New video codec cuts 4K video size in half

If broadly adopted, the new H.266 VVC codec would greatly improve the 4K streaming experience.
(Image: Pixabay / Creative Commons)

A new video codec unveiled this week could provide a boon to the 4K video streaming market if it becomes widely adopted.

The new H.266 standard, also known as Versatile Video Coding (VVC), is touted by its developers as offering “improved compression, which reduces data requirements by around 50 percent” compared to its predecessor codec.

That predecessor, H.265 or High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also promised to offer better image quality with smaller file sizes compared to the H.264 or MPEG-4  AVC standard. But a series of patent disputes among HEVC’s developers has hampered its adoption — it’s currently supported in a limited number of hardware devices, including Apple and some Canon products — which has allowed the inferior MPEG-4 AVC standard to remain the industry standard among streaming video applications.

The continued use of the old MPEG-4 AVC standard has been somewhat problematic for consumers interested in streaming 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) content. Right now, a two-hour 4K movie uses around 15GB of data. By comparison, a two-hour high-definition (1080p) movie uses around 3GB of data.

Streaming services that offer 4K UHD video content typically recommend customers have a base Internet speed of 25 Mbps (though it’s encouraged for the speed to be higher) along with a direct wired Ethernet connection from the TV to the Internet router in order to cut down on potential video buffering.

But few people think to put their Internet router within range of their TV’s Ethernet port, and some streaming devices like the 4K UHD-supported Roku Streaming Stick Plus don’t support Ethernet at all. Broadband data caps imposed by some Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T also create issues for people who stream a high amount of 4K TV or movies, especially across multiple devices.

HEVC was supposed to solve some of this problem by using new compression methods to reduce video files into a more manageable size, particularly for Internet streaming services, without reducing audio or video quality. Using HEIC, a two-hour video would be compressed to just 10GB — still large, but also one-third the size of a video encoded in MPEG-4 AVC.

But lawsuits over HEVC’s various patents, including a suit brought by Dolby and others against a German electronics manufacturer, have led most hardware manufacturers and software developers to steer clear of HEVC despite the obvious advantages.

Things might change with VVC though. VVC’s developers, the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, has a better track record of licensing its codecs in a more-reasonable manner. The company was involved in the development and licensing of the MP3 codec, which is still the most-widely used audio compression format in the world.

If Fraunhofer is successful at licensing VVC the way it licensed MP3, that would be good news for streaming video distributors and consumers, especially those put off by the large file sizes and data requirements of MPEG-4 AVC videos. Where a two-hour 4K movie requires 15GB under MPEG-4 AVC, the same two-hour would require just 7.5 GB of space under VVC with video and audio quality that is comparable, or even better, than HEVC.

The smaller file size would mean video streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon and YouTube would be able to store more 4K UHD videos on its servers while using less bandwidth to deliver them to consumers. It would also allow consumers with slower Internet connections or who use WiFi to have some peace of mind that their video won’t buffer or bump up against ISP-imposed data caps.

VVC would also benefit consumers who watch lots of high-definition video on their smartphones. Currently, mobile phone companies like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile support DVD-quality standard definition video streams on their cheapest unlimited data plans while requiring customers pay more for high-definition video on their phones. With the smaller size of VVC files, phone companies might one day allow customers to stream high-definition video on their networks without having to pay more.

That vision might quickly become a reality: Fraunhofer says it will publish its software for VVC hardware and software encoders and decoders later this year.

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