The world of sports-video contribution, backhaul, and distribution looks to be on the brink of a major leap forward. New technologies like HEVC (high-efficiency video coding) are set to enter the market, and others, particularly JPEG 2000, continue to carve out a larger share of it. Compression standards and formats like these hold the promise of paving the way for the delivery of next-gen formats like 1080p, 4K, and 8K.
An afternoon session moderated by CBS Director of Broadcast Distribution Chris Ehrenbard at SVG’s TranSPORT in New York on Tuesday focused on the evolution of these bleeding-edge technologies and their place in the sports-video landscape.
“You now can have multiple encoders doing multiple different formats with a million different resolutions and features and audio formats, and sometimes things can slip through the cracks,” said Richard Bullock, head of TV compression solutions C&D, Ericsson. “We are all striving to improve on what we can offer to solve those challenges. And the future is going to be even more complex, with so many different formats coming on the horizon.”
HEVC, or H.265, represents the next generation in MPEG video-compression standards and promises to double the data-compression capability of MPEG-4/H.264. Set to become an official standard in January, HEVC is expected to halve the bandwidth needed to deliver HD video, potentially opening the door for delivery of 1080p or even 4K and 8K video from remote sports venues to network production facilities — and then, perhaps some day, to the home.
Ericsson launched the market’s first HEVC encoder at IBC in September, and more gear is expected to be released at the NAB Show in April, if not sooner. Ericsson’s lab tests have shown a 40%-45% improvement over MPEG-4 for average material but at least 50% for video on which it is typically more difficult to maintain quality in compression.
However, the initial MPEG standard is just the first step in the evolution of HEVC. Further elements must be established within HEVC for the standard to become the norm in the video-transmission sector, and silicon and consumer-electronics manufacturers must also get on board.
Another big question mark is the fact that many, if not most, in sports production have yet to make the jump even from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, creating an even wider adoption gap for HEVC. Nonetheless, leaders in this space see HEVC making an almost immediate impact on its official standardization after the New Year.
“There are major challenges [for sports broadcasters] in backhauling content from all these venues to the production facility,” said Yaniv Ben-Shushan, director, satellite and broadcast, Harmonic. “The 4.2.2 [standard] for HEVC is still 18 months away, but I don’t see why we have to wait for that. We can use HEVC to start backhauling content, especially for over-the-top [applications] as soon as the standard is ready. I don’t think we need to wait for silicon and consumer devices.
“Everything will start with software-based encoding and decoding,” he continued. “Bandwidth is so critical in the U.S., especially with so many college and high school sports and other niche content that a large population wants to consume. I definitely believe that HEVC is the right way to start backhauling content like this to your facility and it will save you a lot of bandwidth.”
Others doubt that HEVC is anywhere near wide adoption by the industry — especially on the contribution side.
“HEVC is a very compelling technology that is going to have a significant, profound long-term impact on over-the-top streaming,” said Kevin Ancelin, SVP, sales/co-founder, Adtec Digital. “But it is a distribution platform. I don’t know if it has much play in the contribution world, where they already have the robust pipes and codecs — whether it’s MPEG-2, AVC, or JPEG 2000.
He also expressed concern over potential issues during the early days of HEVC. “It’s about quality, but it’s also about interoperability,” he said. “There is going to a very broad use of software-based encoders for HEVC, but it’s going to be very proprietary at first.”
Although HEVC offers a look into the future, JPEG 2000 is already a major player in video compression. T-VIPS, which merged with Nevion earlier this year, was one of the pioneers of the format’s use in the broadcast industry just a few years ago. Today, it is widely deployed by several sports-content owners looking to deliver high-quality video and audio with low latency while also supporting multiple encodes and decodes without sizable signal loss.
With the format firmly entrenched in the HD video ecosystem, T-VIPS/Nevion is looking to bring JPEG 2000 into the next generation of video.
“If we’re going to go to some of these new bigger-bandwidth standards like 4K, you need a compression scheme that will deliver the content with high quality over GB Ethernet,” said Eugene Kean, CTO, T-VIPS/Nevion. “So it seems like there is this constant balancing act between the bandwidth of the next best thing and the bandwidth that is available in the local loop and storage. I see [JPEG 2000] as a very valuable solution in that kind of dynamic.”