The future is here: A brief guide to HEVC

H.264, we hardly knew ye — except we did and that now veteran format has become part of the foundation for the delivery of high-quality video over the Web. This changes later this year as a new format hits our virtual town, HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), which requires even less storage and bandwidth.

HEVC

What it is

HEVC (sometimes called H.265) succeeds H.264 and is set to become essential to the development and distribution of high resolution video formats, such as Ultra High Definition.

The first devices to deploy HEVC support are expected to reach market early this year, Rovi Corporation announced at CES this month. The standard is expected to be ratified in early 2013.

Rovi plans to introduce new encoding SDK’s and an update to DivX device certification that should allow companies to begin to deliver HEVC support on their devices.

Once this step takes place, software and hardware manufacturers are likely to clarify their intentions toward adoption and support of the new standard.

Once deployed, video consumers should be able to download video at the same quality as today in up to half the time, using up half the storage space when they do.

This also makes for an easier time when accessing video using mobile devices. As RealNetworks puts it:

“The first beneficiaries of HEVC/H.265 will be mobile devices that support video. The combination of HEVC’s lower bit rates takes a burden off the mobile devices’ processors. It also allows twice as much video to be stored in the same limited onboard memory available on mobile devices.”

What it does

HEVC/H.265 supports resolutions up to 8,192-x-4,320 and delivers double the data compression ratio of H.264. Where H.264 supports a maximum macroblock of 16-x-16 pixels, HEVC delivers up to 64-x-64 pixels.

The video standard also offers “internal bit depth increase”. This is interesting because it means images can be internally processed at a bit depth higher than that with which they are encoded.

The standard has been developed with coding efficiency in mind. At its simplest the solution promises extremely high-resolution video on both solid-state delivery media such as Blu-ray or DVD, or shared online.

In principle you should look forward to presenting customers with video assets at a higher resolution than HD but using compression that should keep file sizes down.

Managable file sizes can be attributed to the standard’s high-quality imaging support in conjunction with a far lower bitrate in comparison with earlier codecs.

Unlike H.264, HEVC is also optimized for parallel processing, meaning you can decode different parts of the media simultaneously.

There’s more detailed technical information available here.

Suddenly Apple's decision to focus on the resolution of the displays on its devices when contrasted to HD TV makes a little more sense -- will iTunes offer up shows in Ultra HD?

Suddenly Apple’s decision to focus on the resolution of the displays on its devices when contrasted to HD TV makes a little more sense — will iTunes offer up shows in Ultra HD?

Who is already on board

The BBC captured its Olympic coverage in 8K (supported by HEVC). While this wasn’t available to many given the currently prohibitive cost of sets that support it, the footage was shown at screenings across the UK. Audiences enjoyed this, because the level of visual detail helped them feel part of the experience.

Fraunhofer states:

“The resolution on home televisions will soon be enhanced even further, conveying the feeling of being right in the middle of the action, instead of just watching from the sidelines. Indeed, the successor to the full HD television set is already penetrating the market: the 4K display, also called 2160p format. These televisions have four times as many pixels as the TVs in our living rooms today. Still, the continuously growing number of pixels must also be fed with the matching content, so that the capabilities of the high resolution television can also be utilized. But to do so has always been tied to immense costs, until recently, and therefore was only considered for major events, like the Olympic Games.”

Apple has already moved to support HEVC on its iPads — those sold in 2012 are HEVC compliant. As the below image (borrowed from RealNetworks) shows, HEVC is capable of significantly higher definition.

That’s particularly interesting in light of Apple’s constant quest to deliver high-resolution displays across all its devices, especially in light of the constant claims the company is plotting its way to introduce a dedicated Apple television set.

Will this be among the first available affordable consumer televisions to be equipped with both Internet access and support for the coming standard? If so it hints at future plans to offer up content using the standard via the iTunes Store.

Allegro DVT is already exhibiting its HEVC video hardware decoder; while ATEME has shown an encoding device that encodes video at 3,840-×-2,160p at 60 fps with an average bit rate of 15 Mbit/s. The latter should ship this October.

In a recently-published post, RealNetworks expressed its enthusiasm for the fresh format, observing: ” Buckle up your seat belt. Online video is about to get a much-needed jolt that will mean faster downloading and more storage space for your online videos. As an added bonus, it will deliver higher levels of video quality that were ridiculed only a few years ago.”

ViXS Systems, Samsung and Broadcom have variously announced: A hardware SoC transcoding solution; Plasma TVs with HEVC support and an Ultra HD decoding chip.

YouTube and Vimeo already offers Ultra HD and there’s whispers (again vie RealNetworks) that Sony’s PlayStation 4 may support 4K resolutions in future.

HD-Video-sizes

Any potential flaws?

HEVC is a new technology and it’s inevitable video pros will see some delay before all their familiar soft- and hardware tools implement support for the standard. Based on previous standard migrations (HD, HD-ready etc.) it is also possible we’ll see some compromises made as manufacturers choose to fully enable the standard.

When it comes to making movies, the increased level of compression could make for longer transcode times, or make the process of colour grading that little bit more challenging.

Broadcasters seem likely to deploy the standard to support their online offerings: Many already employ MPEG-4, but it seems inevitable they will choose to use HEVC in order to lower bitrates and manage increasing data demands for existing services, or to offer high quality services online.

While the migration to support the standard will likely seem fairly seamless to consumers, it’s possible content creators will face challenges finding the bank of equipment they need to affordably prepare their content for transmission using HEVC. Fortunately that’s where we come in, so if you need to deploy support for content provision using the format, drop us a line.

More information

Fraunhofer Institute

Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC)

Vcodex

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