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Despite Hype, HEVC Not Yet Ubiquitous

H.264 is currently more mature and is performing very well across the U.S. and around the world.

New York — Lately, while much of the talk in the trade press surrounding compression techniques required for reducing bandwidth has centered on High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), the fledgling format is not being used by content providers for any meaningful commercial deployments.

There are several reasons for this. HEVC’s promised 50 percent bandwidth savings have not yet materialized, HEVC players are not easily obtained on the open market, and the format’s predecessor, H.264, is the current de facto standard for encoding and decoding on software players that are now found on “smart” mobile devices.

“HEVC is not there yet,” said Muriel Moscardini, CEO of Barcelona, Spain-based Fluendo. Her company develops audio and video software acceleration technology and works with a variety of middleware providers to support TV Everywhere services from multichannel operators like Comcast, Orange, and T-Mobile. They specialize in video acceleration and work with a variety of companies supporting the content delivery chain to support both audio and video playback.

Fluendo CEO Muriel Moscardini.

“We optimize the communication (via a proprietary API) between the software and the hardware in the home to ensure that the player can retrieve and work correctly with the hardware layer (set top box),” she said. “Depending upon the platform, you need different APIs, so that’s what we provide.”

Fluendo, founded 10 years ago, optimizes these APIs (as part of its ONEPLAY Suite) and provides specific elements to its customers to strengthen this communication between the software and hardware and make it more reliable. The overall performance depends upon the hardware used.

Moscardini said H.264 is “more than” mature and is preforming very well across the U.S. and around the world. With mobility rapidly evolving, platform manufacturers have been integrating video inside the platform to do video acceleration hardware. This has been a boon to Fluendo.

“I’m not selling much H.264 software right now. I’m leveraging video acceleration hardware for all types of distribution platforms,” she said, adding that H.264 is now used inside all sorts of mobile devices to watch a movie, with no buffering issues. Having hardware acceleration in the platform also reduces battery usage, because you use less of the CPU to decode H.264 material.

“I’m expecting the same story to happen with HEVC,” she said. “The industry will start with HEVC software, and then move to hardware once there is enough content to move around. That’s why we wanted to be ahead of the curve and learn what the technology can do.”

To this end, Fluendo has been working closely with The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, in Germany, where by Fraunhofer is implementing Fluendo’s player technology into its latest HEVC encoder for testing and public demonstrations of its compression technology.

“With the addition of our HEVC decoder, Fluendo’s ONEPLAY player will be able to support 4K, the new ultra-high definition resolution currently emerging in digital video,” said Benjamin Bross, H.265/MPEG-HEVC specification text main editor of Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, in a statement when the deal was made last month. “We are happy that Fluendo chose our technology to use widely in the different markets that the company operates in.”

[Sky Deutschland used Fraunhofer’s HHI HEVC encoder in April for one of the first live UHD end-to-end transmissions of a soccer game; using six Sony 4K cameras and several HD models that were upconverted as well.]

Moscardini said the two organizations have worked together in the past on MP3 player technology and she herself began looking into HEVC two years ago because her customers have begun asking about it. However, she said there’s not enough content encoded in HEVC to truly test the deciding capabilities of the viewing devices. [Add to this the licensing rates from MPEG LA have not yet been finalized.] Fluendo has also implemented adaptive streaming (DASH, Smooth Streaming and HLS) technology into ONEPLAY that automatically recognizes the incoming H.264 file and decodes it for the specific device it is being viewed on.

“Customers focused on the user experience tell us they are looking into HEVC, even if there’s no content, and they want to start experimenting with it today,” Moscardini said. “No one knows whether HEVC will be the de facto standard like H.264 is today, but we have to be ready with the right technology when it does come. In the TV industry, bandwidth is the hurdle to overcome. That’s why we need compression.”

So, when will HEVC be mature? Moscardini said once we start to better encoder performance and more content encoded in HEVC “then we will see how many content providers can play it back on consumer devices.

“We are not the decision makers in the content chain,” she said. “We’re trying to be a real partner for a variety of companies and organizations. I can’t really predict when HEVC will be everywhere, or if it will be deployed everywhere, but we want to get ahead of the curve and be ready when our customers need it. By then we will have gained a lot of experience with HEVC that we can use in the field.”

Fluendo employs several of the central developers of GStreamer, an Open Source framework for cross-platform software. The company provides a wide range of products under and above GStreamer, including proprietary codecs (together with their respective patent licenses), a streaming server, and the Fluendo DVD Player.