Putting the squeeze on video at CES

This week’s International CES in Las Vegas was awash in cheap tablets, expensive 4K TVs, and all manner of “smart”┬árefrigerators and autonomous cars. One of the most interesting stories to come out the show, however, at least as far as the connected consumer space goes, involved not an appliance or a gadget but a technical standard for encoding digital video.
The new standard, called High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) has been under development since 2010 by a joint committee of the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) and the International Telecommunications Unions’ Video Coding Expert Group (VCEG). The committee is expected to approve the final draft of the standard at its next meeting later this month.
HEVC is intended as a successor to H.264, the current de facto standard for a wide variety of applications, including most online video as well as for Blu-ray Disc. The new standard can support much higher resolutions than H.264, making it possible to encode up to 8K video (7680 x 4320). But its biggest impact is likely to come from the huge improvement in compression efficiency it provides over current codecs.
According to the engineers, HEVC is expected to offer roughly a 2X savings in bandwidth compared to H.264. Thus, 1280 X 720 video — the most common resolution for “high-def” video online, can be encoded and streamed at as little as 3 Mbs, compared to 6 Mbs for most H.264 video with no degradation in quality.
At CES, in fact, French telecom provider Orange had a small demo set up in the Samsung booth of a new over-the-top streaming service it plans to launch in Europe this spring using HEVC encoded at 3 Mbs (a video of the demo is here). Samsung is the first TV manufacturer to unveil a smart TV that supports the new compression standard (using a hardware-based decoder it built itself), which it plans to ship in Europe in the spring with an embedded app from Orange.
In this country, the savings in streaming bandwidth from HEVC could be a game-changer in the current battle over bandwidth caps imposed by ISPs once it’s widely adopted.┬áThe more immediate impact from adoption of HEVC is likely to be felt in mobile video, however, where bandwidth constraints are most acute. The normal replacement cycle for tablets and smartphones is also rapid enough that new chip sets that support the new standard are likely to get out into the market faster than for set-top devices.
Widespread adoption is not assured, of course. And even in the best case, it will take several years for enough devices capable of decoded HEVC video to get into consumers’ hands to make adopting it viable for online and mobile video providers to make the switch from H.264. The good news from CES was that chip makers and developers of video encoders and players are already well along in designing and pushing out the tools the video industry needs to start using HEVC, reflecting the pent-up demand for a more efficient means to move large amounts video around on IP networks.
Software maker Rovi unveiled a broad based development program for HEVC, including a new encoding SDK and an update to its DivX device-certification program to allow device makers to introduce products that support the new standard. Vanguard Video announced the first commercially available encoder for HEVC, which will be released as soon as the standard is officially finalized.
Chip-maker Qualcomm made the biggest splash with a live demonstration of its new Snapdragon chip set for phones and tablets, which has enough processing horsepower to decode HEVC in software without needing dedicated silicon. The opens the possibility that consumers will be able to download and install HEVC video players without needing to replace their devices.
Efficient compression is not the only ingredient to a successful online or mobile video business, of course. But it’s an essential one, and the sooner the infrastructure to support it is in place the better.