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HEVC: Coming Soon to a Device Near You

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 3:19pm
Kanaan Jemili, SVP, Product Management, Rovi

Build it and they will come. It sounds nice. But real life doesn’t always work that way, especially life in the field of high technology.

Case in point: Developers have introduced what promises to be a revolutionary technology, High-Efficiency Video Compression (HEVC), that makes ultra-HD video practical and is expected to improve consumers’ viewing experience across a range of platforms. HEVC/H.265 supports resolutions up to 8K, delivers compression 50 percent better than its predecessor, H.264, and enables cheaper online transmission.

It’s built. HEVC is here. But we’re all still waiting for two essential players—hardware makers and content creators—to come to the game.

First, a little history. Since the early days of video delivery, there have been several big jumps in compression technology. The first was MPEG-2 to MPEG-4. Then came MPEG-4 to Advanced Video Coding (AVC). And now we have AVC to HEVC.

These were all serious advancements, but it took the industry years to adopt the new standards. A case in point is the broadcast industry. Many broadcasters are still stuck on MPEG-2 and have not even made the switch to MPEG-4, despite the obvious gains in compression.

The chicken or the egg?

It’s a similar problem with HEVC. Content producers don’t want to invest in the technology needed to create HEVC programming without a significant installed base of HEVC-capable playback devices. And hardware manufacturers don’t want to invest in HEVC players until there’s more HEVC content available for playback.

So viewers wait, their screens frozen by this classic chicken-and-egg problem. And really, it’s the consumers who suffer. They’re the ones who could enjoy a much better entertainment experience as video is seamlessly and cheaply streamed directly to all their devices.

Indeed, a recent study conducted by Rovi found that approximately 90 percent of mobile device users across the U.S. and Western Europe have watched streaming video such as TV shows and movies on their tablets and smartphones. 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.

A fresh approach

What’s needed is a new approach, a way to de-scramble the picture.

One way to break the stalemate and drive adoption of HEVC is to go direct to consumers – to make available software that includes HEVC creation and playback support.

It’s a novel strategy. But it could very well work. When device manufacturers see all the high-quality HEVC content that consumers and prosumers are turning out, they’ll realize people want HEVC support in the devices they make.

In fact, 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 PCs, mobile device, and even digital cameras. What consumer wouldn’t love a 4K camera, especially if they can get jaw-dropping resolution and lower compression that makes it easier than ever to share and enjoy state-of-the-art photos and home videos?

And when Hollywood sees HEVC devices on the market—and realizes the technology will save money on delivery costs—it will start making HEVC content of its own.

A winning game plan

It’s a win-win-win scenario. Content producers and distributors win because HEVC enables them to deliver HD video to mobile devices over cellular connections at reduced bandwidth costs and to provide stunning 4K (and beyond) video to homes.

Device manufacturers win because HEVC will stimulate demand for a lucrative new generation of hardware.

And consumers win because HEVC enables seamless streaming of high-resolution entertainment experiences to all their devices at half the bandwidth. And, thanks to HEVC’s quantum leap in compression, consumers can store much more video at home—hundreds of hours’ worth – for less money.

In fact, consumers who enjoy watching videos on smartphones but are wary of that 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.

It’s conceivable that even 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. With 4K on the horizon, there is increasing pressure on broadcasters and cable provides to compress video as efficiently as their up-and-coming rivals such as Netflix and Hulu.

Of course, it’s never easy to break incumbents of their habits, whatever the industry. And although end-to-end HEVC software suites have already been released direct to consumers – for free – there are a number of steps still to be taken to speed a transition to the HEVC /H.265 codec by the video industry’s various factions.

Prod the producers

On the production end, the key to driving content owners and distributors to convert their vast entertainment catalogs to HEVC is to make the process as cost-effective as possible. The encoding solutions for content owners and distributors need to be automated and must simplify many of the complex workflow issues now associated with encoding large libraries of content.

New HEVC encoding solutions will also need to streamline the preparation of video libraries for digital delivery. Various over-the-top service providers use various streaming formats, which means an ideal HEVC encoding solution will enable the simultaneous encoding of movies in a variety of advanced formats—such as DivX Plus Streaming, Apple HLS and MPEG-DASH – all at once.

Quality is vital to Hollywood and always will be. This reality dictates that HEVC-encoding solutions must offer a quality-control capacity that allows editors to tweak specific sequences so that viewers see the movie as its creators intended it to be seen. And because time is money, as always in Hollywood, these controls must enable separate re-encoding, so that only the content that is changed has to be re-encoded, not the entire work.

Improve device support

Device support will improve along with the availability of high-quality software and hardware decoders. The most pressing need is to deliver optimized software decoders to enable support to be built into PCs and mobile devices.

That need is also an opportunity. And, in a study titled “HEVC Decoding in Consumer Devices,” Multimedia Research Group senior analyst Michelle Abraham described the size of that opportunity. She placed at approximately 1.4 billion the number of consumer devices shipped in 2011 and 2012 capable of HEVC playback with a software upgrade, topped by an estimated billion more shipped in 2013.

This device support is critical, most immediately for those companies that will benefit from the reductions in network demand and transmission costs that HEVC brings. This includes companies that offer web video-streaming services over wired and wireless networks to home and mobile devices.

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. On the contrary,  chip companies are planning to release HEVC decoders very soon. Soon after, there will be PCs and smartphones on the market that can play HEVC streams in real time.

Cut the risk of incompatibility

As is true when any new compression standard comes along, there are a number of suppliers of HEVC encoders and decoders embedded into systems. That increases the chance of incompatibility. Not a good thing. In the absence of a way to ensure playback compatibility among various systems, it’s a high probability that consumers will be frustrated by incompatibility issues among HEVC-encoded content, HEVC software and hardware.

The industry must solve these complexity issues before fully deploying HEVC and ensure that HEVC content works perfectly, so viewers can enjoy all the benefits of HEVC without incompatibility problems.

Suppliers that manage the video-distribution chain from creation to consumption are in the best position to ensure the seamless interoperability of HEVC content. To achieve that, these suppliers must use a shared set of “HEVC video profiles,” or specific parameters, for various HEVC resolutions.

Controlled HEVC profiles will help bring compatibility by delivering to content producers a standard for encoding files and by giving device manufacturers defined criteria to target-test playback. For their part, vendors must provide sophisticated testing or device-certification programs that enable a systematic approach to testing performance and compatibility to ensure HEVC content will reliably play at high quality on any device.

Fast-forward to the future

HEVC promises a wide range of opportunities for unprecedented video quality, as well as cost reductions and enhanced consumer satisfaction. If we take the right steps to ensure adoption, these promises will be a reality soon.

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