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World, Meet Thor – a Project to Hammer Out a Royalty Free Video Codec

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Video codecs remain an area of active research and development. The current generation video codec is H.264 – in widespread usage on the Internet. Cisco has actively worked towards making H.264 the foundation of real-time communications on the web. The next generation codecs are just beginning to emerge. There are two of note – Google’s proprietary VP9 codec, and the industry standard H.265 (HEVC) codec, which is the successor to H.264 (AVC).

Unfortunately, the patent licensing situation for H.265 has recently taken a turn for the worse. Two distinct patent licensing pools have formed so far, and many license holders are not represented in either. There is just one license pool for H.264. The total costs to license H.265 from these two pools is up to sixteen times more expensive than H.264, per unit. H.264 had an upper bound on yearly licensing costs, whereas H.265 has no such upper limit.

These licensing terms preclude usage of H.265 in any kind of open source or freely distributed software application, such as web browsers. They also preclude its usage in freemium products – like WebEx or Cisco Spark – which have versions that users can use for free. Thus, while H.265 is still a good fit for hardware products like our telepresence room systems, it is not something that can serve as a universal video codec across hardware and software. Thus, we believe the industry needs a high quality, next-generation codec that can be used everywhere.

To further those ends, we began a project to create a new video codec which would meet these needs. We call this project Thor. The effort is being staffed by some of the world’s most foremost codec experts, including the legendary Gisle Bjøntegaard and Arild Fuldseth, both of whom have been heavy contributors to prior video codecs. We also hired patent lawyers and consultants familiar with this technology area. We created a new codec development process which would allow us to work through the long list of patents in this space, and continually evolve our codec to work around or avoid those patents. Our efforts are far from complete, but we felt it was time to open this up to the world.

As a result, we released project Thor to the community two weeks ago. We open sourced the code, which you can find here: http://thor-codec.org. We also contributed Thor as an input to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has begun a standards activity to develop a next-gen royalty free video codec in its NetVC workgroup. Mozilla has also been active in that group, and they have been working on technology as well (called Daala) towards the same goal. As more technology gets contributed to this cause, the greater its chance of success.

We will continue to develop Thor over the coming months, constantly evolving the codec as our patent analysis continues. We invite others to work with us – to help develop the codec, to participate in the patent analysis, or to contribute their own Intellectual Property Rights on a royalty free basis.

If you or your company would like to help, please contact netvc-inquiry@cisco.com.

1 Comment
Beginner

This is wonderful.  Is there a profile compliance for collabs?  General video and collab video are 2 different things.  Is there an encoder spec or just a decoder spec (H.264/5 is a decoder spec)?

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