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December 13, 2012
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HEVC-capable devices hit 1B in 2012, ahead of standard

Whether or not 2013 becomes known as the “Year of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC)” depends in part upon the whims of thought leaders who make such declarations. Less debatable is that January will be the month of HEVC—or at least the month that the first edition of the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) standard is finalized.

Anticipation has been growing at least since July 2012, when this joint effort produced a draft standard robust enough to lead companies such as French broadcast technology company ATEME, Motorola Mobility, Ericsson and Harmonic to demonstrate HEVC encoding at IBC several months later. But the basics of HEVC have been known even longer. Harmonic actually had demonstrated HEVC at NAB in April. And a scholarly overview of HEVC, one of several HEVC articles published in the December 2012 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology, was actually submitted in May. (See pre-publication draft here.)

A tremendous amount of activity in 2012 also has taken place within video display devices. In areport released in mid-December, Multimedia Research Group (MRG) estimated that the number of shipped units capable—with a software upgrade when available—of HEVC decoding reached 1 billion in 2012. For so many devices to be ready and waiting for HEVC is no mean feat.

The standard, which is likely to be tagged as MPEG-H Part 2 in the ISO/IEC world, and H.265 to the ITU-T, is much more computational intensive than its predecessor, not surprising given the frequently mentioned goal of reducing bit rates by 50% for equal perceived video quality. The IEEE article indicates that HEVC was particularly focused on two key issues: “increased video resolution and increased use of parallel processing architectures.” While decoding, as a rule, is less demanding than encoding, HEVC ramped up the requirements for complex operations on both sides of the equation.

Computer tablets are among those devices that are primed to handle HEVC when the specification is ready. “HEVC decoding has been demonstrated on a new iPad on a single core of the ARM Cortex A9 processor clocked at 1 MHz,” said Michelle Abraham, MRG Analyst and author of the report, “HEVC Decoding in Consumer Devices.” It is another example of consumer electronics, rather than Pay TV operator-provided equipment, leading the technology adoption curve.

“I expect (HEVC) Internet video to come first to mobile devices and PCs because they are software upgradable,” Abraham said. “Many service providers will wait until set-top boxes with HEVC decoding SoCs are available.”

But service providers are making plans all the same. As revealed in this IBC Videonet interview, Swisscom expects to use HEVC for its classic IPTV services in 2014 as part of an ongoing migration to an all-HD lineup. “I think the first step will take us for sure onto multi-screen, because things are available there,” said Marcus Gisi, Head of TV and Entertainment at Swisscom. “Then in the second step, toward set-top boxes and IPTV.”

As 2013 gets underway, however, use cases of the newly approved standard will tend toward Internet video and CE devices. At IBC 2012, ATEME demonstrated HEVC on 4k TV screens supplied by Toshiba. At CES 2013 in January, expect a large number of HEVC and 4k demos on a wide range of connected TVs, tablets and other mobile devices.