H.265 Coming to a Video Screen Near You
We're not likely to see products for another year or so, but once the ball starts rolling, we'll see rapid uptake as providers of video take advantage of the improved quality.
In what should be considered lightning speed for the historically slow moving International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the group last week approved the H.265 standard, also known as high efficiency video coding (HVEC). The ITU gave first-stage approval while work continues to develop extensions to the standard, which should lead us to 3-D video encoding sometime in the future.
The approval should be viewed as one small step for video and one giant step for video-kind, as the new standard cuts the amount of bandwidth required for a video session by as much as 50%. We first got a glimpse of H.265 at the 2012 version of the Cisco Collaboration Summit in downtown LA. During the demo I had asked the question about whether H.265 was indeed innovation or yet another video island, and Cisco responded by saying they had aggressively pushed it into the standards body for approval in 2013--I just didn't expect it to be this early in 2013.
The reason that H.265 is so important to the video industry is that it enables video providers to stream video at 1080p, even over lower speed connections. While Cisco, Polycom and the rest of the industry talk about a world of ubiquitous video, this can't really happen if companies and consumers are always pushing the envelope when it comes to bandwidth consumption for just a couple of simultaneous video streams. This becomes particularly problematic with wireless networks. A few years ago the thought of doing video over a wireless network was way out in the future and seen only on SciFi Network. However, the future is here now. Tablets, smart phones and laptops have great cameras on them and we have a generation of people that, for some reason, love to be on video.
With respect to wireless networks, the rise of 4G cellular networks and WiFi standards such as 802.11n and the upcoming .11ac launch make video over wireless possible today, but the footprint of high speed WiFi and cellular is still very small compared to the overall footprint of wireless networks.
For the rest of the network where LTE or 802.11n isn't available, the experience with other services is generally poor. There are many times when I struggle to get basic web browsing to work. One video session would absolutely crush the wireless networks in many places.
Now there are a number of issues I'd like to point out that could hamper adoption.
In practicality, the 50% number is a best-case scenario--more realistically, a 35-40% improvement should be expected. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the halving of bandwidth consumption shouldn't be expected everywhere. Also, knowing how we live in a society of one-upsmanship, it's more likely that content providers will use the extra bandwidth to push out higher quality, larger video streams rather than save on bandwidth for existing levels of video quality.
Also, the compression algorithm used for H.265 is significantly more complicated than with H.264, meaning it takes more processing power from the CPU of the endpoint. For desktops and room-based systems, this shouldn't really be an issue. However, for smartphones and tablets, it could be problematic. This is quite the conundrum for the protocol, as one of the motivators for H.265 was to deliver better video to mobile devices over lower-speed wireless networks. There's some talk of having dedicated hardware on board mobile devices to handle the increased computing requirements, which just drives the costs up in an increasingly competitive market.
As for timing, while the standard has just been approved, all this means is we have an agreed-upon standard. We still need software written, hardware designed and from the people I've talked to, it looks like we'll have software based encoders by year's end but we won't see rapid uptake until the codecs are integrated into chips, and that's more likely to be 2014 at best. However, even though we're not likely to see products for another year or year and a half, I do think once the ball starts rolling, we'll see rapid uptake of H.265 as providers of video look to take advantage of the improved quality.
The best thing working for the video industry is competition. We live in a very visual world today. Consumers want more YouTube, Facebook, Facetime, Skype, etc., and that will translate into the business world. One video stream to multiple devices has been and remains the goal for anyone in the video industry, and H.265 will help us get there faster.
The acceptance of H.265 will mean less network strain and more HD-quality video. This won't solve all of our video challenges, but it is another step along the way to ubiquitous video.