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Why HEVC Is Coming Faster Than You Think

High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC, was the star of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. After all, what’s not to love about a breathtaking new compression technology that can maintain visual quality while shrinking video into nearly half the file size? The benefits of HEVC are clear and will help promote and streamline video distribution. Content owners could store more video and movies for the same cost, broadcasters could stream video more efficiently across networks, and consumers could enjoy a much better entertainment experience as video is more easily streamed directly to all their devices.

While nobody denies that HEVC is a significant leap forward, there is some argument over when the technology will be embraced by the market. Is the timeframe for mainstream adoption five years, three years or two years out? In actuality, the opportunity for HEVC may be even more immediate.

In the Beginning

First a little background. Since the early days of video delivery, there have been several big jumps in codecs and compression technology. The first was MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 ASP. Then came MPEG-4 ASP to Advanced Video Coding (AVC). And now we have AVC to HEVC. These were all advancements, but it took the industry years to transition to the new standards. A case in point is the broadcast industry. Many broadcasters are still using MPEG-2 and have yet to make the switch to MPEG-4 AVC, despite the obvious gains in compression.

So why will HEVC be different? For one thing, video is more important today than ever before. More than any other technology, digital video is driving the future of communications and the internet. Indeed, a recent study conducted by Rovi found that approximately 66 % of tablet users and 71% of mobile phone users across the U.S. view video on those device 2 to 3 times per week or more. At the same time, mobile device users indicated they are worried about costs related to streaming video. Approximately half of the respondents say that they limit the amount of video streamed on their mobile phones over cost concerns. Couple this with slow load times and all too frequent pauses in the action due to buffering, and it’s easy to see why consumers would welcome HEVC.

The HEVC Advantage

HEVC can reduce those worries. Those who enjoy watching videos on smartphones but are wary of a big bill at the end of the month will benefit most as the expense of digital video delivery over mobile networks is reduced. Today, video is the enemy of most data plans. A few days on Netflix can obliterate any bandwidth cap. But with HEVC squeezing down compression rates, consumers could watch more video at a lower overall cost.

What’s more, as devices start supporting HEVC playback at the chip level, the processing power required to play these videos will decrease, saving battery life and, in general, improving the overall experience with mobile video.

For device makers, HEVC is one of the few ways to really improve their hardware and gain competitive advantage by giving consumers better, faster, cheaper digital video.  It’s also a strong incentive to quickly introduce new devices that are HEVC-compatible. Some say it will be years before the hardware is ready in to handle HEVC. The truth, however, is that chip companies are planning to release HEVC decoders very soon. By the end of this year, there will be PCs and smartphones on the market that can play high definition HEVC streams in real-time.

The Rise of 4K

Another huge momentum builder for HEVC adoption is 4K (3840x2160) video. 4K offers mind-blowing clarity and represents a major step up from 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) at 4 times the number of pixels. The problem, of course, is that 4K files are massive. But with a compression standard like HEVC, 4K suddenly becomes feasible.  In fact, 4K could become the killer application for HEVC, like HD was for AVC. 

It is now possible to play 4K video on hardware that uses plug-in power, and it is only a matter of time before 4K becomes practical for laptops, mobile devices, and even digital cameras. What consumer wouldn’t love a 4K video camera, especially if they can get jaw-dropping resolution and higher compression that makes it easier than ever to share and enjoy state-of-the-art photos and home videos? Also, still images are in the 4k range for resolution, and once consumers’ experience breathtakingly high resolutions on their screens, they will help drive demand for 4K screens.

And now that cloud storage has entered the mainstream, the economic advantages of HEVC become even clearer. Many cloud companies are charging a fee for anything beyond basic storage capacity, forcing consumers to pick and choose what they put in the cloud. But with HEVC, consumers can store more home video and photos, as well as hundreds of hours of entertainment and movies, while saving money in the process.

Taking the Leap

HEVC could also act as a catalyst for infrastructure players like broadcasters. It’s conceivable that many broadcasters, especially those still stuck in the MPEG-2 era, will look at huge jump offered by HEVC and say, “Wow, now is the time to make the move.”

Of course, there are also economic forces that come into play. If these large players don’t act soon, they will be even less competitive because they are not compressing video as efficiently as their rivals. And, with 4K on the horizon, broadcasters and cable providers will certainly feel the pressure to start offering more products and services to compete with the likes of Netflix and Hulu that are in a position to adapt more quickly.

Finally, unlike in the past, the entire ecosystem is firmly in place to drive the rapid adoption of HEVC. Compression technology today is tightly linked to things like digital rights management and adaptive streaming. Moreover, hardware and software vendors are solidly integrated into the ecosystem, enabling them to take advantage of new standards like HEVC faster than ever.

With the explosion in online video and connected devices, consumers will be on the receiving end of a bonanza of high-quality, low-bandwidth entertainment. And the best part: it’s all going to happen a lot sooner than you think.

[Editor's Note: This is a vendor-written article. StreamingMedia.com accepts vendor-written articles based upon their usefulness to our readers.]

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