AV1: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Like Chewbacca cosplayers drooling in anticipation over any Star Wars Episode IX detail droplet, attendees at the recent Streaming Video East confab were all atwitter over the potential of the recently minted AV1 video codec proffered by the Alliance for Open Media (AOM).

It is the very earliest days for the new codec, and streaming giants—such as AOM founding member Netflix—are hoping to add AV1 to its codec toolbox as soon as it’s feasible.

So why all the AV1 enthusiasm? In short, AV1 is designed to produce higher-quality, high-resolution video efficiently and without royalty payments to AOM. At least that’s the short answer. As usual, the devil is in the details.

At two separate codec conference sessions at Streaming Media East, panelists extolled the virtues of AV1. Most cited was its ability to deliver high-quality, high-resolution compression more efficiently than current latest-generation technology like HEVC and VP9. Earlier testing has shown that the codec can encode high-resolution content at high quality with a substantial increase in efficiency. It turns out that this comes with considerable costs, which we highlight below.

AV1 promoters emphasized the codec’s status of being “royalty-free”—quotes because the jury is still out on whether there are any infringement on existing patents. Being “royalty-free” is billed as an attractive alternative to HEVC since some HEVC IP owners haven’t publicly revealed licensing terms, and the total HEVC royalty bill remains unclear.

But panelists also cautioned potential AV1 adopters by enumerating a cornucopia of caveats, including encoding costs, possible intellectual property (IP) entanglements, application and time complications. Let’s start with that last caveat—time—since it informs the other three. According to AOM’s own roadmap, AV1-compatible devices are not due until 2020.

Between now and 2020, much work will be required to optimize AV1 technology. For instance, production and encoder tools still need to be developed and optimized. One panelist noted that AV1 encoding is extremely complex and slow, which translates into high encoding costs and possibly more powerful and expensive processors needed in consumer devices. Right now, AV1’s higher encoding and storage costs may overwhelm the AOM “royalty-free” savings. All standards-based, widely adopted codecs are improved upon and made more efficient over time. Until that work is done on AV1, its deployable state is unknown.

Then there are AV1’s potential IP issues. Because the AV1 codec doesn’t compress video in a fundamentally different way than from past and existing codecs, it is likely that it uses technology invented elsewhere. Some of that “invented elsewhere” technology falls under the expired patents category, but perhaps not all of it. However, considering the essentially bottomless pockets of AOM’s founding members—Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Netflix, to name a few—those who believe their IP has been infringed upon may not want to face that Goliath.

AV1 also is, right now, being billed as a streaming codec. HEVC, aside from being the codec of choice for most 4K streaming content, is the codec of choice for all 4K video traveling over broadcast networks (satellite, cable, IPTV and terrestrial). Plus, it is the specified codec for next-generation digital terrestrial TV (DTT) standard ATSC 3.0. Because of its current encoding complexity, AV1 is not currently suitable for real-time, 4K encoding required by broadcasters. With time and the minimization of encoding complexity, it may be suitable for this type of encoding, but HEVC is already well-entrenched in the broadcast world. To date, many broadcasters and streamers are sitting back on their heels with 4K as they ponder the delivery costs, as well as 8K looming on the horizon.

Yes, a lot can happen to enhance AV1 between now and 2020 to meet its lofty quality, efficiency and cost expectations. But content producers, providers and platform managers may want to temper their AV1 enthusiasm for now. As many a wise person has observed, anticipation often exceeds the actual event.