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27 May 2021

Synamedia’s De Cock raves over VQM in precursor to 8K encoding  

Rather than hunkering down and protecting existing assets during the pandemic, video software supplier Synamedia saw an opportunity to invest heavily in compression. A year later, these investments – which include hiring a dedicated video compression team headed up by former Netflix codec pioneer Professor Jan De Cock – are beginning to pay off.

Synamedia’s compression commitments weren’t exactly in doubt prior to De Cock’s appointment, although the vendor has been all too aware of its legacy reputation and has identified compression as one of the areas it can shake off this label – having spent the past two years intensively improving its encoders. These investments have put Synamedia in “poll position,” according to De Cock, briefing analysts on a call this week, who has quietly assisted the production of a new product toolkit called Vivid, which has not been given the honor of a formal announcement.

The Vivid brand includes Vivid Compression algorithms and Vivid Video Quality Measurement (VQM) metrics, with a focus on VVC (versatile video codec) and 8K support which we are assured is arriving later this year. Claiming to deliver the world’s most advanced compression implementation, Vivid uses AI techniques to improve encoding efficiency by up to 15% for the installed base of devices using MPEG-2 and AVC, which we should not forget still account for a sizable share of all video devices.

De Cock described “exciting things” going on around Synamedia’s Vivid AI methods, including real-time objective measurement and closed-loop compression via the Vivid VQM.

“If you check the info in your 4K TVs, you will be amazed at how low the bitrates are for supporting 4K. With 8K, you have to question how many people will notice the difference,” said De Cock, revealing that Synamedia is currently running 8K trials more than likely focused on live sports. “Once VVC is there then of course 8K becomes really accessible to a wider audience,” he added.

Presenting his vision of a multi-codec world to participants on the call, De Cock described perceptions of an aggressive space worth multiple billions of dollars, but one which should not be considered a winner takes all scenario. “Some codecs are superior to others, but it doesn’t mean one replaces the other completely,” he reasoned.

Capturing the Synamedia codec view in these four graphs, split between broadcast and OTT, Synamedia sees substantial growth for AV1 on the OTT side as HEVC also ramps up, while on the broadcast side the bulk of video remains AVC, and still will be in five years. De Cock also argued the case for MPEG-2, saying that Synamedia continues to invest in MPEG-2 to make it even more efficient despite its shrinking prevalence.

That said, De Cock raised his eyebrows over AV1 royalties, echoing a sentiment shared by the wider industry about the AOMedia codec’s supposed royalty-free licensing terms, while also acknowledging that concerns around royalties and licenses have somewhat slipped into the background.

Circling back to VQM, which De Cock described as a topic close to his heart, we learned that this is a real-time video quality assessment platform developed in-house for automatically calculating video metrics – allowing Synamedia to deliver video quality as a service. “To deploy any service at scale, you cannot watch every second of video, so you have to have automation and metrics. This will guide you to improve your product and end user experience – building on a long line of video quality measurement. Embedding these into our encoders is paying off,” added De Cock.

Zooming in on the AI-based techniques under the hood of Vivid VQM, De Cock cited rate control as benefiting from neural networks to more accurately predict complexities in video. This has allowed Synamedia to move away from manually crafted decision trees in the past which require a lot of training, instead leaving the heavy lifting to neural networks which can be fed heaps of data.

This nod to rate control transported us back to IBC 2019, when Synamedia added intelligent encoding algorithms to its Smart Rate Control software to minimize bandwidth requirements from expensive CDNs. Months later, in May 2020, Synamedia followed this up by increasing its investments in content-adaptive encoding – setting the scene for 8K OTA delivery as well as ATSC 3.0 and 4K.

Many parallels have been drawn between Synamedia’s recent product tweaks and the work going on at AOM, such as content-adaptive encoding and neural networks.

“There is a lot of buzz around AI – a lot of it well deserved but also a lot of caveats. If you are not careful when you apply it, you are going to end up with some disadvantages. It needs engineering excellence on top of black box offerings,” added De Cock.

During the Q&A session, an inevitable question on Synamedia’s support for LCEVC came up. De Cock spoke for many by declaring uncertainty around the codec enhancement technology, calling it an “interesting concept”.

“It depends on how many deals they can bring in,” he added, saying in no uncertain terms that Synamedia’s support for LCEVC hinges entirely on customer demand.