IBC 2013 : the Digital Age is starting now

This year’s IBC Show rolls over a 5-day period and it occupies most (if not all) of the RAI exhibition facilities in Amsterdam, Netherlands. This year, 52,322 attendees came to visit the 1400 exhibiting companies.

Needless to say, we at Advantech have been pretty busy in our own booth location (H9.C22), demonstrating our DSP based PCIe cards by transcoding, encoding and decoding H.264 and HEVC video to showcase in our booth; including the pods dedicated to our partners: Texas Instruments, Cywee and Utelisys.

Most of the feedback we got from visitors remarked on the efficiency of our cards, the compactness of the 4 x TI DSPs (DSPC-8681), and how seamless was its integration by our partners. On the high-end side of our portfolio, our DSPC-8682 cards, equipped with 8 x multicore DSPs from TI, each with 2GB of DDR3 memory and some other embedded nifty goodies, have demonstrated some impressive abilities to manage HEVC, with near real-time transcoding (2-3 frames of latency) or multiple H.264 channel aggregation, and shown on an impressive 4K monitor.

For more details, please have a look to our Press Release.

Despite being on duty at our booth, I had a chance to walk around the whole IBC show and I want to give you my overall feeling about the trends I perceived:

There is a maturing interest from industry to solve the increasing and endless device fragmentation. The number of devices is literally exploding, with different screen sizes, OS and connectivity capabilities. It’s an old concern but even nowadays, the technical challenge remains very apparent: delivery methods, codecs, and DRMs are criteria that must be refined to meet client-side capabilities and to reduce the cost of distribution.
Similar to Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) solution, DASH, or MPEG-DASH continues this role, as the first adaptive bit-rate international standard, aiming to normalize the delivery process. DASH is by nature very close to HLS, handling adaptive bit-rates for streaming and allowing it to sense network conditions and adjust video quality accordingly.
While walking in the IBC 2013 alleys, there is no doubt DASH is on its way to becoming widely adopted. However, it may take some time before it is supported consistently across the entire ecosystem, from server to client side. Most well-known key players: Qualcomm, LG, HTC, Samsung, Fraunhofer and Microsoft are supporting the standard. Still, there is a notable exception: Apple hasn’t yet expressed support for DASH (no surprise there then). Considering the current situation we might end up with 2 methods for video delivery: HLS and DASH (which remains a significant improvement over the current heavily fragmented situation).

Alongside delivery, the way to encode video content is key. For several years now, the H.264 codec has conquered and ruled the entire video ecosystem (that is, when it comes to consumer delivery). But with increasing online video consumption, Over-The-Top’s (OTT) growing deployment, the strong boost in mobile and tablet traffic, 4G (LTE) usage, live transmissions, or the dawn of UltraHD (and 4K), there is a demand for more efficient compression algorithms. A better codec will allow a smaller chunk of data per unit of content, either to conserve an ability to adapt to congested or constrained network pipes while minimizing degradation (lowering bit-rate requirements while maintaining quality expected by increasingly educated consumers), and ultimately to optimize the bandwidth needed for Ultra HD content (or 4K), in order to meet Internet available capability on the last mile. This is where HEVC (H.265) kicks in.

On paper, the HEVC codec compresses video by up to 30-50 percent more efficiently than H.264 (Please note these ratios are subject to fluctuation and rely directly on resolution or VoD/Stream use cases). In reality, HEVC across the industry is very much in its infancy and if we can expect improvements at the compression ratio level, they should be far more modest than the ones MPEG-2 and H.264 have benefitted from over time as they got fine tuned and improved. The fact is HEVC is already quite efficient! HEVC stands for “High Efficiency Video Coding”, the name says it all. Still, content providers are hesitant to adopt HEVC immediately as there aren’t any mainstream devices available for consumers. And consumer electronics manufacturers are not yet jumping on the HEVC bandwagon to incorporate that technology in their devices because the content’s not there (and we have a serious lack of widely available, cheap, power efficient on-a-chip decoders). If the stakeholder uncertainty over licensing costs, as well as the chicken-and-egg dilemma can be overcome, HEVC’s power to retain video quality in smaller files could save money along the whole transmission chain.
At IBC 2013, beside those challenges, it was crystal-clear the whole video industry is pushing forward for HEVC adoption. Alongside the beauty of using a more efficient compression, there are several key factors leading toward the same direction when it comes to future of video.
At the production stage, studios are mutating to IP based tools, right from the camera output plugs. This full IP workflow allows more flexibility, resource pooling, workload balancing, cloud based tools, etc. This is why Advantech had a booth at IBC: we believe DSP aggregation, allowing massive, yet scalable parallelism is particularly suitable for demanding encoding/transcoding duties, either for appliances or in PC Farms hosted by datacenters. Anyhow, many sophisticated solutions (while most are fully proprietary) were shown at the event. Traditional producers and publishers need to reconsider their in-house tools, and it is my perception that online video aggregators and web TV channels are definitely showing the way. To some extent, IBC 2013 represented a shift for the industry.

Not to mention the shift from traditional TV consumption, blurring the edge between TV, OTT and mobile TV. Display screens being commoditized (TVs, Tablets, PCs) and ubiquitous (at home, on-the-go), IBC demonstrated initiatives to streamline the “last mile” delivery to consumers, including the local home perimeter. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the support of DASH and HEVC and the induced pipe optimization. But another trend appears, which seems to me quite promising: the emergence of Set-Top-Boxes (STB) acting more as a bridge or a gateway, between the network and devices. Let’s mention quickly some potential predictable benefits: The gateway can transcode incoming HEVC delivered by the online platforms, to H.264, which is today much more suitable for the current capabilities of handheld devices, and so contributing to the multi-screen experience.
This gateway can also provide side loading and buffering, which might facilitate 4K HEVC distribution (and consumer adoption), considering the significant bandwidth required.

Anyhow, interesting times ahead, as the video industry is now shifting away from its traditional ecosystem toward a full digital world. My only wish would be to see content owners willing to move as fast as consumers, who today are ready to adopt new value propositions. And they certainly need to move faster than they used to.

That was a great IBC show for me, my first event as Advantech team member, my first time in Amsterdam.

Yann Rousse – Tech-Enthusiast and Product Marketing Manager at Advantech – Networks & Communication Group. On twitter: @YRousse

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