The Next Big Video Squeeze

Digital video is in the process of getting another major haircut — a development that promises to provide tremendous relief for bandwidth-constrained mobile networks, as well as for the delivery of ultra-high-definition TV.

The High Efficiency Video Coding specification, also referred to as H.265, will be even more efficient than H.264 MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding. HEVC-based commercial products could arrive starting in 2013.

According to industry experts, HEVC could shave off 25% to 50% of the bits needed to deliver video that looks as good as H.264.

“It seems like every decade we come out with a better compression standard,” said Sam Blackman, CEO of video-processing systems vendor Elemental Technologies.

HEVC is being designed to take advantage of increases in processing power in video encoders and devices. The developers of H.264 had elements they wanted to include, “but the computational costs were considered too high 10 years ago,” Blackman said. “You’ve also had research over that time to improve the standard for the next time.”

HEVC is being developed by the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC), which brings together working groups from the International Telecommunication Union and Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). More than 130 different companies and organizations have participated in the development of HEVC to date, according to Microsoft video architect Gary Sullivan, who is one of the co-chairs of the JCT-VC project.

The next milestone for the spec: In February 2012, a draft of HEVC is expected to be circulated for comments, and the first edition of the standard should be finished in January 2013.

Initially, the clear winners for HEVC will be mobile network operators. “If you look at any of the market data, 70% of the traffic will be video in the next year,” Blackman said. HEVC will also help broadcasters and cable ops deliver Ultra HD formats, which provide four to 16 times the resolution of current 1080p HDTV.

Elemental, whose customers include Comcast and Avail-TVN, expects eventually to incorporate HEVC into its software-based encoding solution that is based on off -the-shelf graphics processing units.

Other video-processing equipment vendors also are tracking HEVC. Andy Salo, director of product marketing at RGB Networks, said the company’s engineering team is working closely with industry engineers that are active contributors to HEVC.

HEVC adoption won’t happen overnight. An entire ecosystem of devices needs to incorporate new decoder chips that support H.265.

Another caveat: New technologies often look better on paper than in practice. It has historically taken time with a new video standard to gain the theoretical efficiencies, according to Joe Ambeault, Verizon Telecom’s director of product management for media and entertainment.

“It’s only so good until the engineers get into the development,” Ambeault said. “You look at the PowerPoints and say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll get that kind of efficiency a couple years from now.’”

By Todd Spangler, Multichannel News