SAMS Forum: Tough Codec Decisions for Asset Managers

With 4K and 8K looming, how do they meet today’s needs while preparing for tomorrow?

Simply put, it’s a tough time to be choosing codecs. Sports-content owners with massive, valuable libraries of content are tasked with making format decisions today that will affect how their media is stored, processed, and consumed for decades to come. With 4K and even 8K on the horizon, the asset manager’s job is likely to get even more difficult: larger files mean larger storage requirements and more codec question marks. However, although technology may be constantly changing, at some point, sports-content owners must choose a path and walk down it head first.

Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

“Every time new hardware, codecs, and resolutions come out, you are going to have people saying they want to pick a [format] right now, but the business will be saying, ‘Wait, there is something beyond that. So let’s hold on and wait until the new stuff comes out,’” said Jason Thibeault, principal technical evangelist, Limelight Networks, at the recent SVG Sports Asset Management & Storage Forum. “But then you will just keep waiting until the new stuff comes out. At some point, a decision has to be made where you choose your equipment and you go with a workflow. Then, at some point, maybe you leapfrog to the next standard past that. But you can’t keep having that discussion over and over again.”

Catering to Today While Prepping for Tomorrow
One factor in asset managers’ favor is that moving to next-gen standards like 4K doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. By moving pieces of the production system to 4K today, organizations can enhance the current HD workflow while also preparing for what is to come.

“The idea that there is this HD infrastructure that is HD from start to finish and then there is 4K infrastructure from start to finish and they are entirely separate and independent from one another is old thinking,” said Michael Bergeron, strategic technology liaison, Panasonic Solutions. “You started to see this with SD-to-HD when it was very easy to take an HD camera and switch it to SD when you had an SD job. Very few, if any 4K cameras don’t have the capability of shooting HD.

“That goes through the entire production chain,” he added. “A production may not deliver in 4K but might still shoot in 4K or postproduce in 4K. Different parts of the organization can make their own decision, and it’s not outrageous to make them all work together.”

Is the Death of H.264 Upon Us? Maybe Not
Much has been made about the potential rise of next-generation compression standards like HEVC/H.265 and Google’s VP9 and when these could potentially take the place of the current standard, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC. HEVC promises double the data-compression rates of H.264, eliciting plenty of excitement in the streaming and OTT markets, where bandwidth is an increasingly valuable — and limited — commodity. However, although the promise of HEVC has generated plenty of buzz, the codec remains very much in its infancy.

From left: Sony’s Hugo Gaggioni, Panasonic’s Michael Bergeron, and Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

From left: Sony’s Hugo Gaggioni, Panasonic’s Michael Bergeron, and Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

“What we are seeing from a codec standpoint right now is that H.264 definitely rules the roost,” said Thibeault. “I think H.264 is going to stay around for quite some time. It’s built into established workflows, and it’s really where there has been a tremendous amount of innovation done in terms of producing high-quality video at a reduced compression.”

He added that he foresees the same level of evolution that occurred with H.264 taking place with HEVC and VP9 as major technology providers and startups alike cultivate more-advanced algorithms for these formats.

“There is an argument going on in this space about H.265/HEVC versus VP9 and which will be better to produce the kind of compression that online video needs to get that 4K resolution to those screens,” Thibeault said. “I think what we will see going forward is more time and effort going toward the compression algorithms themselves. We saw a lot of fine-tuning of the H.264 algorithms over time, and I think we are going to see that same thing with HEVC as it starts to come on the market. We are just starting to see that algorithm and codec come into play. The issue is, it requires hardware decoding so you have to have a lot of upgrades to consumer equipment. There is a real quandary in the industry about which direction to go from a codec standpoint.”

Bandwidth Always a Concern in Avoiding ‘VHS 4K’
The issue of bandwidth also plays a key role in the standards discussion. Although several outlets already claim to be streaming 4K video directly to consumers, many of these services are being delivered at lower-than-ideal bitrates, some as low as 4 Mbps. Sony Broadcast and Production Systems Division CTO Hugo Gaggioni joked that 4K at 10 Mbps is essentially “VHS 4K.”

Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

Limelight Networks’ Jason Thibeault

Netflix, for example, streams 4K video for programs like House of Cards at 15 Mbps, and the company requires at least a 20-Mbps connection for the high-resolution stream to come through. However, as of 2014, America’s national average of 10.5 Mbps is well below those requirements, especially during peak viewing hours.

“People say they [can do] 4K at 8 Mbps. Really? It looks awful,” said Gaggioni. “Japan is using 40 Mbps, and it is extremely high quality. And they are optimizing the codec as best they can because they know [they can’t distribute] watered-down 4K. It has to be very powerful, good-looking 4K.”

Matters are likely to become even more complicated when Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray discs begin shipping for this year’s holiday season. The format promises wider color gamut and high dynamic range (HDR), further increasing the bitrate required to eventually stream the format to homes.

“This is the discussion we have between whoever makes the legal decisions [regarding] data rates and how much bandwidth it will occupy over the top vs. the reality of how it will impact the consumer, said Gaggioni. “4K Blu-ray is coming, and it’s going to be an absolutely incredible picture quality with HDR. That is another [differentiator] where the consumer will say, ‘I want that.’ And you can’t get away with 8- or 10-Mbps 4K.”

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