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NAB Roundup: The State of HEVC, AV1, and Proprietary Codecs

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At the launch party, Netflix's director of encoding algorithms Anne Aaron, stated "Encoding time, right now, is very, very slow. ...But I'm hopeful and I know that, I expect the complexity to go down. Probably around 5-10 times more complex than VP9, that's what we're expecting. Or if it's around that range, that's okay with us." (For the complete Aaron interview, click here). 

For applications like contribution, where HEVC is just starting to make serious inroads, AV1 seems like a non-starter for at least 24 months, perhaps even longer. 

That said, AOMedia member companies are pushing forward, with AV1 playback in experimental versions of Chrome and Firefox available today. In her interview, Aaron said that "we've integrated the AV1 codec into our pipeline and basic encoding framework, and we've seen really good results. We hope that decoders and browsers can start playing them so we can deploy our streams." Similar intentions came from YouTube, which should start deploying AV1 streams in the relative short term. 

In terms of decode complexity, a Mozilla demo in the Bitmovin booth showed 1080p playback on a Dell consumer-class notebook at less than 50% utilization. During one non-recorded conversations, I recall the estimate of 2-3 times more CPU than VP9, which puts AV1 decode close that for HEVC decode via unaccelerated CPU. Of course, most HEVC is now decoded via hardware in a CPU or graphics chip, making it much more efficient than AV1.

(For an interview with Christian Feldmann detailing Bitmovin's AV1 quality comparisons, click here).

Over the next twelve months, AV1 will cost (at best) 5-10x VP9 to encode, and will only play on reasonably well powered computers with current browsers. Though the quality is alluring, this makes AV1 a non-starter in the short to medium term for the vast majority of producers. 

Other Codecs and Encoders

So, HEVC deployment has and continues to be slowed by a ham-handed royalty policy while AV1 has a short-term cost/benefit profile suitable for the highest volume producers. That leaves a gap that (at least) two codecs are trying to leverage. 

Famously launched on April Fool's Day in 2015, V-Nova's PERSEUS codec has spent the subsequent three years improving encoded quality and simplifying deployment. Uniquely able to leverage H.264 and HEVC hardware decoders that exist on a computer or mobile device, PERSEUS boasts very low playback requirements, and announced a licensing agreement with uCast just before the show. You can learn more about V-Nova's recent achievements in this interviewwith CEO Guido Meardi. 

Over the last few years, RealNetwork's RealMedia HD codec has become a leading codec in China, as evidenced by a recent agreement with the China International Broadcasting Network (CIBN). In this interview with CTO Reza Rassool, you can learn more about RealNetwork's plans to start penetrating domestic markets, and how RealMedia HD fared in a recent comparison with HEVC. 

Publishers requiring real time or high-density encoding of HEVC and VP9 should check out this interviewwith NGCodec's Oliver Gunasekara. NGCodec deploys Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA)-based encoders in the cloud, offering multiple-stream real-time encoding performance on a single cloud instance. 

Advanced Encoding Techniques

Beyond implementing new codecs, multiple vendors are seeking to make H.264 more efficient via advanced encoding techniques. For example, shortly before NAB, Bitmovin announced AI-driven encoding, as explained by CEO Stefan Lederer in this interview. "So, typical encoders have one- or two-pass encoding steps. What we do is, we add a third pass, driven by machine learning and AI to get a better feel how to distribute based on content, type, and length, and so on, and different characteristics. And that enables us, in the end, to have a more efficient encoding." This was just one of a flurry of important announcements for Bitmovin, who participated in the AV1 launch and also announced a $30 million financing round (Series B driven by Highland Europe).

In this interview, Mux CEO Jon Dahl presaged a coming announcement about data-driven encoding, commenting, "we have some pretty exciting work that we're going to be announcing soon, where we will do dynamic encoding ladders based on the content. And we'll do it very, very quickly."

Brightcove's Context Aware Encoding (CAE) has been around since late 2017, and it won a Best of NAB award. At NAB, Brightcove quantified the benefits of this encoding technology, announcing that customer Young Hollywood has saw a 20% savings in storage and 17% savings in bandwidth after implementing CAE. 

Also at the show, AWS Elemental announced "Quality-Defined Variable Bitrate Control (QVBR)," defined in a press release as "a video compression technique that automatically adjusts to the complexity of source content, maintaining high-quality video while reducing storage and distribution costs." In their booth, AWS Elemental demonstrated QVBR for both on-demand and live video, joining Harmonic as one of the few vendors with a live per-title encoding technology. 

Video optimization is a form of per-title encoding, and several vendors showed their wares at NAB. At the Bellagio, EuclidIQ showed Rithm, their AI driven content-adaptive encoding platform, which combines two patented technologies: Signal-Adaptive Bit Rate Estimation (SABRE) and Perceptual Quality Optimization (PQO) to deliver as much as 75% file size savings. 

Beamr showed a new implementation of their optimization technology in the Beamr Transcoder, which combines optimization with their H.264 and HEVC codecs. The Beamr Transcoder took home a Streaming Media Best of NAB award, and you can hear a description of the new product from Beamr VP of Strategy Tom Vaughan here.

Finally, newcomer ZPEG was also at the show, exhibiting the ZPEG Compression Preprocessor that it claims works with your H.264, VP9, MPEG-2, and HEVC encoders and delivers about 25% net savings without "objectionable artifacts." 

Interestingly, while adding a new codec like HEVC or AV1 is a major stressor that requires significant testing and additional player development, encoding, and storage costs, per-title encoding should be a relatively frictionless addition that delivers many of the same benefits. That is, though organizations will certainly need to perform some compatibility testing, implementing per-title in whatever form should work with existing infrastructures while delivering immediate bandwidth and storage savings. As stated by Bitmovin CEO Lederer, "So, you don't have to wait for new codecs to be in the market. You can apply those technologies on today's codecs, like, for example, H.264, and get a value gain out of that. And that's something that's appealing to a lot of customers."

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