Beamr acquires Vanguard Video in bid to claim compression crown

Israeli perceptual filtering specialist Beamr has announced this week it will be acquiring Vanguard Video, a provider of HEVC and H.264 codec technologies – in a bid to claw its way towards the top of the encoding pile.

In the space of just a few months, three encoding pioneers in Elemental, Envivio, and Thomson Video Networks were all snapped up for considerable sums of money. Faultline believes that Elemental’s technology at Amazon is likely to be the most successful and lead AWS to some major progressions in video encoding, but the impact of these deals is that the field has now been left open for a new generation of Elementals and Envivios to triumph.

One of these companies to show its hand could be Beamr which, following the completed acquisition, will be integrating its own video optimization technologies with Vanguard Video’s advanced encoder solutions to achieve savings in the final delivery bit-rate. Beamr is claiming bit-rate savings of up to 50% for video of the same perceptual quality, meaning that viewers shouldn’t be able to spot the difference despite the bandwidth compression.

The background context for all this is a codec market that is currently in a state of slight disorder – with HEVC caught in a three-way battle between MPEG-LA (Apple, BBC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Humax, Orange, NTT and more), HEVC Advance (Dolby, GE, Mitsubishi, Philips, and Technicolor), and the newest rival body in The Alliance for Open Media (Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Mozilla, and Netflix).

Financial terms for the acquisition of California-based Vanguard Video have not been disclosed, but the purchase was made following a funding round which raised $15 million – led by Disruptive Growth, with the participation of Beamr’s existing venture capital firms Marker and Innovation Endeavors, backed by Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt. Details of Vanguard Video’s previous investors have not been revealed, but we presume that holding company Vemanti Group is also involved due to the publishing of a link on its website.

Beamr’s technology works by taking ingested video and identifying miniscule changes it can make to pixels, normally to make two adjacent pixels identical. After these adjustments are made, using algorithms, the frame is sent to the encoder to compress the video file, which should result in a final output that is smaller in file-size than the original. Shrinking the video size without impacting the viewing quality is very important for OTT video on mobile devices, but will also find supporters from the network and infrastructure players that have to transport all those video files – which make up the majority of all internet traffic by volume.

These tiny changes are subject to passing the test of whether a human can notice the before and after differences. For the ultimate test, Beamr took its algorithms to the hawk-eyed experts of Hollywood Studios, and has since adjusted its algorithms considerably with the assistance of the studio experts – which makes perfect sense as the main customers for this technology will be the studios themselves. The demonstration we were given at IBC 2014 showed one HEVC 4K stream at 18.7 Mbps and another identical stream at 11.2 Mbps, and there was no way to tell the difference between them.

Vanguard Video also claims that it can achieve up to 50% bit-rate reduction compared to H.264, and that its V.265 compression technology is the most commercially deployed HEVC codec SDK in the world. With the open source X.265, it has now become fairly straightforward to build an encoding platform, with the addition of video acceleration from an Intel Xeon server. This has resulted in market commoditization bringing pricing down, but the rush to get to HEVC and UHD encoders has managed to support the industry by keeping pricing up.

Another company which claims it can cut 50% of video bandwidth using bit rate reduction algorithms is Faroudja – which, running on a Xeon server with an Nvidia GPU, uses a very similar technique to that used at Beamr. The difference is that instead of trying to emulate a group of adept viewers and working out what they can and can’t notice, Faroudja has tried to create two layers of detail in two different data streams and organized them in such a way that they compress more naturally. But it admits that it tests the system in much the same way – a group of viewers essentially playing spot the difference.

Another example is V-Nova’s Perseus compression technology, a method of video compression that promises UHD quality at Full HD bandwidths, which claims to deliver the same quality video as HEVC but use only 7-8 Mbps.

We have previously said that V-Nova could be one of the start-ups that contribute to solving a problem which Qualcomm analyzed correctly first – to offer 1,000 times the data rates over a five-year period. The difference between the Qualcomm answer to that problem and the answers provided by companies like V-Nova – and we would add that Beamr, Faroudja, and US modulation scheme inventor Magnacom, should all be included – is that Qualcomm rubs its hands at massive capex inflation at the heart of the cellular network, while these algorithmic approaches simply see a new arrangement of what is already there.

Last year, Beamr released a case study with its customer M-Go, showing a significant improvement in user experience by using its video optimization. M-Go, a digital streaming service and joint venture between Technicolor and DreamWorks Animation, selected Beamr Video to provide consumers with an optimized streaming video experience. It measured three key metrics: video start time, re-buffer events, and quality of video – claiming improvements in all three metrics. Re-buffer events reduced by 50%, start time decreased by 20%, and higher quality became available at lower bandwidths, enabling most viewers to watch in 1080p.