Harmonic made one of the boldest claims of IBC 2016, saying it can reduce bit rate requirements for AVC/H.264 encoded adaptive bit rate (ABR) video by 50% without compromising picture quality. Its new EyeQ solution relies on algorithms that use a better understanding of human visual perception to remove data that makes no impact on how we see television. The compression optimization solution is aimed at the OTT video distribution market today and covers AVC compression of constant bit rate (CBR) streams. It is viewed as a way to deliver HEVC-type compression efficiency improvements without relying on HEVC.
As Tom Lattie, VP Product Management at Harmonic points out: “The ‘bring your own device’ model means operators have less control over the distribution ecosystem. You cannot just replace a set-top box to transition all your users to a new codec. You have to work with the ecosystem that the customer, and not the operator, has created.”
There are plenty of smartphones and tablets that do not support HEVC. This constrains a service provider when they want to improve compression efficiency for their OTT video. “The promise of HEVC is to achieve roughly 50% improvements compared to AVC. We are delivering the same kind of bandwidth savings without anyone having to transition to a different codec,” Lattie declares.
For OTT distribution, the benefits of better compression are clearly understood. You can deliver video deeper into networks, including where broadband (or mobile broadband) is not as robust. “Consumers get better and more consistent pictures everywhere they are on the Internet, which means happy consumers,” says Lattie. “It is a much better experience, and that drives viewership.”
Service providers can also achieve costs savings by reducing CDN throughput and storage costs, helping to deal with the unwanted truth of unicast OTT – that the more successful you are, and the more people use your service, the higher your distribution costs become.
EyeQ runs on Harmonic’s PURE compression engine and harnesses accepted compression techniques like video pre-analysis and multipass encoding, where you take intelligence from an initial encode and use that to improve the next one. The crucial innovation is the way it subjectively judges the quality of the video passes, seeing video more like a human would (thanks to a better knowledge of human visual mechanics).
Algorithms tell the encoder what data it can sacrifice and what it should keep, based on this more subjective analysis. All these adjustments are made in real-time. The bit rate savings depend on the precise video sequence, and the higher the initial bit rate the bigger the saving, the company says.
Lattie emphasizes that EyeQ does not require any changes in the distribution chain like new software on devices or new licensing. “We are working within the AVC codec implementation. We are fully standards compliant so you can deploy this into existing environments.”
One of the underlying technology changes that has made this approach possible now is the increased compute resources available when developing software and algorithms. Machine learning was used in the development of the EyeQ algorithms, as Harmonic crunched its way through different video sequences to optimize its encoding approach.
A spokesman said there is no technical reason why EyeQ cannot be applied to other codecs and environments, so it may be possible to harness the technology for MPEG-2 and HEVC, in cable and satellite. However, the sole market focus today is OTT video and Harmonic believes there is an urgent need for its solution in this marketplace.
As Patrick Harshman, President and CEO at Harmonic, points out: “More OTT viewing is moving from the small screen to the large screen so we see the critical importance of building up the QoE without running into issues like CDN storage.” He pointed to the challenge of handling UHD over OTT and also virtual reality. “We are going to need big steps forward in compression.”
Lattie picks up this theme, noting how the living room TV experience is increasingly delivered over the Internet. “Our customers are looking to reduce start-up times and buffering and improve overall video quality,” he revealed.