The move could set the stage for an industry fight over which next-generation codec becomes the prevailing way to stream Ultra HD video, also referred to as 4K, which offers four times the resolution of current high-def but also consumes more bandwidth.
For its push into 4K video, YouTube is adopting VP9, an open-source codec maintained under the Google-backed WebM initiative. In doing so, YouTube — which carries clout as the Internet’s No. 1 video site by a long shot — is spurning the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) specification, which has been considered the def facto technology among many device manufacturers, distributors and content owners.
Netflix, for example, is using HEVC to stream “House of Cards” season 2 in Ultra HD video, to compatible 4K TV sets of yet-to-be-announced partners.
Like HEVC, VP9 is designed to be twice as efficient as the current most widely used codec for Internet video, MPEG-4 / H.264 — roughly cutting bandwidth requirements in half to deliver comparable HD quality. But one key difference is the Google-controlled VP9 codec offers royalty-free use whereas HEVC requires patent licensing agreements to support.
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When it comes to HEVC, “we all know the licensing issues,” said Francisco Varela, YouTube’s global head of platform partnerships. “We have all these partners supporting VP9, and this is the first next-generation codec that we are supporting. It’s open, royalty-free — we like that profile.”
HEVC, also referred to as H.265, is a standard overseen by the International Telecommunication Union. The codec was developed jointly by the ITU Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).
At the 2014 International CES, Google plans to run YouTube 4K demos with VP9 in the booths of LG, Panasonic and Sony. Video featured in the demos will include 4K clips — from partners including Audi, Red Bull, Devin Supertramp, Sam Tsui and Wren the Reaper — produced at the YouTube Space LA studio.
While YouTube’s preference is VP9, Varela left open the possibility that the site might use HEVC in the future. “We are not announcing that we will not support HEVC,” said Varela, adding that YouTube supports 17 different codecs currently.
According to YouTube, the first partner TVs and other devices that incorporate VP9 will start hitting the market in 2015. In 2014, YouTube will start transcoding HD video into VP9.
The initial group of YouTube partners that have pledged to support VP9 are: ARM, Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, LG, M-Star, Marvell, MediaTek, Mozilla, Nvidia, Panasonic, Philips, Qualcomm, Realtek Semiconductor, Samsung, Sigma, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba.
Google acquired video-compression startup On2 Technologies for $125 million in 2010. On2 developed the VP8 codec, which is roughly equivalent to MPEG-4 / H.264.
The VP9 codec, besides being license-free to CE makers, also improves video quality on playback and reduces buffering, according to Varela. Today, YouTube delivers most HD — including video in up to 4K — in H.264 format. That provides “a nice experience but too often the network is congested, or you have to wait too long for that video to start playing,” he said.