AV1 Codec: The Future of Video Compression

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While several video codecs are already well-established, a couple are still relatively new and have not yet seen widespread deployment. But that may well change as they gain maturity and enter the mainstream. In this two-part series, we take a look at these newcomers – VVC and AV1 – and examine their potential. Part 1 discussed the VVC codec; we now put the spotlight on AV1.

One of the most noteworthy announcements in the run-up to last year’s IBC event came from a company we’ve all heard of, but not necessarily in the context of the video industry: Apple. Just before the September event in Amsterdam, Apple announced that its iPhone 15 Pro would support AV1.

Apple has transformed businesses before. And while it will probably not revolutionize the video business, I think its announcement could well change the future of the AV1 codec, propelling it to the status of codec of choice for video compression for the next half-decade. Let’s explore why – and what advantages the codec brings.

But first, what exactly is AV1?

AV1: Designed for OTT

The AV1 codec was developed in 2018 as a brand-new codec, optimized for video streaming.

This sets it apart from previous codecs, H.264 and MPEG-2. Those previous codecs were conceived at a time when broadcasting was the standard way of delivering video. It also distinguishes it from codecs such as HEVC and VVC. These were developed as enhancements of those previous codecs, adapting them to the needs of OTT streaming.

AV1 does follow the structure of previous codecs, so it does not completely revolutionize how video is encoded. It is still a hybrid video codec based on I-frames and predicted frames. It also uses the notion of a Group Of Pictures (GOP). An Initial Frame that is taken as a reference, and subsequent frames within the GOP described only in the details that change from that initial reference. Yet the way it does this makes it a completely new tool that is designed specifically for OTT streaming.

One manifestation of the codec’s specific OTT orientation is the fact that, from the very beginning, it supported High Dynamic Range (HDR) for enhanced colors. This means that it is not a fragmented codec. It differs from HEVC for example, which includes separate codecs: one for Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) and one for HDR. As a unified codec, AV1 should be much easier to implement and ensure compatibility across different content pieces and devices.

Ecosystem Support and Apple’s Endorsement of AV1

To adapt Darwin’s famous quote, it is not the strongest of the codecs that survives. Not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most supported by its ecosystem.

Before the Apple announcement, AV1 was already being used by Netflix and YouTube. It had the support of just about all devices – including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, SmartTV supporting Youtube, MediaTek, Broadcom, and many others The missing piece of the puzzle was Apple. That final piece has now fallen into place.

I expect Apple’s endorsement will trigger a massive shift in support of AV1. The ecosystem now stands fully behind it. While it will take a while before all Apple devices are replaced with the new AV1-supporting devices, two years should be enough to establish a big-enough deployed base to have AV1 take center stage as the dominant codec.

AV1: The Cost-Conscious Codec

As the video streaming industry focuses on profitability after years of spending to attract new subscribers, one consideration that is thrust to the forefront is the cost of codecs. One huge advantage of AV1 is that it is royalty-free – unlike codecs such as HEVC which do entail royalties. The result is not only reduced expenses, but also wider adoption of the codec, reinforcing the already strong ecosystem support.

Nurturing Nostalgia: Film Grain in AV1’s Toolkit

Beautiful images are not necessarily perfect images. While most new codecs are designed to improve images making them crystal-clear, smooth, and noise-free, AV1 does all that – and more. It adds a unique feature, forging the future of video compression by nurturing nostalgia through Film Grain Synthesis.

Videos that were produced before digital technology came around had that distinctive granular texture created by analogue film. Today that texture – which is noise and, as such, technically an imperfection – is often sought after for its artistic and nostalgic qualities. But film grain cannot be compressed in the encoding process. By nature, it is temporally unpredictable, so it disrupts the predictive process used to maximize bitrate efficiency.

AV1 provides a solution to this conundrum in the form of Film Grain Synthesis. Rather than encoding the noise, Film Grain Synthesis removes it prior to encoding, then replicates random noise algorithmically when decoding. This process – which is specific to the AV1 codec – can engender bitrate savings of up to 90%, while maintaining the artistic intent of the content.

The Era of AV1 is Here

If you had asked me just a few months ago, I would not have placed all my bets on AV1 as the dominant codec for the coming years. But Apple is no newbie in disrupting businesses. Its September announcement has changed the perspective for codecs in the media & entertainment industry and I am now persuaded that AV1 is set to dominate our industry for the next five years. With this new clarity, content providers and distributors can now confidently embrace AV1.

Since the codec was conceived in 2018, Ateme has been actively involved in it and today we can help companies transitioning to AV1 for encoding both live streams and VOD catalogues. We have even implemented a solution – our perceptual metrics – on top of AV1, for which we achieved a Technology & Engineering Emmy® Award!

What do you think? Do you agree that AV1 will be the codec of choice for the next five years? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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