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NAB 2019: NGCodec Talks Hardware-Based High-Quality Live Video Encoding


Jan Ozer: Jan Ozer here from the show floor at NAB. I'm with Oliver for NGCodec, Oliver has achieved one name status like so many other celebrities because his second name is unpronounceable. Oliver's company NGCodec does FPGA-based [field programmable gate array] encoding both on-premises and in the cloud and last year we looked at, I guess VP9 was it? Or...

Oliver Gunasekara: VP9 and HEVC.

Jan Ozer: And now we're showing higher-density versions of the HEVC and VP9 and some other or, not the VP9, HEVC And we're looking at also AV1 and H.264 encoding. So what are you showing here at the booth?

Oliver Gunasekara: Yeah, so were basically showing our live HEVC 4k60 encoder using cloud FPGAs and we believe we have the lowest bitrate for the highest VQ

Jan Ozer: Okay, what's the density on that?

Oliver Gunasekara: So, in a single Xilinx FPGA we can do a single 4k30 or two 1080p60s and if we use two FPGAs together just like we have in this small server here we can do a single 4k60. But the key is really the bitrate, we're not a density play, we're an ultra-low bitrate for incredible quality.

Jan Ozer: And when you say 4k60 you mean the full ladder right?

Oliver Gunasekara: Exactly, so in the demo that we have behind you, we're actually encoding the whole ladder. So you can see the 240p all the way up to 4k and all of that is being encoded in parallel at the same time on the one FPGA card. And I did want to point out this 4k at 24 frames a second, this video that your readers may not be able to see over the video but, is just 4 megabits per second. And I think you would say for 4k at 4 megabits, that's pretty state of the art. Live.

Jan Ozer: Yeah pretty impressive, so what's the use case, what interests have you, you know how mature is your product? Has anyone bought it? Who's showing interest?

Oliver Gunasekara: Yeah, so we announced at the end of last year that Amazon Twitch is a customer. That's a customer for our VP9, we did a joint press release with them and they are using FPGAs in their infrastructure in their cloud to encode, and they ultimately send a huge amount of video. And so, having better compression makes the economics better but also improves the user experience because, you know, in a compressed world if the networks get congested we fall back in the ABR ladder. So by using better compression we can go to higher renditions and so that's ultimately what we do.

Jan Ozer: Okay, they're doing 1080p60 and who's showing interest in the 4k HEVC?

Oliver Gunasekara: A lot of interest but nothing I can say on the record, you know because customers are a little sensitive about what you say. I would say a lot of interest in China. We're also live, not only on the AWS but also on the Alibaba Cloud and the Huawei Cloud. And so a lot of interest in China, in all areas including 4k but also lower resolution.

Jan Ozer: Okay and what are you doing for AV1 and H.264?

Oliver Gunasekara: Yeah, so AV1 we actually believe we have the first hardware AV1 encoder here at the show. Obviously there are software encoders but we do hardware and we do live. So that's actually running over there. We're showing 4k30 or 1080p60, two 1080p60s but it is a proof of concept, it is all 100% running in the FPGA but its not a finished product meaning its only iFrame-only. So its not something that can yet be deployed, we'll make it commercially available early next year.

Jan Ozer: Okay and you put off H.264 until last was that because you thought you'd get the most bang for your early development buck with VP9 and HEVC or?

Oliver Gunasekara: If I'm honest when we started the company almost 7 years ago, we kind of thought that 264 was done, but we were so wrong. You know, we founded the company on the back of HEVC and we believed that it would take over the planet, that did not happen. The pattern issues caused challenges and the reality today is, you know the 264 is still the dominant codec for streaming and so we've decided to go back and bring out 264. In fact that's what we've prioritized over AV1 and so we should have that before the end of the year. We believe we can do incredible VQ using hardware. We're targeting X264 very slow and we're reusing all of the techniques we've developed on the more advanced codecs, importing them back.

Jan Ozer: Okay, what's the, are you doing 10-bit or 8-bit on the HEVC side, and what's the HDR picture look like from your perspective?

Oliver Gunasekara: We are doing 10-bit and we are somewhat agnostic to which HDR format you want to use because it's really metadata so as long as we can do 10-bit and make sure we deal with the chroma information slightly differently, we can support HDR10, Dolby Vision, or any of the other variants.

Jan Ozer: Okay, Intel and Netflix made a pretty big announcement with AV1 encoding in software on specified Xeon devices. What do you know about that and what's your perspective on it?

Oliver Gunasekara: So, obviously Netflix is a file-based encoder so its not live, and so it really doesn't matter how long it takes although it does incur a cost, and what we believe is, it's really a variant of their VP9.

Jan Ozer: When you say variant you mean...

Oliver Gunasekara: So Intel bought a company called eBrisk which they then open-sourced and that is the team that has delivered this. And what they did for time to market was take their VP9 implementation and just remove all the functionality that is not appropriate for AV1, tweak the syntax to have a legal AV1. So the end result is, it is an AV1 encoder but it doesn't perform anywhere near like the capabilities that AV1 can deliver. That will come in the future.

Jan Ozer: Speaking of that, where do you see your AV1 encoder quality compared to H.264 and HEVC?

Oliver Gunasekara: So obviously with encoders you have to compare it against something because the standard only defines the decoding as you know very well. So, compared to our own HEVC, which we believe is best in class, we think we can do at least 10% bitrate reduction for the same visual quality. That is are target for the release of that product. First release.

Jan Ozer: When will that be out?

Oliver Gunasekara: First quarter next year, maybe first half. It somewhat depends on demand. You know we, as we are using programmable hardware. Its easy for us to keep enhancing and so the question is, do customers prefer us to improve the VQ of our existing encoders or deliver AV1 and so, right now we're seeing more demand for enhancing what we've got whilst people wait for decoder support on AV1.

Jan Ozer: You mentioned eBrisk, the company that Intel bought. What is scalable video technology and how does it—it looks like Intel's going to be putting out a platform that's got open-source, HEVC, H.264, VP9 based on this SVT—how does that work and what does that do for codec companies like yourself, for MainConcept, for some others?

Oliver Gunasekara: I think it basically means that software encoding will become or is a commodity. You have decent open source and so I believe it becomes, as a commercial implementation, harder and harder to make money because you have good open source and it's a commodity. Fortunately, we don't do software; hardware is heavily differentiated, and why is Intel doing this? It's very simple: They want to sell very expensive CPUs and the highest-end CPUs. So Intel strategy is to optimize their code to run on the latest high-end, super-expensive CPUs. Which actually very few people deploy because it's too expensive.

Jan Ozer: Is that hardware or is it software, or could you argue either way?

Oliver Gunasekara: I think Intel's strategy is software, I mean they have a very, very large business. We estimate 95% of cloud encoding is done in software on Intel platform. Billions of dollars of business; they're trying to defend that business and help it. We are coming from a different direction, we believe ultimately hardware is what is needed to get the best out of these codecs and with AV1, I don't believe you will get anywhere near the capabilities for live with software.

Jan Ozer: Okay, listen, thanks for your time and have a good show.

Oliver Gunasekara: Thank you so much.

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