Inside Google's master plan for faster, sharper streaming video

Google logoWe've all been there: After clicking or tapping a YouTube link, we're greeted with a long wait, then video marred by blurry details and distracting blocky patterns.

Google has been trying to improve the situation with technology called VP9 that compresses the video data so they can move across networks faster. And with a successor called VP10 due in a couple of years, it's promising an even bigger boost to image quality -- not just sharper images, but also richer color and a better ability to span from bright highlights to dark shadows.

Google's free-to-use VP technology is the proverbial underdog to the established standard for data compression, known as H.264. But it is getting new attention because of new patent fee problems afflicting its major rival for next-gen video, a technology called HEVC or H.265. What's shaping up is a potential battle for how video gets compressed and distributed.

Compression standards and video patents are arcane matters, but they matter to anyone who watches video -- which is to say just about everybody. Video compression is crucial to the shift from DVDs and Blu-ray discs to online video; to the arrival of video services like HBO Now that let people cancel expensive cable TV subscriptions; and to the livelihoods of Michelle Phan and other YouTube stars that younger viewers watch on smartphones and Web browsers. Figuring out the right standard that everyone can agree on is a critical step in ensuring that "House of Cards" streams to your television crisply and clearly.

Compared to H.264, VP9 roughly halves the network capacity needed to send video of a certain quality. And in an interview here at Google headquarters, engineering product manager James Bankoski revealed that Google expects a similar improvement with the forthcoming VP10. "We are trying to cut it in half again," Bankoski said.

VP9 and VP10 are no shoo-ins. HEVC still has major momentum, especially when it comes to broad support extending to cameras, smartphone processors, Blu-ray discs and other domains beyond streaming video. And significant players including network giant Cisco Systems and Firefox maker Mozilla chose to launch their own HEVC/H.265 alternatives rather than rely on Google.

But Google is trying to move fast with its compression technology. Already this month, Google engineers began adding the first VP10 changes to the VPx software project.

"We're hoping to hit the performance target by the end of next year," Bankoski said. It'll take some time after that for Google's hardware and software partners to bring their VP10 support to market after that.

Source: CNET

Tags: Google

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