Apr 4, 2012Science and Technology
Internet videos: The future of video codecs

Video codecs for YouTube and Hulu may soon no longer be freely available

Do you enjoy watching videos on YouTube or Hulu? Well, you are not alone. It is estimated that by the end of 2014, two-thirds of the world’s data traffic will consist of video data. Despite the ever increasing popularity of internet videos, few people are aware of the technology required to store and play videos digitally.

To understand the technology behind digital videos, an understanding of video codecs is required. Without getting too technical, a video codec is a set of rules that converts raw video data to the compressed video streams that we see visually, and vice versa. A given video codec generally consists of a collection of many techniques from various companies, who hold patents on their individual techniques. The standard video codec used today is called H.264/AVC and it is no exception. So isn’t it quite curious that those companies who hold the patents for H.264/AVC do not charge the companies, like YouTube and Hulu, who use the video codec?

 Jason Kilar, CEO of Hulu, participates in "The Digital Chiefs: A Special Conversation on the Future of new Media in the Digital Age" panel discussion in Los AngelesThe reason why H.264/AVC can currently be used for free is because for it to be set as the standard video codec by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), the group in charge of setting the standards of audio and video compression and transmission, the companies who hold the patents agreed upon several years of free use. This exemption will very likely end in 2015, and unfortunately, it is naïve to think that those companies will continue to allow free usage of their video codec -- especially considering the fact that many of the companies need revenue from their patents to survive. So it is likely that anyone who uses that video codec will have to pay considerable amounts of money to those patent-holding companies. The free videos provided by YouTube and Hulu might no longer be free anymore if they feel the need to transfer the increase in costs to the customers. Imagine the public outcry that will occur if YouTube and Hulu started charging people to watch their videos.

UCLA Engineering IV building on campusAs a result, MPEG has created an ad hoc group to create a truly royalty free video codec called Internet Video Coding (IVC). This group, led by UCLA researcher Dr. Jianwen Chen, seeks to do so by creating a codec entirely from techniques that are over 20 years old. Why 20? Because patents expire after 20 years, so all those techniques are no longer protected by patents and are free for anyone to use. The obvious challenge with using such primitive techniques (20 years when it comes to technology is an extremely long time) is being able to match the performance of the current video codec. Fortunately, due to their efforts over the past two years, Chen and his team have been able to improve the performance of IVC to a level that is up to par with H.264/AVC.

Of course, IVC is not without its competitors. As MPEG seeks a new royalty-free video codec to be the standard, other video codecs have been suggested as well, including WebVC and VP8. WebVC is a video codec supported by several companies that include Apple and Cisco. It uses techniques that are still patented but the proponents of WebVC argue that they will buy ownership of those patents and make it royalty-free. However, it is difficult -- almost impossible -- to convince the hundreds of companies who own a patent to sell their patents. As mentioned earlier, many of these small companies depend on their ownership of their patent, and would be unwilling to simply sell it away. VP8 is Google’s video codec so Google clearly has personal reasons to propose it to be the new standard. One problem with VP8 is that it is incompatible with a lot of current hardware, which is a lot harder to change than software. There is also no guarantee that VP8 has no royalty issues; letting customers use a product for free, even if it has patent issues, and then charging them once they become used to it is a common business strategy. Despite their flaws, WebVC and VP8 are supported by very large companies, who have created obstacles for IVC when it comes to proving definitively that a patent is expired -- which is not as simple as just looking at a patent’s dates. However, if it is proved that all of IVC’s techniques are no longer protected by patents, then IVC will be the only truly royalty-free video codec.

With the increasing prevalence of internet videos, it will be interesting to see how the future of video codecs unfolds. As the chairman of MPEG’s ad hoc group for IVC, Dr. Chen has extensive knowledge of video codecs and believes that “the best option would be to have both a royalty-free codec and a higher performance codec that does require royalties.” This way, a free video codec will be available for general use but at the same time companies that are willing to pay will be able to receive higher performance. Chen stated that the deadline for IVC to be completed has been set for later this year. When completed, IVC will be evaluated and refined by MPEG to determine if it is suitable to be the standard. No matter which video codec is ultimately chosen to be the standard, Dr. Jianwen Chen and his team has put UCLA at the forefront of technology by remarkably creating new technology out of primitive methods.

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