HEVC Codec Could Be a Game Changer in the Video Realm

Nick McLain
Apr 12, 2013

Like many others my age, I’ve scrapped cable TV and instead opted for online streaming options like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.

So I read with interest when Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt talked about the possibility of Netflix offering Ultra High Definition/4K streaming within a year or two in an interview with The Verge last month.

I started to think about how this might be accomplished. It brought me back to January, when I read about the H.265, or High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), standard that was approved (in its first iteration) by the International Telecommunications Union.

The primary advantage to HEVC is its compression capability, which is approximately double that of its predecessor, the H.264 Advanced Video Coding (AVC) codec. It should only need half as many bits per second of video content to provide an equal level of video quality.

“That would mean that you could send twice as many channels of content in the same transmission system or store twice as much video on a storage disc,” said Gary Sullivan, chairman of the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding, which oversees the HEVC standardization effort.

He added that the better compression capability could also be used to provide better quality at the same bit rate or a reduced bit rate. The quality improvement could come in the form of increased picture resolution, higher frame rate or 3-D enhancement.

While the first version was approved in January, Sullivan says several extensions are expected by the end of 2014, including:

  • New profiles that extend the range of applications for bit depth and chroma format
  • Enhanced 3-D and multiview coding capabilities
  • Scalable coding (for use on smaller screens)

Implications for High-Quality Content

HEVC has been a hot topic of discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters Show, with a few product announcements, to boot. If broadcast channels were to adopt HEVC, it could be a blessing for the Ultra HD/4K TV manufacturers, as demand for those products is tied to the availability of Ultra HD/4K content.

“It starts with the content providers,” Dave Saxby, owner of Ultimate HD, a CEDIA member company based in California, says. “If there is nothing interesting to send, nobody cares.”

What’s more, with HEVC enabling half the bit rate of current HD video, the problem of Internet bandwidth congestion could hopefully be resolved. Estimates vary, but streaming video seems to account for 20 to 50 percent of the Internet bandwidth usage at any given time. With major Internet service providers implementing monthly bandwidth caps, efficient streaming takes on greater importance.

I reached out to Netflix CPO Hunt to ask if HEVC would be the vehicle for Netflix’s 4K streaming. While Hunt didn’t commit to HEVC and mentioned other “proprietary formats that are more ready”, he did call it a “major contender.” While those proprietary formats might be more ready, Hunt did seem to indicate that HEVC would probably be a better long-term solution, as it will likely be the standard supported by most hardware manufacturers.

“A key goal for the initiative for Netflix is to help shift the industry toward a Ultra HD-encoding standard that will last for awhile,” Hunt says.

As physical media storage continues to go the way of the Dodo, Saxby believes efficient transmission of video content over the Internet will become more prominent. “I don’t think we’ll see a 4K 3D movie on physical media,” he says. “It’s all going to be over the Internet.”

The rollout won’t be without its challenges, though. Mike Fitzpatrick helps run operations and IT at Kordz, a CEDIA member in Australia and a manufacturer of A/V and digital cables. Fitzpatrick suggests that integrators should be aware of the obstacles involved when dealing with H.265 (a compressed video format for transmission and digital storage) and HDMI (an uncompressed format for transmission) in the same conduit, and should know where the decoding occurs. “Integrators will often need to deal with both formats within the same installation and should know where each occurs in the source-to-display pipeline,” he says.

Fitzpatrick also emphasized the importance of being future-ready. “H.265’s support for significantly higher resolution means that current and future installations will be expected to handle much higher uncompressed video streams than currently produced by H.264 sources such as Blu-ray and HDTV broadcasts,” he says.

Conferencing Applications

Another exciting area where HEVC could be a big difference-maker is in video conferencing/telepresence. Rich Green, the chair of the CEDIA Technology Council, believes it could be a “big boon” to that market, especially video conferencing done via virtual multipoint control units (as opposed to hardware MCUs at each end point) by companies such as Blue Jeans Network.

Ted Tracy, the vice president of engineering at Blue Jeans Network, says they are following the HEVC process very closely and could begin implementing it in 2014 with full usage in 2015. “The attraction of getting similar HD quality at half the bit rate is extremely interesting to us,” he says.

Vidyo, a New Jersey-based video teleconferencing company, was one of the first in its industry to use H.264 and its Scalable Video Coding (SVC) extension. Jill Boyce, director of algorithms for Vidyo, is part of the HEVC standardization effort (as she was in the H.264 standard) and is helping to develop the scalable HEVC extension, which she believes will be finalized by mid-2014. “We’re very excited about the scalable extension, getting the benefits of scalability while still getting those coding efficiency benefits,” Boyce says.

How Soon Will We See Mainstream Adoption?

Although expectations are high surrounding HEVC, analysts say widespread adoption will take time. Dan Rayburn, principal analyst for the Digital Media group at market research company Frost & Sullivan, recently speculated that adoption of HEVC in consumer content services would be at least five years away. His colleague at Frost & Sullivan, Avni Rambhia, also recently did a webinar, “HEVC: Cutting Through the Hype,” that is worth checking out.

Saxby, however, says not to rule out a quicker timetable. “The life cycles [in technology] are shrinking,” he says. “I’m sure adoption of H.265 will come faster than H.264 matured. I could see it being fairly mainstream within a year or two.”


Check out CEDIA's white paper on video conferencing and telepresence, Telepresence Opportunities for Home Technology Professionals.

About Nick McLain
Nick McLain is CEDIA's Technical Journalist. He can be reached at nmclain@cedia.org.



CEDIA blog posts are intended to provide general information and should not be regarded as legal opinions or advice.

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