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Stealth compression company claims mind-blowing performance gains

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Eric Achtmann, Executive Chairman at V-Nova (left) and Guido Meardi, CEO and Founder

A company that has managed to keep itself under wraps for four years had its official launch this week and promised to revolutionize the telecoms and media market with a new codec that it claims will deliver UHD in HD bit rates, HD in SD bit rates and SD in sub-audio bit rates. V-Nova says its proprietary codec called PERSEUS will be licensed in the same way that standards-based codecs are currently licensed, with existing encoder providers as well as SoC providers having access to the technology. 

V-Nova has also developed its own encoding solutions to give media companies a way to use the technology immediately. Platform operators would not need new set-top boxes to use the PERSEUS codec as it can be accommodated on reasonably modern STBs via an over-the-air software update. Sky Italia is already using the new codec for studio-to-studio contribution links and V-Nova says we should expect customers for distribution (headend to home) scenarios as well.

During demonstrations the company has been showing UHD distributed at 8Mbps compared to 21Mbps with HEVC encoded content, for what it says was comparable video quality based on key performance indicators. Contribution feeds that would require 1Gbps of bandwidth using JPEG 2000 are being achieved with 300Mbps and SD video is being delivered at 300Kbps, making it possible to provide mobile television over 2G networks.

Perhaps just as importantly, V-Nova says platform operators using the PERSEUS codec can avoid simulcasting separate SD, HD and UHD streams for each channel and instead deliver all three formats in a single transport stream that requires only the data for the most demanding format – in this case meaning UHD. As the company is claiming 8Mbps for high quality UHD to the home, this means you could deliver a channel in all its formats for 8Mbps instead of what would otherwise be something like 2Mbps for SD, 6Mbps for HD and 21Mbps for UHD – totaling 29Mbps.

The company has deviated dramatically from traditional approaches to video compression in order to achieve its claimed efficiency improvements. In particular, PERSEUS uses massively parallel processing and instead of focusing on removing redundancy from the compression process, it is focused on “understanding and maximizing the correlation of data as you move through space and time”. There is even the possibility to ditch reference frames, the I-Frames in MPEG encoding, if you are not working with legacy infrastructure.

The result, according to Eric Achtmann, Executive Chairman at V-Nova, is compression efficiency that is multiple times better than what we have become accustomed to, and a big bang solution to the strain on networks and the resulting demands on CapEx for new fibre and 4G roll-outs. “For decades we have been seeing incremental improvements in codecs and the fundamentals of encoding have not changed much,” he told journalists and analysts at the official worldwide launch for PERSEUS at V-Nova’s Paddington offices.

“When the incremental increase [in compression efficiency] is 10-25% it is difficult to justify the business case [for upgrading to a new generation of encoders and decoders]. But this is no longer a discussion about incremental change; it is a paradigm shift that will create a huge amount of value that all stakeholders can share in.”

V-Nova was established in 2011 and has created an alliance of 20 partners (covering broadcasting, telecoms, aerospace & defence, medical imaging, security, computing and consulting) to provide an end-to-end ecosystem for anyone that wants to work with the PERSEUS codec. Partners include Broadcom (who will support the codec on current and future set-top boxes), Intel and Hitachi Data Systems, which provides enterprise grade server and storage systems. Wyplay, which provides set-top box and multiscreen software, is also a partner.

The company CEO and Founder is Guido Meardi, serial patent filer and previously a Partner at McKinsey & Company. Eric Achtmann is Executive Chairman, ex Boeing, Airbus Group and BMW, who worked in the Financial Institutions (M&A) and Industry Practices at McKinsey & Company. He led Project Marlow, a multi-national consortium to revolutionize the drinks vending industry, pulling together companies including Costa Coffee, Intel, Microsoft, Pininfarina, and others.  

Rick Clucas is Head of Product Innovation. He has spent over 17 years in the semiconductor IP sector and is credited as being the inventor of the first GPU (Super-FX chip) and with being the creator of the ARC chip (he was Co-Founder at ARC Inc.). Most recently he was Head of Development at Coresonic. Engineering Delivery is the responsibility of Ilan Maarek, a former Programme Manger at Cisco Systems and NDS Development Manager. He has 20 years experience in video encoding.

The identity of the company’s Chief Scientist is being kept a secret! He is credited with having 25+ years video encoding expertise and being an early MPEG developer. He has architected multiple successful commercial encoders and was educated in Computer Engineering in Torino, his anonymous biography says.

The PERSEUS codec operates across all bit rates and quality levels (both lossless and lossy) but the efficiency benefits increase with higher resolution and higher frame rates. This is viewed as a solution for the demands of high quality, low latency encoding and it is not just for the television industry either. V-Nova is targeting medical diagnostics, video conferencing, gaming, virtual reality, aerospace and CCTV security cameras with the new technology. 

In developed television markets the use of PERSEUS could mean 4K content becoming available sooner than expected and many more HD channels as distribution costs fall, or premium soccer shown in HD over 3G networks or even 2G networks. Emerging markets will benefit especially from the extended reach for video distribution across lower bandwidth networks, whether fixed or mobile. V-Nova showed a demonstration of various resolutions on mobile devices including SD video at 300Kbps over 2G. The company believes PERSEUS could be a game-changer for OTT video, extending its reach by ten times in some emerging markets.

V-Nova reckons this is truly disruptive technology, partly because it will work on existing infrastructure. PERSEUS can be used within an MPEG-TS environment, the company said, and it can also be used on existing set-top boxes, with software updates. Those boxes require modern processing power, so this would apply to STBs deployed in the last 3-5 years. 

The codec can be used within existing workflows for online video services including to mobiles, so can be used in coordination with adaptive bit rate streaming of various flavours, existing DRM systems, origin servers, streaming servers and CDNs.  The codec will already plug into a number of players that between them reach hundreds of millions of people today, the company said at its launch.

The encoding works on standard, commercially available hardware and operating systems including current and previous generation devices. While V-Nova is licensing the codec to other encoder vendors, and has already engaged with a limited number of unnamed encoding manufacturers, V-Nova has developed its own products, too, to satisfy initial demand and current projects.

These products are appliances on commercial-of-the-shelf hardware plus software and software plug-ins within packaged solutions in partnership with alliance members like Hitachi Data Systems. There is no intention to discontinue these solutions if or when established encoding vendors license PERSEUS and the codec has started to penetrate the market. 

There are compromises on performance in order to achieve full compatibility with existing infrastructure, however. Achtmann likens the codec to a multi-fuel engine where you can use high octane fuel at the expense of compatibility or achieve greater compatibility by using ethanol. But there are still dramatic gains to be seen in all scenarios, V-Nova claims. 

Sky Italia, Italy’s leading Pay TV provider with 4.7 million homes, is the first publicly named customer for PERSEUS. Massimo Bertolotti, Head of Engineering & Innovation at the company, attended the launch (along with key executives from Intel and Hitachi) to explain why his company chose the new codec for video links between studios in Milan and Rome within an existing standards-based workflow. The company needed high quality and low latency compression and switched from JPEG 2000 in order to reduce bandwidth requirements and get more from its existing connections, avoiding an infrastructure upgrade.

Bertolotti made it clear that he viewed this codec as a solution for distribution as well. Accompanied by a graphic showing Sky set-top boxes, he said, “This is a technology that can work with standard MPEG technologies, so it is possible to use it for distribution in our current ecosystem.” 

V-Nova says it kept its developments secret because it wanted to present the market with deliverable products and solutions rather than presentations. The company is relaxed about the proprietary nature of its solution in such a standards-centric market, and believes that putting the codec into a standards process would have dramatically slowed time to market. Achtmann takes the view that if enough people use a technology, it becomes a defacto standard. 

Guido Meardi (CEO and Founder) suggested V-Nova will have to decide whether to go through a standardization body – but he has no opinion on which way that decision will fall. Meanwhile the codec will be licensed on similar terms to what encoder and decoder manufacturers are used to with existing codecs, with comparable pricing. “The business case is very compelling,” Meardi promised. 

Explaining the technology behind PERSEUS in more detail, Achtmann declared that current codecs are constrained by their design, having originally been conceived in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. “They were designed to work in serial architectures and the world has moved on, so existing codecs do not take advantage of current architectures,” he argued.

PERSEUS is hierarchical and massively parallel, so can solve problems that could not previously be solved because there was not enough time (in real-time) to compute the amounts of data involved. Now more of the silicon can be used at the same time and different parts of the encoding process can be run independently of each other, journalists were told.

This all means more efficient processing and also less power requirements. V-Nova says third-party testing shows that PERSEUS uses 15%-35% less processor power than H.264 and offers even greater savings when compared to H.265/HEVC. In the decode, there is also the benefit of increased battery life in devices.

Speaking to BBC News, Guido Meardi added: “We allocate more data when there is more detail and less data when there is less detail and also work simultaneously on different parts of the picture, leveraging the multiple core architectures we already have in devices.”

During the launch, the company showed a few demonstrations across big screens and mobiles. One showed live footage from outside the building via a 4K camera, first as a contribution link and then as a distribution signal. The UHD distribution signal, running at 50 frames per second, required 21Mbps in HEVC but only 8Mbps using PERSEUS to achieve equal quality. One of the mobile demonstrations showed SD at 127Kbps using PERSEUS. An Android phablet running 960×514 resolution video was using 700Kbps.

Editor’s Note

Obviously we cannot verify any of the claims that were made at this launch but only report them! More customers will be needed to confirm the potential of PERSEUS and that the market is willing to back a proprietary solution. The technology does sound revolutionary. I get the sense that V-Nova has just detonated a small bomb and we shall be reporting on the fall-out in the coming weeks and months. We have asked various encoder vendors and chipset makers to comment but there was no time to get their replies. If you have any thoughts on this dramatic development, including off-the-record, please email [email protected]

 

Update: Wyplay and V-Nova are working on several PERSEUS implementation projects 

Wyplay, the TV software solutions provider that covers STB, multiscreen and OTT solutions, has revealed that it is already working with V-Nova, the company behind the PERSEUS compression codec. The company has confirmed that: “Wyplay and V-Nova are collaborating on several implementation projects with our partners, leveraging the performance and ease of integration of PERSEUS and the strengths of the Frog ecosystem.”

Dominique Feral, CMO at Wyplay, declares: “The open innovation approach advocated by both companies yields significant synergies in terms of accelerated deployment of V-Nova’s innovative approach to video compression and decoding on Pay TV set-top-boxes, allowing operators to reap the benefits in terms of increased reach and higher quality of experience for their subscribers.” Wyplay says it will announce more details about the joint projects soon.

Wyplay is a strategic partner for leading brands including SFR, Vodafone, Belgacom and Canal+. Frog is a proven middleware solution that is empowered by an open community, led by Wyplay. The company describes Frog by Wyplay as the first independent open source software solution for Pay TV operators. The initiative brings together a growing ecosystem of more than 80 companies across the digital TV technology value chain including chipset vendors, device manufacturers, independent software vendors, software development and integration services providers and operators.

Update: Broadcom gives a few more details about its work with PERSEUS codec

Broadcom has provided some more detail on its involvement with V-Nova and its PERSEUS codec. The SoC provider says it supports V-Nova with its reference design and software environment, and adds that, “PERSEUS implementations are wholly driven by V-Nova.”

Asked how it is possible that a codec with such a dramatic claimed compression performance improvement does not require a new generation of decode chipset, Broadcom replied: “PERSEUS implementations will be driven by V-Nova through a software implementation of their algorithm, the details of which V-Nova is in the best position to provide. Broadcom does not receive or deliver V-Nova’s software code.”

The SoC provider added: “Regarding currently field-deployed set-top boxes (and some in development), generally speaking you can expect CPU power to be critical to support PERSEUS.”
 
Asked if it will produce a new generation of chipsets with PERSEUS support (even if PERSEUS works on older boxes), and whether there is anything to be gained from this (like maybe better performance for PERSEUS on a new generation of chipset or box), Broadcom answered: “We do not currently have dedicated hardware acceleration specific to PERSEUS in our silicon.”

Update: What Elemental Technologies says about V-Nova and PERSEUS

Keith Wymbs, Chief Marketing Officer for Elemental Technologies, has provided his thoughts on the V-Nova and PERSEUS launch.

“Claims of proprietary codec gains  are very common in the video industry. Often in the standardization process, compression techniques and algorithms are removed for a variety of reasons, such as power consumption, device cost and computational cycles. These kinds of bitrate optimization technologies crop up frequently to attempt to fill that void.
 
“Whenever our customers validate demand for increased functionality, even at the codec level, Elemental is prepared to consider it.  But for technology vendors like us to make this kind of resource commitment, the demand needs to be widespread. For codecs, that typically means it’s being driven by a standard of some sort.
 
“In the media and entertainment market, particularly in the Pay TV segment, it’s difficult for proprietary solutions vendors to build out an ecosystem that is robust enough to gain widespread traction. As a result,  proprietary codecs have never made serious inroads.  Microsoft’s VC-1 codec came the closest, but that initiative has waned due to broad acceptance of H.264.”

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