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Q&A With Microsoft's Ben Waggoner

In preparation for my June/July Streaming Media magazine feature "The Right Profile," I spoke with Ben Waggoner, program manager on Microsoft’s codecs team, about the ins and outs of Microsoft’s new Windows Media Video codecs. Here’s the full interview. Since there’s so much "Windows Media vs. Flash" debate these days, I also spoke with Adobe’ Chris Hoch; that interview is available here.

What’s the relationship between Windows Media Video 9 and VC-1?
This has admittedly been confusing. VC-1 is the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) designation for the standardized codec also known as Windows Media Video 9 (WMV). They’re the same thing, technically. You can think of WMV as the name of Microsoft’s implementation of VC-1. However, we’re increasingly moving toward the use of the VC-1 name to simplify things and avoid confusion.

That said, VC-1 was designed as a comprehensive codec that scales from HD (shipping in HD DVD and Blu-ray players today) all the way down to mobile devices, including mobile phones. By making VC-1 widely and openly available as a SMPTE standard we were able to achieve one of our primary goals of enabling even greater accessibility and adoption of this advanced codec in the industry. Additionally, a patent pool was created by MPEG LA for VC-1 to provide uniform licensing terms and transparency to third parties.

What’s new with your codecs?
We delivered an updated version of the VC-1 encoder coinciding with the latest Windows Media Player release last fall that brought some improved efficiencies. But the latest and most significant development is our new commercial Microsoft VC-1 Encoder SDK (software developer kit), which we announced at NAB.

As many of your readers involved in the broader compression world likely know, we’ve made significant investments in VC-1 and its use in HD DVD and Blu-ray, and have been providing advanced VC-1 encoder technology to the major studios for disc authoring for some time. It has been a huge success, with industry leading quality results, not to mention the technology's popularity - with more than 90% of all HD DVD discs authored in the U.S. using our solution.

Now we're making these same core techniques used by Hollywood studios broadly available through the Microsoft VC-1 Encoder SDK. The capabilities in this latest SDK will offer substantial quality and performance improvements for picture quality, faster encode times, new optimization for various distribution channels, and an easy process for integrating future updates.

Special features have also been customized for market segments such as optical discs to enable parallel encoding for significant speed improvement, as well as segment-based re-encoding, which allows users to re-encode only a portion of content that would benefit from another encode.

Some solution examples from early adopters were shown at NAB, including Rhozet, which showcased faster than real-time HD VC-1 encoding using a grid setup with their Carbon product. Inlet also showcased real-time streaming of VC-1 at full D1 resolution with very high quality using their Spinnaker product. We anticipate a number of additional partner solutions will be announced over the next few months.

For the Microsoft VC-1 Encoder SDK there are four different versions, targeting different markets:
- Pro SDK—offers performance and quality improvements for existing professional compression products focusing on offline encoding of video on demand and physical format scenarios.
- Enterprise SDK—extends our Pro SDK with support for grid encoding and segment re-encoding.
- Live SDK—enhances features aimed at real time linear encoding. It adds key improvements such as a better constant bit rate (CBR) control, and a mechanism to adjust the right set of codec features on the fly. It also offers the best quality with changing content, support for ad Insertion, closed captioning, etc.

- Hardware SDK—supports hardware acceleration for any of the Pro, Enterprise, or Live SDKs. Our long-time partner Tarari will be launching the Hardware SDK with us.

Why is this significant?
It’s always great when you get better looking and sounding content, faster. You get those by just installing the new codecs. Beyond that, we have a lot of additional parameters that have been implemented to allow further tuning of quality. I wrote an article in the November/December 2006 Streaming Media magazine outlining these.

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