Video: Outlook on the future codec landscape

VVC has now been released, MPEG’s successor to HEVC. But what is it? And whilst it brings 50% bitrate savings over HEVC, how does it compare to other codecs like AV1 and the other new MPEG standards? This primer answers these questions and more.

Christian Feldmann from Bitmovin starts by looking at four of the current codecs, AVC, HEVC, VP9 and AV1. VP9 isn’t often heard about in traditional broadcast circles, but it’s relatively well used online as it’s supported on Android phones and brings bitrate savings over AVC. Google use VP9 on Youtube for compatible players and see a higher retention rate. Netflix and Twitch also use it. AV1 is also in use by the tech giants, though its use outside of those who built it (Netflix, Facebook etc.) is not yet apparent. Christian looks at the compatibility of the codecs, hardware decoding, efficiency and cost.

Looking now at the other upcoming MPEG codecs, Christian examines MPEG-5 Essential Video Coding (EVC) which has two profiles: Baseline and Main. The baseline profile only uses technologies which are old enough to be outside of patent claims. This allows you to use the codec without the concern that you may be asked for a fee from a patent holder who comes out of the woodwork. The main profile, however, does have patented technology and performs better. Businesses which wish to use this codec can then pay licences but if an unexpected patent holder appears, each individual tool in the codec can be disabled, allowing you to protect continue using, albeit without that technology. Whilst it is a shame that patents are so difficult to account for, this shows MPEG has taken seriously the situation with HEVC which famously has hundreds of licensable patents with over a third of eligible companies not part of a patent pool. EVC performs 32% better than AVC using the baseline profile and 25% better than HEVC with the main profile.

Next under the magnifying glass is Low Complexity Enhancement Video Coding (LCEVC). We’ve already heard about this on The Broadcast Knowledge from Guido, CEO of V-Nova who gave a deeper look at Demuxed 2019 and more recently at Streaming Media West. Whilst those are detailed talks, this is a great overview of the technology which is actually a hybrid approach to encoding. It allows you to take any existing codec such as AVC, AV1 etc. and put LCEVC on top of it. Using both together allows you to run your base encoder at a lower resolution (say HD instead of UHD) and then deliver to the decoder this low-resolution encode plus a small stream of enhancement information which the decoder uses to bring the video back up to size and add back in the missing detail. The big win here, as the name indicates, is that this method is very flexible and can take advantage of all sorts of available computing power in embedded technology as and in servers. In set-top boxes, parts of the SoC which aren’t used can be put to use. In phones, both the onboard HEVC decoding chip and the CPU can be used. It’s also useful in for automated workflows as the base codec stream is smaller and hence easier to decode, plus the enhancement information concentrates on the edges of objects so can be used on its own by AI/machine learning algorithms to more readily analyse video footage. Encoding time drops by over a third for AVC and EVC.

Now, Christian looks at the codec-du-jour, Versatile Video Codec (VVC), explaining that its enhancements over HEVC come not just from bitrate improvements but techniques which better encode screen content (i.e. computer games), allow for better 360 degree video and reduce delay. Subjective results show up to 50% improvement. For more detail on VVC, check out this talk from Microsoft’s Gary Sullivan.

The talk finishes with answers so audience questions: Which will be the winner, what future device & hardware support will be and which is best for real-time streaming.

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Speakers

Christian Feldmann Christian Feldmann
Team lead, Encoding,
Bitmovin

Video: Futuristic Codecs and a Healthy Obsession with Video Startup Time

These next 12 months are going to see 3 new MPEG standards being released. What does this mean for the industry? How useful will they be and when can we start using them? MPEG’s coming to the market with a range of commercial models to show it’s learning from the mistakes of the past so it should be interesting to see the adoption levels in the year after their release. This is part of the second session of the Vienna Video Tech Meetup and delves into startup time for streaming services.

In the first talk, Dr. Christian Feldmann explains the current codec landscape highlighting the ubiquitous AVC (H.264), UHD’s friend, HEVC (H.265), and the newer VP9 & AV1. The latter two differentiate themselves by being free to used and are open, particularly AV1. Whilst slow, both the latter are seeing increasing adoption in streaming, but no one’s suggesting that AVC isn’t still the go-to codec for most online streaming.

Christian then introduces the three new codecs, EVC (Essential Video Coding), LCEVC (Low-Complexity Enhancement Video Coding) and VVC (Versatile Video Coding) all of which have different aims. We start by looking at EVC whose aim is too replicate the encoding efficiency of HEVC, but importantly to produce a royalty-free baseline profile as well as a main profile which improves efficiency further but with royalties. This will be the first time that you’ve been able to use an MPEG codec in this way to eliminate your liability for royalty payments. There is further protection in that if any of the tools is found to have patent problems, it can be individually turned off, the idea being that companies can have more confidence in deploying the new technology.

The next codec in the spotlight is LCEVC which uses an enhancement technique to encode video. The aim of this codec is to enable lower-end hardware to access high resolutions and/or lower bitrates. This can be useful in set-top boxes and for online streaming, but also for non-broadcast applications like small embedded recorders. It can achieve a light improvement in compression over HEVC, but it’s well known that HEVC is very computationally heavy.

LCEVC reduces computational needs by only encoding a lower resolution version (say, SD) of the video in a codec of your choice, whether that be AVC, HEVC or otherwise. The decoder will then decode this and upscale the video back to the original resolution, HD in this example. This would look soft, normally, but LCEVC also sends enhancement data to add back in the edges and detail that would have otherwise been lost. This can be done in CPU whilst the other decoding could be done by the dedicated AVC/HEVC hardware and naturally encoding/decoding a quarter-resolution image is much easier than the full resolution.

Lastly, VVC goes under the spotlight. This is the direct successor to HEVC and is also known as H.266. VVC naturally has the aim of improving compression over HEVC by the traditional 50% target but also has important optimisations for more types of content such as 360 degree video and screen content such as video games.

To finish this first Vienna Video Tech Meetup, Christoph Prager lays out the reasons he thinks that everyone involved in online streaming should obsess about Video Startup Time. After defining that he means the time between pressing play and seeing the first frame of video. The longer that delay, the assumption is that the longer the wait, the more users won’t bother watching. To understand what video streaming should be like, he examines Spotify’s example who have always had the goal of bringing the audio start time down to 200ms. Christophe points to this podcast for more details on what Spotify has done to optimise this metric which includes activating GUI elements before, strictly speaking, they can do anything because the audio still hasn’t loaded. This, however, has an impact of immediacy with perception being half the battle.

“for every additional second of startup delay, an additional 5.8% of your viewership leaves”

Christophe also draws on Akamai’s 2012 white paper which, among other things, investigated how startup time puts viewers off. Christophe also cites research from Snap who found that within 2 seconds, the entirety of the audience for that video would have gone. Snap, of course, to specialise in very short videos, but taken with the right caveats, this could indicate that Akamai’s numbers, if the research was repeated today, may be higher for 2020. Christophe finishes up by looking at the individual components which go towards adding latency to the user experience: Player startup time, DRM load time, Ad load time, Ad tag load time.

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Speakers

Christian Feldmann Dr. Christian Feldmann
Team Lead Encoding,
Bitmovin
Christoph Prager Christoph Prager
Product Manager, Analytics
Bitmovin
Markus Hafellner Markus Hafellner
Product Manager, Encoding
Bitmovin

Video: LCEVC – The Latest MPEG Standard

Video is so pervasive in our world that we need to move past thinking of codecs and compression being about reducing bitrate. That will always be a major consideration, but speed of compression and the computation needed can also be deal breakers. Millions of embedded devices need to encode video which don’t have the grunt available to the live AV1-encoding clusters in the cloud. Further more, the structure of the final data itself can be important for later processing and decoding. So we can see how use-cases can arise out needs of various industries, far beyond broadcast, which mean that codecs need to do more than make files small.

This year LCEVC from MPEG will be standardised. Called Low Complexity Enhancement Video Coding, this codec provides compression both where computing is constrained and where it is plentiful. Guido Meardi, CEO of V-Nova, talks us through what LCEVC is starting with a chart showing how computation has increased vastly as compression has improved. It’s this trend that this codec intends to put an end to by adding, Guido explains, an enhancement layer over some lower-resolution video. By encoding a lower-resolution, computational processing is minimised. When displayed, an enhancement layer allows this low resolution video to be sharpened again to bring it back to the original.

After demonstrating the business benefits, we see the block diagram of the encoder and decoder which helps visualise how this enhancement might be calculated and work. Guido then shows us what the enhancement layer looks like – a fairy flat image with lots of thin edges on it but, importantly, it also captures a lot of almost random detail which can’t be guessed by upsamplers. This, of course, is the point. If it were possible to upscale the low-resolution video and guess/infer all the data, then we would always do that. Rather, downscaling and upscaling is a lossy process. Here, that loss is worth it because of the computational gains and because the enhancement layer will put back much of what was once lost.

In order to demonstrate LCEVC’s ability, Guido shows graphs comparing LCEVC at UHD for x264 showing improvements of between 20 and 45% and image examples of artefacts which are avoided using LCEVC. We then see that when applied to AVC, HEVC and VVC it speeds up encodes at least two fold. Guido finishes this presentation showing how you can test out the encoder and decoder yourself.

The last segment of this video, Tarek Amara from Twitch sits down to talk with Guido about the codec and the background behind it. Their talk covers V-Nova’s approach to open source, licensing, LCEVC’s gradual improvements as it went through the proving process as part of MPEG standardisation plus questions from the floor.

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Speakers

Guido Meardi Guido Meardi
CEO & Co-Founder,
V-Nova
Tarek Amara Tarek Amara
Principal Video Specialist,
Twitch

Video: A paradigm shift in codec standards – MPEG-5 Part 2 LCEVC

LCEVC (Low Complexity Enhancement Video Coding) is a low-complexity encoder/decoder is in the process of standardisation as MPEG-5 Part 2. Instead of being an entirely new codec, LCEVC improves detail and sharpness of any base video codec (e.g., AVC, HEVC, AV1, EVC or VVC) while lowering the overall computational complexity expanding the range of devices that can access high quality and/or low-bitrate video.

The idea is to use a base codec at lower resolution and add additional layer of encoded residuals to correct artifacts. Details are encoded with directional decomposition transform using a very small matrix (2×2 or 4×4) which is efficient at preserving high frequencies. As LCEVC uses parallelized techniques to reconstruct the target resolution, it encodes video faster than a full resolution base encoder.

LCEVC allows for enhancement layers to be added on top of existing bitstreams, so for example UHD resolution can be used where only HD was possible before thanks to sharing decoding between the ASIC and CPU. LCEVC can be decoded via light software processing, and even via HTML5.

In this presentation Guido Meardi from V-Nova introduces LCEVC and answers a few imporant question including: is it suitable for very high quality / bitrates compression and will it work with future codecs. He also shows performance data and benchmarks for live and VoD streaming, illustrating the compression quality and encoding complexity benefits achievable with LCEVC as an enhancement to H.264, HEVC and AV1.

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Speaker

Guido Meardi
CEO and Co-Founder
V-Nova Ltd.