The Coming H.265 Wave: What it Means for Businesses
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Over the 13 years that I have been in the encoding industry, many different codecs have been introduced. Each codec provided various benefits for the quality and delivery challenges of the times:
- MPEG-2 has long been the codec of choice for both DVD and broadcast delivery
- Sorenson Video 3 codec was built for high quality video and worked great for progressive download and CD-ROM videos
- Sorenson Spark codec was aimed at delivering video quickly for more immediate playback on the bandwidths of the time
As time went on and bandwidth on both the web and disk increased, we eventually saw the delivery and adoption of H.264, which was adopted for playback on both disk -- via Blu-ray -- and the web through every popular web format and device.
H.264 is a high-quality codec that has been able to fit well into modern delivery formats and has become the undisputed champion and standard of codecs.
Since this is the case, why would one of the most talked about topics at this year's International Broadcasters Conference (IBC) be HEVC (H.265)? Who needs it, and what does anyone have to gain from it? If it is indeed on its way, how can both producers and consumers prepare for it, and how will it impact production and delivery workflows?
Who Needs HEVC and Who Gains from It?
The simple answer is anyone who is producing, consuming, or delivering modern video. Video producers are always looking for ways to improve their video quality, while consumers want the best viewing experience and content distributors need to optimize content storage and delivery bandwidth to maximize profitability. Over the last 10 years we have seen web video resolutions climb from 240p with data rates around 512 Kbps, to resolutions as high as 1080p with data rates in the 3 Mbps range for the web, the 5 to 10 Mbps range for devices, and as high as 15 Mbps for broadcast and 20 Mbps for Blu-ray.
While adaptive bit rate (ABR) technologies offer a smooth way to deliver high-quality streams, consumers don't always get the highest quality streams available because of constraints like available internet bandwidth. As more consumers go online for programming, the web becomes more congested which results in the delivery of lower quality video. It is foreseeable that we'll have HEVC/H.265 within an ABR standard -- such as MPEG DASH -- in the near future, combining the best elements of a highly efficient video codec with a highly efficient delivery mechanism.
As web delivery offers better quality and accessibility, terrestrial broadcasting and disc technology providers are starting to feel market pressure to offer higher quality in the form of video resolutions like 4K and 8K.
The reality is, the entire video industry is pushing to deliver higher and higher quality to the consumer, but bandwidth delivery constraints are real. With those pressures come the demand for efficiency.
This is where HEVC comes in. HEVC has the potential to deliver the same resolutions at half the data rate of H.264. This creates new opportunities in the video chain that don't exist with H.264. Content distributors can deliver 1080p video while maintaining the same storage constraints, or they can maintain 480p and 720p resolutions and cut their storage needs in half.
How Can Producers and Consumers Prepare for HEVC?
While HEVC is much more efficient than H.264, it is also more processor intensive. When new codecs first arrive on the market, the devices that need to decode the codec don't really exist for a couple of reasons: They either don't yet have the software to decode it or they don't have a processor that is optimized or powerful enough. For example, to play back Sorenson Spark today, you simply need to have the Flash player on your computer. That being said, many mobile devices also needed to have optimized processors for it. An optimized device (decoder on chip) can decode 30fps whereas a non-optimized device may only be able to decode at 3fps.
A similar situation is likely with HEVC. I wouldn't be surprised to see that some computers and devices shipped today will only require software/firmware updates to support HEVC decoding. Will some consumers have to upgrade to new devices and computers to properly decode HEVC? Of course! That is usually the case when new technologies like this arrive.
As for content producers, they will likely see the demand for their content in this codec come from distributors as they slowly transition their distribution chain with support for HEVC. Support for this codec will exist in their familiar tools before that ever happens.
With HEVC encoders just around the corner, we will soon see how this plays out, but if the history of H.264 is an accurate gauge for it's successor, we have a great -- and inevitable -- future ahead with HEVC.
Randon Morford is the director of desktop and core technology development at Sorenson Media, where he began working in 2003. He is a 13-year veteran of the video compression industry, and an influential voice in the online video space.
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