VoD Trends: Quality Over Quantity
As Netflix Inc. and VUDU Inc. go over the top to deliver VoD to the TV with better quality, including some stuff in 1080p format, cable operators are coming under increasing pressure to also boost quality of their VoD streams into the home, even as bandwidth remains a scarce resource. (See TW Cable Slams Netflix's 'Super HD' Policy.)
One company that's trying to help the cable guys gloss up their VoD without also dialing up bit rates is Elemental Technologies Inc. (ETI), which overhauled its video-processing software for off-the-shelf encoding hardware that supports Intel Corp.'s new Sandy Bridge CPUs and Nvidia Corp.'s Tesla GPUs. The underlying idea is to improve video processing capabilities by two in half the rack space, and use 30 percent less power.
A marquee customer for this is Comcast Corp., which is utilizing Elemental's new-generation system principally to prep and deliver VoD services to set-top boxes out of the Comcast Media Center (CMC) in Centennial, Colo. The vast majority of Comcast's set-tops rely on MPEG-based transport, and the bulk of Comcast's live TV and on-demand fare is still using MPEG-2, which is only half as efficient as MPEG-4.
"A large part of the effort now is for VoD," said Comcast VP of Video Quality and Reliability Dave Higgins, noting that Elemental's new platform gives Comcast the opportunity to improve video quality without having to throw more bandwidth at it.
Comcast is also working with Elemental to transcode and prepare on-demand, TV Everywhere content for tablets, PCs and smartphones that support the operator's Xfinity TV apps. Elemental tells me that they're also involved with creating content for Comcast's new IP-capable X1 platform as well as Streampix, the operator's new subscription VoD service for set-tops and mobile devices. (See Elemental Eases Into Comcast OTT Role and Comcast's X1 Comes to Colorado.)
Comcast isn't using Elemental's latest generation for TV Everywhere services yet, but "ultimately we are headed toward more wide scale use of the Elemental software update," Higgins said.
Elemental, which counts Envivio Inc. and Harmonic Inc. among its competitors, has already built in a software-upgrade path for HEVC/H.265, an emerging codec that requires more processing than MPEG-4, but will be 50 percent more efficient from a bandwidth standpoint. Some possible applications for HEVC include the eye-popping 4K/Ultra HD format as well as mobile/multi-screen video.
Comcast has not announced any commitments for the new codec, but HEVC "is definitely on the roadmap for the industry," Higgins said. "The challenge is to be able to deliver next-generation products out to the end user."
That seems to jibe with what Elemental is hearing from its customers. Elemental VP of Marketing Keith Wymbs said 67 percent of 103 customers who responded to a customer satisfaction survey indicated that they're interested in kicking the tires on HEVC within the next nine months.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable