Open Source Codecs Pave Way for High-Resolution Streaming Video

NEWS ANALYSIS: Developers companies including Google and Netflix are creating open source compression algorithms and codecs to enable the latest high resolution streaming video.

Open Source Video Codecs

NEW YORK—The compression algorithm at the center of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” has put a spotlight on an important part of the life of the internet. Compression is necessary to make files smaller so they can be downloaded and stored easily enough to make video streaming possible.

However, the show's wannabe entrepreneurs keep failing to turn their creations into a viable product. In real life, however, developers at companies like Google and Netflix are having a much more success  creating and using next-generation compression algorithms and codecs (encoders/decoders) for streaming video.

The fact that more than three-quarters of all internet traffic will be video within five years shows the importance of video compression codecs that can take advantage of all sorts of platforms, from Smart TVs to smartphones, in any geographic area, and with any type of connectivity.

At the recent Streaming Media East Conference here, Matt Frost, Head of Strategy and Partnerships for Google Chrome Media, shared an update of what Google is working on to make the future of streaming possible.

First, some background: The video compression standard H.264, also known as AVC (Advanced Video Coding), has been the workhorse codec for broadcasters, internet streamers and video producers around the world for the past decade. Users can see what codec is being used to compress video on YouTube by right-clicking on any video and selecting “Stats for nerds.”

Now, with Ultra HD and 4K content becoming more popular, new advanced compression codecs have become necessary, most notably the next-generation standard H.265, also known as HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding). H.265 makes considerable gains on H.264, by shrinking files and improving quality, but the standard has been the subject of controversy over royalty payments for its use.

Google changed the game in 2013 when it released VP9, a royalty-free codec, under the auspices of the open source WebM Project. VP9 is being adopted quickly and is now the primary codec for video of all resolution types on YouTube, compressing billions of hours of video a year. VP9 is supported by Android phones and the Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Edge browsers.

“VP9 is an enabler of new 4K and HFR [high-frame rate] HD experiences,” Frost said. “Current technologies [such as VP9] are absolutely necessary to enable cutting-edge high-resolution experiences over traditional consumer broadband connections.”

As Google began work on VP9’s follow-up, VP10, it decided to team up with others working on their own next-generation codecs, particularly Mozilla's Daala and Cisco's Thor projects. Together with Microsoft, Intel, Netflix, Amazon and others, they formed the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) in 2015 and rolled their collective codec work into the next-generation AV1 (AOMedia Video 1) codec.

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...