Royalty-Free AV1 Codec Turned Loose

With giants such as Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft in its corner, the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) has released the 1.0 version of AV1, a next-gen, royalty-free codec that claims to have a 30% bit-rate efficiency edge over current-gen technologies like VP9 and HEVC.

The consortium is releasing AV1 in the hopes that it will deliver improved bandwidth efficiencies amid the move to video formats with more pixels (like 4K and 8K), better pixels (High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut), as well as the emergence of 360-degree video, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) apps and services that need to be smooth and are poised to ratchet up bit rate requirements on TV screens, laptops, tablets and smartphones. 

Though AV1, which is also claimed to have a 65% bandwidth savings over AVC/H.264, could eventually find itself a home inside set-top boxes and, perhaps even further out broadcast TV signals, it’s expected to initially find adoption on web browsers and other types of OTT streaming devices.

“Video is changing the way the internet is evolving,” Gabe Frost, the executive director and a founding board member of AOMedia and a principal engineering manager for Microsoft’s operating systems group, said in an interview. 

Another chief aim for AV1 and its royalty-free model is to eliminate some of the pricing uncertainty that has enveloped codecs like HEVC, which has been saddled by multiple patent pools and little in the way of uniformity on rates.

RELATED: HEVC Advance Cuts Back on Some Royalty Rates, Caps

The current codec market is “gummed up” due to the cost uncertainty, Frost said, and has likewise caused friction between technology innovators that those that want to charge for patented technologies that can help them. 

AOMedia, launched in 2015, was formed with the core idea that the underlying video codec technology had become a commodity, and that a royalty-free model represented the best path forward. 

“We all use it; it all gets baked into silicon,” Frost said.

The plan with AV1 then focused on how a new approach, despite being royalty-free, could still “create a viable business model to move the industry forward, with some certainty around the costs of producing these codecs,” he explained.

While that idea was spawned by early meetings with Microsoft and Google, it later expanded to include several other in the ecosystem, including chipmakers, distributors, web services companies and video equipment makers, that would be willing to provide their intellectual property under the royalty-free model.

Examples of founding members of AOMedia include Amazon, Apple, ARM, Cisco Systems, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla, Netflix and Nvidia. Promoter members include Adobe, CableLabs, Bitmovin, Hulu, Vidyo, and Broadcom, among others.

Frost said every member company of AOMedia signs an agreement that licenses the essential technology that’s used in the final AV1 codec on a royalty-free basis. And those that implement it likewise sign a cross-patent license agreement that says they’re free to use AV1 at no cost, but that if they hold any essential patents, those are licensed to other AOMedia members on a royalty-free basis.

“We wanted to make sure we had a licensing infrastructure set up where we could create a durable, royalty-free ecosystem,” Frost said, noting that companies with patents used for codecs such as HEVC and H.264 are free to license those same patents under other terms, such as those that are governed by AV1.

The hope is that the model will accelerate the adoption cycle of AV1 and spark advancements across software, silicon, devices and connectivity and push the market forward for all stakeholders.

“Royalty-free doesn’t mean that people aren’t making money off the technology,” Frost said.

As for near-term expectations, Frost said desktop browsers will start to support AV1 later this year, and see it start to show up on devices such as gaming consoles towards the end of 2018 or into 2019. 

In a presentation about today’s release, AOMedia noted that AV1 would be “coming to a screen near you,” with examples that included Twitch, Facebook, Android, Amazon Prime Video, Chromebook, Chrome, Google Play, Netflix, Windows, Xbox One, Daydream (Google’s VR platform), Skype, and YouTube.

“It will be 2020 when we see it available on all new silicon that comes out,” Frost predicted.

Michelle Abraham, senior analyst, media and communications at S&P Global Market Intelligence, said the buy-in among a wide number of companies and players gives AV1 a “good opportunity” to make waves in the video codec market.

She sees its greatest opportunity coming from video streaming and OTT, but doesn’t expect to see it widely used by broadcasters, who typically go with technologies that are tied to international standards bodies.

There’s also a question about whether the latency requirements of broadcasters will be suited to AV1, at least in its initial release.

AV1 will be getting some play at next month’s NAB show in Las Vegas, including demos on April 10 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the South Upper Hall Destination NXT Stage.

A panel is also slated for April 11 starting at 3:20 p.m. at the North Hall (N257) that will feature Microsoft’s Gabe Frost, Google’s Matt Frost, Intel’s Zach Hamm, Bitmovin’s Stefan Lederer, Microsoft’s David Rudin, and Netflix’s Mark Watson.