There’s a new codec coming and it might soon have an impact on how you watch streaming videos on smart TVs,  set-top media streamers and other devices.

It’s called AV1, and it is being promoted by an organization made up of some the biggest companies in streaming entertainment and technology development called the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia). The emphasis here is on “open,” which means developers and streaming services will have greater freedom in implementing it into their technologies and business models, and because it is billed as “royalty free,” presumably at a lower cost than some of the major codecs used around the industry, like H.264 AVC, H.265 HEVC, Google’s open VP9 and others.

Typically, these more commonly used codecs are controlled by patent pools and LLCs and come with licensing fees and sometimes restrictive implementation requirements. The exception is VP9, which has been offered as an open codec for 4K and other resolution level content, and is used on Google’s YouTube platform. But some have said it hasn’t matched the quality level of HEVC.

Before we go further, a codec is generally a program that compresses data to enable faster transmission and is decompressed by a decoder in a receiving device or television set. This compression reduces the size/bit rate of a file by stripping out data, with least amoung of visible/audible loss in quality possible. The less noticeable the quality loss with the most efficient ability to send a stream over the least amount of bandwidth, the better the codec.

Founding members of AOMedia include: Amazon, Apple, Arm, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla, Netflix, and NVIDIA. AOMedia is a Joint Development Foundation Projects, LLC series.

AV1 made news in recent weeks with word that giant media streaming service Netflix is moving to add use of AV1 within its vast streaming video library to improve effiency of delivery and video quality. Netflix officials told us on a recent visit to its Hollywood offices that the service is now studying the use of AV1, along with its other codecs — like H.264, H.265 and VP9 — to provide the best possible service to its customers.

In a statement on the public release, Mark Watson, Netflix streaming standards director said: “AV1 proves that a performant next-generation video codec can be developed with a royalty-free license, made possible by the wide-ranging industry commitment of expertise within AOMedia. Netflix is proud to have helped found and contribute to AOMedia and to validate the performance of AV1 on entertainment content, from highly efficient mobile streams to premium 4K HDR. We’re pleased to see the broad interest in decoder support and excited to bring the benefit of better streaming quality to our members in the coming year.”

This is important, because services like Netflix use variable bit rates to send movies out over broadband connections to reduce stalling, unwanted digital artifacts and sequence jerking and jumping during playback. But when broadband usage volume is high, this often means the video and sound quality of the movie or program is reduced, sometimes well below the standards of 4K UHD or even HD levels.

The company said it will continue to offer movies in multiple codecs to ensure the greatest compatibility between new and legacy smart TVs and devices. It will also discuss its codec addition or transition plans with partner equipment makers to ensure the smoothest implementation with the least disrupution to its customers.

Similary, Amazon Video VP Greg Hart said: “As a Founding Member of AOMedia, Amazon is committed to providing a great viewing experience for customers worldwide. AV1’s royalty-free and compelling compression technology, once optimized, has the potential for broad adoption that will benefit customers all over the globe.”

In announcing the public release of version 1.0 of the AV1 codec Wednesday, the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) said “consumers’ video expectations are being shaped by the brilliant images promised by 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) video and beyond. However, the technical-based hurdles and data demands of higher quality video mean that the majority of users only have access to full HD or lower video technology.”

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In a statement, AOMedia said the AV1 specifications “deliver cross-platform, 4K UHD or higher online video, royalty-free – all while lowering data usage.”

In contrast, the H.265/HEVC codec, which is the broadest used for 4K streaming, in the next-generation ATSC 3.0 terrestrial TV broadcast system, and in the Ultra HD Blu-ray specifications, has imposed royalty frees from multiple pools of parties claiming to have IP rights to poritions of the platform.

In advance of the AV1 public release, one of those patent pools, called HEVC Advance, announced last week that it is eliminating non-physical (disc) distribution–meaning “subscription” and “title-by-title” content–from its patent license in an effort to advance adoption of the HEVC codec among streaming, pay TV, over-the-air and satellite video distributors.

That move eliminated digital distribution royalty fees, while also reducing certain other royalty rates and caps.

It also comes as some groups have started to make greater use of the VP9, which in general has been less restrictive and expensive than HEVC.

AOMedia will be promoting the AV1 release at the upcoming NAB 2018 convention in Las Vegas, calling it a codec that was designed from the outset for hardware optimization and device scalability.

The group cited Cisco Visual Networking Index data showing that by 2021, 82 percent of all the world’s internet traffic will be video. AV1 was developed to “remove many of the hurdles required by older, optical disc-era, video technologies, specifically for the internet video-era, paving the way for companies to make more of the royalty-free, 4K UHD and higher video devices, products, and services that consumers love,” according to a statement on the codec’s release.

AOMedia executive director Gabe Frost said the AV1 codec provides “the highest-quality video for the entire ecosystem, allowing for better viewing experiences across all screens and data networks.”

AV1 is said to deliver 4K UHD video at an average of 30 percent greater compression over competing codecs and enables more screens to display the vivid images, deeper colors, brighter highlights, darker shadows, and other enhanced UHD imaging features.. while using less data.”

Paul Gray, IHS Markit research director said, “AV1 will be widely supported across the entire content chain, especially including services. We forecast rapid introduction of AV1 content delivery to help the widespread proliferation of UHD streaming.”

The release of AV1 for use by developers includes:
• Bitstream specification to enable the next-generation of silicon
• Unoptimized, experimental software decoder and encoder to create and consume the bitstream
• Reference streams for product validation
• Binding specifications to allow content creation and streaming tools for user-generated and commercial video.


By Greg Tarr


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