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Breaking the HEVC logjam

High-Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC/H.265, is one of the most important technologies of the decade. HEVC is expected to deliver the same visual quality as Advanced Video Coding (AVC or H.264/MPEG-4) while using about half the bandwidth. It can also support ultra high definition resolutions, such as 4K and 8K.

Why is that so special? HEVC will allow content distributors to deliver HD video to mobile devices over cellular connections at reduced bandwidth costs, as well as provide stunning 4K and beyond video to the home. HEVC is also a potential boon for consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers because it could stimulate demand for a new wave of hardware upgrades.

HEVC is also great for consumers, who can enjoy higher-resolution, less buffering entertainment experiences as video is streamed more seamlessly to all of their devices — even over limited-bit-rate connections. And, thanks to HEVC’s quantum leap in compression, consumers can store more home video, as well as hundreds of hours of entertainment and movies, while likely saving money in the process.

Still, despite the many benefits, HEVC is currently facing a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. To date, HEVC adoption has been slowed by the scarcity of content and the lack of players. But which comes first, content or compatible playback devices? Content distributors don’t want to invest in a new technology without a significant installed base, and CE vendors don’t want to support a technology with very limited content available for playback.

The trick to breaking the logjam and accelerating the market’s adoption of HEVC is simultaneously delivering tools for content creation as well as the decoders needed for building support into devices. Of course, it’s all easier said than done. And, given that not all HEVC video will be created the same, trickier still to ensure compatibility across the video delivery value chain. The following is one take on how this could all come together and the market can enjoy the benefits of HEVC sooner rather than later.

Fueling HEVC content availability

One of the quickest ways to fuel the availability of HEVC content is to provide systems to consumers. The market needs to quickly develop and release simple and free Windows and Mac software applications that enable consumers to convert personal content into HEVC video. Enabling consumers to reap the benefits of greater compression to streamline video sharing and lower storage costs will not only fuel HEVC content availability but also increase format awareness. In addition, as consumers inevitably look to play back the content beyond the PC, increasing pressure will be placed on CE manufacturers to build in support to their devices.

At the professional end, one of the keys to motivating content owners and distributors to convert their vast premium entertainment catalogs is to make the process as efficient and cost-effective as possible. The ideal encoding systems for this market segment, therefore, need to be highly automated and simplify many of the complex workflow challenges otherwise associated with encoding large libraries of premium entertainment.

Given the rise of digital delivery, new HEVC encoding systems will also need to streamline the preparation of video libraries for digital delivery. Given that different OTT service providers use different streaming formats, an ideal HEVC encoding system would enable the output of a movie in a variety of advanced adaptive formats, such as DivX Plus Streaming, Apple HLS or MPEG-DASH, simultaneously.

Given that quality is paramount to studios, professional HEVC encoding systems also need to offer a quality control workflow that allows editors to fine-tune specific sequences so that consumers see the movie as it was intended by the creator. Again, given that speed is critical, these controls will need to allow segment re-encoding, so that only the content changed would need to be re-encoded rather than the entire title.

Driving device support

Device support will ramp based on the availability of quality software and hardware decoders. The near-term opportunity is to deliver optimized software decoders to build support into personal computers and higher-end mobile devices.

According to a report titled “HEVC Decoding in Consumer Devices,” senior analyst Michelle Abraham from Multimedia Research Group estimated that the number of consumer devices shipped in 2011 and 2012 that could be capable of HEVC playback with a software upgrade totaled around 1.4 billion. More than a billion more are expected to be sold in 2013.

The industry needs to focus on building device support for industries in the best position to move to HEVC and that stand to more immediately recognize the benefits of reduced demand on networks and transmission cost savings. This includes companies involved in providing Internet video streaming services over wired and wireless networks to both tethered and mobile devices.

Minimizing the HEVC compatibility risk

As with any new compression standard, there will be multiple suppliers of HEVC encoders and decoders that are embedded into systems. Without a comprehensive mechanism to ensure playback compatibility among the various disparate systems, there is a likelihood of consumers experiencing incompatibilities experienced between HEVC encoded content and HEVC software and hardware players.

It is critical that the industry manages the complexities when deploying HEVC and creates the necessary checks and balances to ensure HEVC content “just works” and that consumers enjoy all the benefits without any incompatibility headaches.

A key to ensuring HEVC content interoperability will be the availability of suppliers that can manage the video distribution chain from creation to consumption. These suppliers must use a common set of HEVC video profiles or specific parameters for various HEVC resolutions. Controlled HEVC profiles will help ensure compatibility by giving content producers a standard for encoding files and device manufacturers a specific set of criteria to target test playback. Vendors must then provide sophisticated testing or device certification programs that provide a systematic approach to testing both performance and compatibility to ensure HEVC content will reliably play at full quality on any given device.

HEVC offers multiple opportunities for improved video quality, cost efficiencies and greater consumer satisfaction. If we take the right steps to accelerate adoption, these rewards can be a reality far sooner than most anticipate.