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It’s a brave, new multi-codec world

2023 is expected to see progression in AV1, HEVC, and VVC codec adoption, but what does that mean for the broadcast industry? Markus Hafellner, senior product manager, VoD encoding at Bitmovin offers his thoughts

The video streaming industry is still relatively young, but its adoption and the pace of innovations underpinning it are breathtaking. Less than 20 years ago, YouTube launched, introducing us to user-generated content and the concept of viral videos, even if the image quality wasn’t in the 4K quality we’re used to now!

Video streaming has made colossal progress in delivering higher-quality streams, even over low bandwidths in VoD and live environments, to an ever-growing number of devices. It’s video codecs that have made this possible. In recent years, new video codecs have emerged, and planned usage of adoption of particular codecs has begun to change, which is something we track in our annual Video Developer Report. Our latest report, which spotlights current and emerging trends in video streaming by surveying video developers at leading media and entertainment companies, found some exciting and significant shifts in the video encoding landscape. 

H.264 remains the jack-of-all-trades

It makes sense to start with H.264, the most commonly used codec. Most Video Developers find H.264 suitable for many of their day-to-day VoD and live video workflows because it’s suitable with most devices, can reduce bandwidth usage with a higher resolution and provide better image quality at lower bitrates. Our Video Developer Report found that H.264 is still the preferred codec for the majority, with 78 per cent of developers using it for live encoding and 85 per cent for VoD encoding. However, while H.264 remains the most widely used codec, we are already seeing a gradual decline in its usage. In our 2021 Video Developer Report, 92 per cent of video developers were using H.264. While we can still expect H.264 to remain the preferred codec for a bit longer, its usage will likely continue declining as support for other codecs grows. 

AV1 is not number one…yet

Another highlight from the report was the planned adoption of AV1 in 2023. We’ve been advocating for AV1 for a few years, but support for it began to take off in the last couple of years after YouTube and Netflix started to delivering AV1 to the first compatible Android devices; Netflix shared details about their expanded use of AV1 for 4K streams; and Qualcomm also announced support for AV1 with its next-gen Snapdragon chip. The latest Video Developer Report reflects the increased support from these industry titans and found that the current usage of AV1 is 18 per cent for live encoding and 14 per cent for VoD. Planned adoption is 34 and 42 per cent, respectively. 

One of the most significant benefits of AV1 is cost savings which also emerged as the top priority for video developers, which is unsurprising given the current macroeconomic trends. AV1 saves cost on the CDN side compared to HEVC, the second most used codec after H.264. While there is planned adoption for AV1 for live streaming, it will be most beneficial for VoD because of the added complexity of AV1 on the encoding side, which makes it hard to keep latency low. Some live event use cases could benefit from the quality AV1 provides, for example, major sporting events, but equally, these are the types of events where you want low latency. However, there are some live scenarios where AV1 has proven to be the preferred codec, such as Peer2Peer and user-generated content where low latency is less important.

To the metaverse, and beyond

Similarly, we’ve also seen planned adoption for VVC forecast to grow by 20 per cent for live encoding and 29 per cent for VoD. Technical standards primarily drive the uptick in planned adoption for VVC in broadcasting, such as ATSC 3.0 and DVB, to enable 8K transmissions. Its adoption isn’t directly related to OTT streaming because, currently, 8K is not suitable for mobile devices. However, there are opportunities for 8K to grow in the metaverse and other VR applications because that’s where most hardware development is happening. 

The findings from the Video Developer Report show that 2023 will be an exciting year for video codecs as streaming services seek to make streaming more efficient, use less bandwidth, and minimise costs by adopting state-of-the-art compression and streaming technologies. What’s clear is that the influx of new devices and the different workflows for live streaming and VoD means that no one codec will reign supreme. H.264 will remain the most commonly used codec. However, progression in AV1, HEVC, and VVC will unleash greater efficiencies in video streaming infrastructure, which will also help optimise the quality of experience and boost customer retention.