H.264 – The Leading Video Coding Standard

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Video coding format plays a quintessential role in storage and transmission of digital video content. From Blue-Ray discs, set top boxes, digital media players, personal computers to mobiles devices, the support for a video coding format is essential for storage and transmission of digital video content. The need for digitally compressing… Featured image for representational purpose only. (Featured image source: https://pixabay.com/en/digitization-monitor-mobile-phone-2007355/)

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Video coding format plays a quintessential role in storage and transmission of digital video content. From Blue-Ray discs, set top boxes, digital media players, personal computers to mobiles devices, the support for a video coding format is essential for storage and transmission of digital video content. The need for digitally compressing data for transmission and storage has given rise to standardisation of video coding formats for bridging compatibility issues between devices. These standards also play an important part in deciding the costs of the technology and the products dependent on them since they are protected by patents and may have royalties associated with their use.

One such video coding standard which has gained ubiquitous presence in this market is the H.264 standard (also referred to as MPEG-4 Part 10 AVC). It is a successor to the MPEG-2 standard and offers better compression ratio and much higher bit-rate than the previous standards. H.264 introduced better techniques in the process of frame prediction and motion compensation, making it flexible for a wide range of applications including Blu-ray discs, HDTV broadcasts, streaming video services and video conferencing.

H.264 was formulated in 2003 by a team of ITU-T called, JVT (Joint Video Team) which is a group of video coding experts from VCEG (Video Coding Experts Group) and MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group). The contributors to the H.264 standard include leading technology companies like Apple, Microsoft, LG and Cisco. The first version of the standard came out in May 2003 and since then there have been many revisions to the standard to include new functionalities and make the technology more effective. Some of the major revisions included Scalable Video Coding (SVC) to the standard in 2007 and Multiview Video Coding (MVC) in 2009. SVC standardized the encoding of high quality video bit stream which contains subset bit streams that add multiple layers of quality and resolution. Multiview Video Coding (MVC) enabled the coding of stereoscopic 3D videos.

Since the release of the first version of the standard in 2003, H.264 has been widely used by vendors like Apple (QuickTime Pro), Adobe (Flash), Microsoft (Silverlight) etc. and has been incorporated in various container formats like MPEG-4 (.MP4), QuickTime (.MOV), Flash (.F4V), 3GP (.3GP) etc. Popular streaming websites like YouTube, Netflix and Vimeo also support compatibility with the standard. According to a 2016 report by Encoding.com, one of the leading cloud-based media encoding service provider, H.264 was used as video encoding format in staggering 72% of the video encoded by the company. The dataset is based on content encoding of 3,000 leading broadcasters and content publishers. The closest competitor WebM was used in only 12% of the encoded video. HEVC, a potential successor to H.264 is slowly catching up with use in 6% of encoded video.

One thing to note here is that the dataset used by Encoding.com does not include YouTube videos that have a mammoth share of video content on the internet and which uses both WebM and H.264 for encoding. H.264, unlike other video coding formats such as VP8 and Theora is not royalty free and is protected by patents owned by various parties. A group of such parties have formed a pool of patents essential to H.264 which is administered by MPEG-LA.

A commercial use of H.264 requires licensing of patents essential to H.264 standard and majority of the known H.264 standard essential patents (SEPs) are part of the MPEG LA’s AVC patent pool. MPEG-LA continues to invite companies that have patents essential to the H.264 standard to participate in its licensing program and regularly updates its pool of patents. As part of the MPEG LA’s terms the licensor has to agree to a non-exclusive license of its patents on reasonable royalties to the licensees of the H.264 portfolio and in return, the licensor gets a share of the royalty. MPEG-LA has divided the H.264 standard essential patents into two portfolios, namely AVC/H.264 and MVC. The AVC/H.264 patent portfolio offered by MPEG-LA contains the patents covering the H.264 standard for aspects concerning single view. The patents concerning the stereoscopic (Multiview) aspects are included in the MVC patent portfolio.

Continued at Japan Leads H.264 Video Coding Revolution

Vikas Sharma
Vikas Sharma

Vikas is an intellectual property expert with over nine years of experience in the industry. He has been an official advisor on various high stakes patent litigation, leading multi geography teams to deliver successful outcomes to clients.


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