing high dynamic range standards, including Dolby’s Dolby Vision, a technology from Technicolor, and several totally proprietary technologies already implemented by TV set manufacturers. At this point, it’s unclear which will win. At the very least, content owners will likely have to encode differently for each system, and may have to master differently as well. So there will be little conversion of existing libraries until a winner emerges.

Dolby has already signed on three TV makers, Sharp, Vizio, and TCL, and several streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Xbox Video, so it appears to have the early lead. Vizio showed its 4K reference screen at CES 2014, and some units with either Dolby or the other high dynamic range technologies are expected to ship in 2014. So the sets are coming, and they’re coming soon.

To produce Dolby Vision-compatible video, content owners will have to remaster their content to optimize use of the additional color space and dynamic range. To encode to HEVC, they’ll need to create a sidecar file with metadata containing the mapping information required by the spec. Of course, there are few if any, encoders that currently can produce that file, though it should be a simple upgrade. While many existing HEVC decoders should be able to decode Dolby Vision-encoded video, of course they won’t be able to display the higher dynamic range.

Regular 4K on the left; simulated Dolby Vision on the right 

To be fair, within the next 2-3 years, economies of scale will dictate that virtually all TV sets are 4K, and that all set-top boxes include both HEVC and H.264 decode, even if initially deployed for H.264. So 4K and HEVC decode will essentially be free. But then, you have to actually deliver the 4K streams, and for systems that rely on the general internet, that’s a major problem.

Netflix distributes its 4K video at 15Mbps. According to Netflix’s own USA ISP Speed Index, the top average speed during prime time in June 2014 was 3.1Mbps. So at least in the U.S., the value proposition for 4K OTT video to the great masses appears attenuated at best.

Average delivery bandwidth during prime time June 2014, according to Netflix’s USA ISP Speed Index 

To summarize the OTT opportunity, you’ve got limited content, display technology with the lifespan of a ripe banana, and no sustainable ability to deliver the streams. Are you sure this is a market you want to invest in? Clearly, there will be opportunities in totally new OTT installations, as opposed to system upgrades, particularly overseas where delivery bandwidths are higher, but the overall short-term picture appears relatively bleak.

There are many discrete markets where HEVC is taking hold, whether for live event or broadcast contribution, in-flight systems, and the aforementioned LTE broadcasts. And the encoding world is clearly ready. But beyond the bleeding edge early adapters, in most broad-based markets, HEVC is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Streaming Media as "HEVC: Are We There Yet?"

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