HD will come to more Internet TV fans, says On2 Technologies VP

On2 Technologies said last week that Adobe would support its VP6-S encoding technology in the release of the Flash 9 Player expected later this month.

The VP6-S technology may help to usher in more viewing of HD content on desktop and laptop computers via the Internet.

On2 Technologies will continue to play in the Flash space even though Adobe has announced that the new release will also support playback of MPEG-4 AVC H.264. HD Technology Update talked to On2 Technologies senior VP for Flash business Mike Savello to learn more.

HD Technology Update: How does the announcement of Flash 9’s support for On2’s VP6-S video profile build on the company’s ongoing relationship with Adobe?

Mike Savello: We have a long-standing relationship with Adobe going back to Macromedia before it was acquired by Adobe. We started working with Macromedia in late 2003 to mid 2004 when they were looking for the next-generation video technology for their then upcoming new Flash player release, Flash Player 8.

The relationship has carried forward with Adobe, so we’ve been working with Adobe effectively for three and half to four years through Flash Player 8 and 9, and now the Moviestar update to Flash Player 9, which includes the addition of the VP6-S video profile.

HD Technology Update: How does the announcement of VP6-S support fit in with the new Flash player’s support of MPEG-4 AVC?

Mike Savello: One of the things that has been overlooked in the announcements of the new Flash Player upgrade is that Adobe has added a number of new features in the Moviestar update in addition to H.264. Adobe has added a new VP6 profile, called VP6-S, and they are also adding hardware acceleration for video. Overall, in my view, the application and platform support for Flash Player has been expanded, making Flash Player applicable to more content, across broader customer segments and uses. We expect that the VP6-S addition is going to have a significant impact on the Web video landscape when people realize the implications of it for bringing much higher quality, full-screen video playback capabilities to the mass market.

HD Technology Update: How does the VP6-S video profile fit in?

Mike Savello: The VP6-S profile is very significant in that it will enable much higher resolution, even HD, full-screen video playback on mass market PCs that are used by the majority of end users. The new VP6-S profile is designed to play back high-resolution content on low-power PCs. Overall, the VP6 codecs are designed to be highly efficient for any desired quality. And while VP6-E, the original scheme used by Flash Player 8 and then Flash Player 9, is optimized for traditional Web video, which is typically in the 150Kb/s-500Kb/s range, VP6-S makes the Flash Player ideally suited to full-screen, high-resolution — typically upward of 1Mb/s — video, similar in experience to what consumers are used to with TV viewing. This has tremendous implications to how Web video will evolve, just given how Web video has evolved as a result of VP6-E in the Flash Player over the last couple of years. So, effectively, the VP6 profiles — VP6-E and VP6-S — span the gamut of programming and uses that content providers and end users would like to use the Flash Player for, including HD content.

HD Technology Update: Won’t the use of MPEG-4 AVC or VP6-S be transparent to the end user? In other words, it’s the content creator or publisher who selects the encoding, the Flash Player just plays back what it’s fed.

Mike Savello: Actually, there is more to it.Each format has its own strengths, some technical and some to do with business decisions. At the end of the day, this affects the end user in terms of what content they get and what their experience is. So, programmers or publishers need to choose the format that best addresses their technical and business needs, but also recognize that ultimately the end user decides whether they are satisfied or not with the experience. For example, if the content is in HD, it may seem not to matter to the programmer whether they choose H.264 or VP6-S, but if the PCs used by the end users have mass-market low-power processors for the video playback, and programmers want to reach these end users, then whether they choose H.264 or VP6-S should matter a lot to the programmer and the end user.

HD Technology Update: Where does HD streaming stand today and where will it be after the release of Flash Player 9?

Mike Savello: I think if you refer to streaming as a click-to-play experience, relative to video streaming on the Web, HD streaming is negligible. There are no major video Web sites streaming HD. True HD is really a download experience on the Web today, which lacks the instant gratification appeal that has made video popular on the Web. The challenges to HD are both bandwidth and power consumption. Given that bandwidth to the home is rapidly expanding — cable in the U.S. is delivering upward of 5Mb/s and in many parts of the world 20Mb/s is common — the gating factor for HD is power consumption. With this, I mean the processing power of PCs to play back HD reliably.

Adobe has really moved the ball with the new update for two reasons. One, they have made technology available that makes HD possible. We are demonstrating this with VP6-S where 720p video can be played in the Flash Player on middle-of-the-road PCs. Really good full-screen video, however, can be experienced pretty much across the board with VP6-S on an ordinary broadband connection at around 1Mb/s and basic PCs. The second reason why Adobe’s announcement is significant for HD is because of the ubiquitous adoption of the Flash Player and its tremendous market presence. I think this means that the bar of what is considered to be good video quality on the Web has moved and is closer to HD than before. We think much, if not most, of this content is going to be in VP6-S, and that is exciting for us.

HD Technology Update: Is that regardless of what codec — AVC or VP6-S — is used?

Mike Savello: Both formats can deliver comparable quality for a given bandwidth, but again, the CPU load for playing back VP6-S content is going to be significantly lower, which means that your ability to decode every frame you’re going to see on the screen and not have jitters in your video at the player level is going to be enhanced by VP6-S video. The point I made earlier regarding power consumption is that with VP6-S, programmers can reach a much larger base of installed PCs that have lower power processors for HD content than with H.264, and this is material to the adoption of HD content on a mass scale.

HD Technology Update: From a broadcaster’s point of view, HD means certain things in terms of pixel count, frame rate and scanning type. When you use the term HD on the Internet and streaming HD, are you referring to any or all of the specific HD formats, i.e. 720p, 1080i, etc.?

Mike Savello: For the purpose of this discussion, I am using the term HD to refer to 720p, 1080p video, which are the specified resolutions for HD by the IETF and other standards. The Web as a medium, however, is more fluid and flexible than consumer electronics or broadcast. So, the definition of HD for the Web is really video that is at a higher resolution with full-screen viewing capabilities. The bottom line is that at the end of the day, if the user thinks the video delivers an HD experience, then it merits being called HD. If they’re playing back something that fills their entire laptop screen or PC desktop screen, I think from their perspective, it’s HD — whether its 1280 x 1024, 1280 x 720 or whatever it happens to be.

Regardless, VP6-S is designed to deliver HD, whether that is 1080p or something lower that gives the user a high-resolution, full-screen playback more suitable to the end user’s bandwidth and PC processor.

HD Technology Update: So, is this an apples-to-oranges comparison — broadcast HD versus HD on the Internet?

Mike Savello: It certainly can be. It can be apples to apples as well. I think there will be certain applications for which people are going to want to get the full 720p image delivered to them over the Internet for whatever reason.

HD Technology Update: Is that possible in the 1.5Mb/s bit rate you’ve identified?

Mike Savello: I think it’s possible. In fact, you can view some examples of this on Adobe Lab’s Web site. It actually has some examples of 720p material. If you look at a smaller image — perhaps 800 x 600, which is then scaled up to 720p on playback — I think you’ll find that the image quality can actually be quite a bit higher that way. So, my view is that one should not get fixated on the specification per se, but rather how to deliver the most compelling user experience within a given bandwidth.

HD Technology Update: What should broadcasters who are turning to the Internet as an alternate means of distribution take away from this?

Mike Savello: I would reiterate comments I made earlier about recognizing that users don’t care what format is being used as long as they get a compelling experience. At the end of the day, I think every broadcaster wants to reach the broadest possible audience, and probably the biggest gating factor today to that is the capability of the end users’ PC in terms of processor power when it comes to HD. On2’s design philosophy has always been to minimize the playback power requirements for any given quality. That becomes even more important for HD, which taxes the CPU of the PC tremendously.

Interestingly, our Flix product line of encoding and publishing solutions will support all the formats for Flash Player — Sorenson Spark, On2 VP6-E, VP6-S and H.264 — so broadcasters can see what works best for them. But the bottom line is that in addition to video quality and production workflow considerations, HD is big leap in power consumption when it comes to users machines that will be used to play back this content.

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