Cisco developing a new royalty-free compression codec for 4K video that’s aimed at rivalling HEVC

by on August 20, 2015

Stephan Jukic – August 20, 2015

The latest version of HEVC is a wonderful piece of technology for more easily compressing and transmitting 4K video content but it’s also starting to get pricey for assorted commercial users of the technology.

There are currently two different patent pools on the market for HEVC compression and a third one is already being formed. Furthermore, the royalty scheme that worked to well to affordably allow major interests to use HEVC’s H.264 version (for Full HD video) is also being chipped away by new interests like MPEG LA and HEVC Advance, which have made the royalty scheme for H.265 roughly 16 times more expensive than what was the case for H.264.

Furthermore, Son, Qualcomm, Panasonic and Nokia among others all have a number of additional patents that revolve around HEVC but which aren’t included in the above two patent pools. There are now rumors that these companies will work to form their own third pool of patents which could raise the price of using HEVC commercially even further.

With all these cost and patent hassles in mind, Cisco has announced that it is now working on a new video codec project called Thor, which aims to unseat HEVC from its current dominant position and without burying users in royalty fees of any kind.

Thor is of course still in its development stages and currently not any sort of alternative to HEVC but Cisco has big plans for the codec. The company wants to use it to join together others in the industry and create a higher-quality video codec that’s not only much cheaper to use but also superior to HEVC and free of restrictive, expensive licensing burdens.

Furthermore, Cisco has hired patent layers and consultants who have experience in video codecs while also having created a development process for working through a long list of patents in the area. With this effort, Cisco is trying to catalogue all of the patents that are in place around HEVC and work its way around them in way that leaves their own codec independent and free of potential legal hassles and licensing problems.

Two weeks ago, Cisco even open-sourced their code for Thor and delivered it to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is already in the process offsetting up standards for their own next-generation royalty-free video codec as part of the Task Force’s NetVC workgroup. Mozilla has also been active in this particular group given its historical antagonism towards both the current and older versions of HEVC.

All of the latest 4K UHD TVs on sale today come with HEVC decoding capacity built into them, further reinforcing the dominance of HEVC

All of the latest 4K UHD TVs on sale today come with HEVC decoding capacity built into them, further reinforcing the dominance of HEVC

As for Cisco, the company is also no stranger to the world of codecs given that they (along with other players) wanted the H.264 standard included in the video conferencing industry through the webRTC standards for facilitating interoperability with their own install base of conferencing equipment. The potential problems with HEVC’s H.265 version for 4K video lie in the same direction as ultra HD video streaming and conferencing look more likely as near-future standards.

Thor is still a development-level project however and can’t even really be called a formal codec yet. Cisco and its partners still have a lot of work left ahead of them, possibly years worth, before they can hammer the Thor project into a viable alternative to the dominance of HEVC.

Other possible royalty-free alternative to HEVC include Google’s VP9, which is an already established royalty-free codec that’s actually being used by some content delivery platforms.

The bottom line here is that particularly royalty-hungry patent pools can indeed spawn concentrated efforts at the creating of alternative technologies, to the benefit of many players and of course consumers as well.

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