YouTube’s 4K MacGuffin

International CES, which opens on Tuesday, will be awash in 4K, or Ultra HD, displays, as TV-makers try to entice consumers into another upgrade cycle now that the first HD upgrade cycle is petering out (and the 3D cycle never got off the ground). With major broadcasters feeling very cautious about making the switch, however, there won’t be a lot of native 4K content to watch on them.

That’s left the 4K door open for over-the-top video providers and some are beginning to step through it. Amazon is shooting its 2014 original series in 4K and Netflix plans to stream Season 2 of House of Cards in 4K later this year. 

Google isn’t so much stepping through as barging through the door, however. YouTube announced this week it will be showing off 4K streaming at CES and has lined up several major hardware partners for the demos, including Sony, Panasonic and LG. In a twist, YouTube will be streaming its 4K content using VP9, the latest iteration of the open-source codec Google introduced in 2010 as part of its WebM initiative.

In addition to the TV-makers who will be demoing the video at CES, Google has also lined up support for VP9 from major chipset makers, including  ARM, Intel, Broadcom and Marvell, as well as other major CE companies such as Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

That potentially puts YouTube at odds with others (including Netflix) in the 4K game who have adopted or are expected to adopt HEVC (H.265) for 4K, the more-or-less official codec developed jointly by the ITU Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). YouTube denies that this week’s announcement was a snub to HEVC, however.

“This certainly isn’t a war of the video codecs,” YouTube’s global director of platform partnerships Francisco Varela told GigaOM, adding there will be further announcements around 4K to come from YouTube in the future.

There’s little doubt, however, that Google is trying to use interest in 4K to jump-start penetration of the VP9 codec. In fact, 4K, in this case, is akin to what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin: a plot device that creates suspense or tension but is incidental to the real story. The real story here is about embedding a Google-friendly ecosystem in the living room.

Google never got much traction for VP8 when it released it in 2010. At the time, though, H.264 was well established and widely adopted. This time, Google has a wide-open field ahead of it: CE makers are hungry for 4K content to sell their 4K displays and know there won’t be much from traditional sources for several years yet. Google is happy to provide them with 4K content so long as the CE makers agree to support VP9, which Google makes easier to swallow by not charging royalties for it.

Google plans to use VP9 for more than 4K, however. As part of this week’s announcement, in fact, YouTube said it will spend much of 2014 converting its current library to VP9, essentially none of which is in 4K.  Google also plans to release an open SDK for Chromecast later this year, and it’s a better-than-fair bet the SDK will include support for VP9.

Once that’s done, and the YouTube conversion is complete, and the new VP9-compatible displays and chipsets are on the market, Google will have put in place the pieces for its own, next-generation virtual TV platform, built around Chromecast and VP9, on which it can then build a TV advertising business. Mobile devices and Chromecast will take the place of the set-top box for content navigation and launch, and TVs with embedded VP9 support will eliminate the need for set-top decoding. And Google will have its own, direct pipeline to the TV.

If some of the content also ends up being streamed in 4K, so much the better. But that’s not essential to the plan.