PARIS — It’s been a while since internet giants including Google, Cisco, and Microsoft announced their “Alliance for Open Media” (AOMedia) to develop a web-friendly video codec. But the group, formed in September 2015, is finally ready for public release of the AOMedia Video Codec 1.0, dubbed AV1.

AOMedia said that its members will present AV1 demonstrations at various venues during the NAB Show in Las Vegas in early April.

The industry alliance is promising that AV1 can deliver “cross-platform, 4K UHD or higher online video.” However, the most important pitch for the new codec, from their perspective, is that it will be “royalty-free.”

AV1 ecosystem
AV1 offers a new approach. (Source: AOMedia)

Members of the AOMedia board are web-centric companies — some with streaming service businesses — such as Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Mozilla, and Cisco. Semiconductor companies such as Arm, Intel, and Nvidia also belong.

AV1 is emerging at a critical time. HEVC (High-Efficiency Image File Format), also known as H.265, a codec with which AV1 will compete, has fallen into a quagmire of three competing patent pools — MPEG LA, HEVC Advance, and Velos Media./p>

Paul Gray, a research director at IHS Markit, told EE Times, “The worry for adopters of HEVC (as I see it) is three different patent administrators, enduring uncertainty if anyone else will appear and make demands, and, finally, the feeling by licensees that they were being over-charged.”

Technically speaking, is AV1 a game-changer, whose foundational technologies are dramatically different from HEVC?

Matt Frost, head of strategy and partnerships at Google (previously, he was CEO of On2 Technologies), now serving as AOMedia’s founding board member, told EE Times, “No, we are not claiming that.” He explained, “This is built on the evolutionary improvements” on VP6, VP7, VP8, VP9, VC-1 (Windows Media Video), H.264, and HEVC. He added, “But we also made a bunch of significant improvements that make AV1 different from earlier video codecs.”

Boasting that AOMedia’s core group — Google, Microsoft, and Intel — all have foundational strengths and expertise in video technology, Google’s Frost said, “We have our engineers who’ve all worked exclusively on video codec development.” The result is AV1. The group now claims that it can deliver “4K UHD video at an average of 30% greater compression over competing codecs.”

AOMedia members
AOMedia members (Source: AOMedia)

Myra Moore, president of Digital Tech Consulting (DTC), however, cautioned, “Basically, until the specification is available for independent testing from unbiased parties, all is speculation. That goes for the technical side and the patent side of the equation.”

Licensing issues
Gabe Frost, executive director of AOMedia and principal group program manager at Microsoft, explained that AOMedia has spent the last three years not only improving video coding but also applying a lot of rigor to AV1’s essential patents, carrying out patent reviews to build a legal defense fund around AV1.

AOMedia explained that participants in AOMedia Working Groups have adopted the Alliance for Open Media Patent License 1.0. “This is intended to fulfill their commitments to make available their Essential Claims, as defined in the W3C Patent Policy,” he said.

As the group explained, deliverables offered through AV1’s release include bitstream specification to enable the next-generation of silicon, unoptimized, experimental software decoder and encoder to create and consume the bitstream, reference streams for product validation, and binding specifications to allow content creation and streaming tools for user-generated and commercial video.

Asked about the reference code that the group created, Microsoft’s Frost said, “We are releasing software under Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD)-like open-source software license.” More specifically, AOMedia said that it is a combination of the BSD 2-Clause License and Alliance for Open Media Patent License 1.0.

Microsoft’s Frost added that the group is also making sure to build a royalty-free ecosystem around AV1. Hence, users of AV1 in a YouTube app, for example, can implement it without fear of infringing patents.

He pointed out that AOMedia, backed by leading members like Microsoft and Google, are ready to provide high-powered legal support and a defense fund to members of AOMedia shipping AV1 products.

AV1’s impact on traditional media?
Given the host of member companies listed by AOMedia, AV1 is attracting a lot of interest from internet-based streaming companies.

Internet evolution of video
(Source: AOMedia)

What’s the impact of AV1 on the broadcast and packaged media? Does it make sense for original content owners to even consider switching their video codec to AV1?

IHS Markit’s Gray noted, “One other area to consider is the time necessary for encoding.” He said, “Data I have seen suggests that AV1 is very heavy on encoding — over an order of magnitude longer than HEVC. This would make live encoding problematic, and, of course, live is the lifeblood of broadcast TV.”

Meanwhile, “AV1 looks to be very undemanding on decoding, so there is a definitely different tradeoff here. AV1 looks optimized for streaming rather than broadcast. For Netflix or Amazon, this makes complete sense.”

DCT’s Moore said, “It doesn’t seem likely that current broadcast and packaged media providers would switch.”

Milestone for streaming community
Historically, the internet community has always opted for its own codec for its own vertical market. For example, Cisco promoted Thor video codec, Google went with VP7, 8, 9, Microsoft pushed Windows Media Player, and Apple created QuickTime Video.

So the real news of AV1 is that the AOMedia group — and streaming video community at large — will finally have an opportunity to agree on one codec?

IHS Markit’ Gray believes that that’s a reasonable conclusion. “With the shift of internet content to be in mobile and CE devices then common, minimal hardware and standards is a far more attractive outcome than in the past. I think we are now in a second phase of growing maturity where standardization becomes more important than speed and individual optimization,” said Gray.

Wait. What about Apple?

Apple is on the record saying that its iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra include support for HEVC. Apple also belongs to MPEG LA, one of the three patent pools for HEVC.

And then there’s Qualcomm. Qualcomm belongs to Velos Media, another HEVC patent pool, along with Ericsson, Sony, Panasonic, and others.

HEVC patent pools

HEVC has fallen into a quagmire of three patent pools.

(Source: <a href="http://blog.chiariglione.org/a-crisis-the-causes-and-a-solution/"target="new">Leonald Chiariglione's blog post)

Google’s Frost told us that what’s important isn’t who’s listed in AOMedia. “Don’t read too much into it.” More important is that AOMedia, as a group, was able to work together and now they are happily launching together a next-generation codec, he said.

Compared to the time when Leonardo Chiariglione first launched MPEG as the founder and chairman of MPEG, when there were neither an internet nor patent troll, Google’s Frost observed that the industry has come a long way, while the open-source community has evolved.

Referring to Chiariglione’s recent blog entitled “The current MPEG business model is broken,” Google’s Frost noted that market forces have altered the business model around technology innovation and how organizations could monetize it.

That may be so, but that wasn’t exactly Chiariglione’s point in its entirety. Chiariglione wrote in his blog entry earlier this year:


End of the world as we know it?
The reader should not think that I am personal[sic] concerned by all this, if not intellectually. I have been running MPEG for the last 30 years serving the industry — and billions of users — and I have been blessed by professional satisfactions that few have had. If MPEG ends now, it will be a pity, but if this is the decision of the stakeholders — the industry in MPEG — so be it.

My concerns are at a different level and have to do with the way industry at large will be able to access innovation. AOMedia will certainly give much needed stability to the video codec market, but this will come at the cost of reduced, if not entirely halted, technical progress. [Emphasis is by EE Times.] There will simply be no incentive for companies to develop new video compression technologies at very significant cost because of the sophistication of the field, knowing that their assets will be thankfully — and nothing more — accepted and used by AOM in their video codecs.

Companies will slash their video compression technology investments, thousands of jobs will go, and millions of dollars of funding to universities will be cut. A successful “access technology at no cost” model will spread to other fields.

So don’t expect that, in the future, you will see the progress in video compression technology that we have seen in the past 30 years.

IHS Markit’s Gray agreed with Chiariglione, saying that “there has to be an economic return on investment to power future development.”

Gray, however, remains staunchly optimistic about the competitive future of video codecs. He said, “Already there are enhancements to HEVC such as Joint Exploration Test Model (JEM), which would appear to maintain competitive alternatives optimized for live broadcasting.”

He added, “The internet-based companies are pursuing different strategies, but AV1 also shows that even they wish to cooperate rather than develop alone and face a format war.”

Indeed, if an industry group could form a single patent pool and demand a ‘last and final’ declaration of interests, Gray said that he’d call that a “cooperative approach” that helps bring certainty.

— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times