What is H.266/VVC (Versatile Video Coding) and what does it mean for the future of streaming?

Here to make 4K and 8K video streaming more accessible

by: - Last updated on: July 10th, 2020

Over the past few years — especially with the cost of data coming down significantly — the consumption of audio and video through various streaming services has been soaring at a rapid pace. As a result, we now have more on-demand entertainment platforms, with a variety of content spread across different genres, to cater to the needs of different individuals. While the content on these platforms is accessible anytime, anywhere on mobile devices, the ability to choose the quality of the stream, depending on your internet tariff, is something that makes the content accessible to the masses.

H.266 Versatile Video Coding (VVC)

A large part of processing and making video streams less bandwidth and storage hogging is dependent on the video codec standard used, which, just as it sounds, compresses-decompresses video files to reduce the file size. Even though the current standard, H.265, aka High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), is fairly promising in this regard with its high efficacy when it comes to offering better compression without adversely affecting the quality, we now have a new video codec called H.266, aka Versatile Video Coding (VVC), which promises even better performance.

What is a Video Codec and what does it do?

For those unaware, a codec is a program/software that helps in compressing and decompressing files to reduce their file size while ensuring the quality is not altered much. Codecs find their applications across different use-aces scenarios, such as video-conferencing services, streaming platforms, and editing softwares. When it comes to video, the job of the codec is to make files smaller in size so that they occupy less storage space and require less bandwidth during transmission. During the process of compressing a video file, while some codecs ensure the quality — dependent upon the amount of data/information present/lost — is preserved and somewhat closer to that of the original video, most codecs fail to do so and end up offering a lossy-compressed file.

What is H.266 or VVC (Versatile Video Coding)?

Fraunhofer HHI (Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications), an organization responsible for developing video coding compression standards, has recently announced a new video coding standard called H.266/VVC. The latest offering from the organization, which involves the partnership with different industry leaders such as Apple, Ericsson, Intel, Huawei, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Sony, claims to offer the same quality as its predecessor, H.265/HEVC, but at half the size. What this essentially means is that, once the newer coding standard is adopted across the board, first, the providers will benefit by having to depend on fewer resources for hosting, which will, in turn, make the distribution of videos easier across different platforms. Secondly, the end consumer will be able to get more out of their data, as the videos will now hog less bandwidth than before while ensuring that the quality is not compromised either. Thus, providing access to more content while consuming less data.

What will the H.266/VVC (Versatile Video Coding) offer?

As mentioned in the previous section, the all-new video coding standard has benefits for both — service providers and end consumers. For, due to its ability to shrink the file size by 50% (than H.265/HEVC) without affecting the video quality, the H.266 standard makes it easier for the service providers to be able to manage and serve more content, while for the consumer it makes the consumption of content less hungry on data.

H.266 (Versatile Video Coding) advantages

While all of this makes sense with the current scenario, wherein, we can expect to see the benefits reflect for both parties as soon as different services start adopting the new standard, the substantial advantages will appear with 8K/HDR video streaming, in particular. However, with the pace at which the technology is currently progressing and getting adapted by the consumers, we are still considerably far away from seeing 8K penetration — in terms of both content and hardware.

On the other hand, talking about 4K, which is beginning to get traction and slowly making its way into the consumer-friendly zone, the benefits of the H.266/VVC codec extend beyond 8K and follow up with lower-resolutions, as well. Meaning, even though 8K streaming is still far-fetched, at least for a few years, services can benefit from the newer, efficient coding standard to better serve 4K or lower resolution content. And, the end consumers can enjoy the same quality content without burning off their data like crazy.

How is H.266/VVC better than the current video coding standard?

According to the Fraunhofer HHI, which also happens to be responsible for the development of the H.265 and H.264 video coding, its new coding standard offers improved compression than its predecessors and reduces the data requirements by 50% without compromising on the overall quality. To add to that, it also claims that H.266 provides better transmission efficiency and storing of the video in different qualities from SD and HD up to 4K and 8K, in addition to HDR and 360° videos.

H.266 (Versatile Video Coding) average bit rate saving
IMAGE: BBC (UK)

To throw in some numbers, the previous standards, H.265 and H.264, are both claimed to be active on nearly 10 billion devices worldwide and suggest processing over 90% of the total global volume of video bits. Moreover, these standards take around 10GB of data to transmit a 90-minute UHD video. However, with H.266 (Versatile Video Coding) coming into the picture, it would only require 5GB of data to transmit the same quality-and-length video. The end result is that the new video coding standard offers the ability to stream 4K or 8K videos along with 360° panoramas using less bandwidth and without compromising on quality.

Can we expect widespread adoption of the H.266/VVC standard?

Talking about the previous video compression standard, H.265 or HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), the standard was introduced as a successor to the H.264 or AVC (Advanced Video Coding) standard. It offers anywhere between 25-50% better data compression at the same video quality and provides support for 8K UHD resolution. The standard received its first stage approval back in the year 2013. Soon after, in the following years, it had different versions, with better support and improvements here-and-there, before it finally made its way as an approved video coding standard.

H.265 (HEVC) adoption rate
IMAGE: Multichannel

Although, despite that, H.265 still has a surprisingly low acceptance rate, and it is not that widely supported and adopted across various platforms. Whatever level of acceptance it has managed to garner over these years can be largely attributed to the increase in adoption of high-resolution formats like HDR+ and Dolby Vision. One of the reasons for lower acceptance of the standard is the fact that, during the initial years of its approval, there has been some controversy related to the licensing fee for the use of H.265 (or HEVC). And this, as a result, prevented the widespread adoption of HEVC and caused other royalty-free standards like AV1 to continue to be used across various devices, apps, and services.

Coming to H.266 or VVC, Fraunhofer HHI suggests that its latest video coding standard is based on the FRAND principle licensing, similar to the previous generation coding standards. So looking at the previous record of how stakeholders and companies part of the licensing program ran into disputes over licensing of H.265 standard, the current situation does not appear particularly that optimistic. However, for the advantages that it brings along, we can only hope to see the organization pushing the standard towards more adoption, and various devices, services, and apps to leverage it to benefit both themselves and the end consumer.

VVC (Versatile Video Coding): Availability

In terms of availability, the chips supporting the H.266 (Versatile Video Coding) standard are currently in the works, which means we are still some time away to see the latest standard make its way to mobile devices. Moreover, the organization also suggests that it is working towards making chips with hardware-level support for VVC, which means we can expect better adoption for H.266 as compared to its predecessor.

Besides chips, which are a crucial element in making the standard reach far out, the software is another essential element. According to Dr. Thomas Schierl, head of the Video Coding and Analytics department, Fraunhofer HHI, the first software (encoder and decoder) supporting the new standard will arrive this autumn.

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