YouTube Casts An Early 4K Vote

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While it’s too early to say that the market for next-gen video codecs will soon find itself at a crossroads, one of the giants of Internet video, YouTube, appears to be zigging while many others are zagging.

YouTube will show off 4K streaming at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas using the Google-backed, royalty-free VP9 codec, GigaOm and other media outlets reported Thursday. At first glance, that appears to be an affront to High Efficiency Video Coding/H.265, an emerging codec being adopted by many other chipmakers, video processing vendors and other suppliers up and down the video distribution food chain. In fact, you can expect to see a steady stream of HEVC-related news next week as suppliers on all fronts announce products that support that platform, which promises to be about 50% more bandwidth efficient than H.264.

Both codecs are designed to chew up fewer bits, making them perfect candidates not just for 4K, which packs four times the pixels of today’s HD video, but also for video shipped on cellular services that tend to get fitted with strict usage-based bandwidth policies.

But having YouTube throw in with VP9 at this early stage should pave the way for an interesting debate on how suppliers, programmers and distributors vendors might place their bets as the 4K train starts to chug forward.  And given that YouTube has lined up some of the biggest names in CE names for its 4K/VP9 demos, including LG, Panasonic and Sony, as well as the backing of several chipmakers, including Intel, Broadcom and Marvell, it would seem that Google’s platform has already generated some significant sway.

But is this an either/or scenario, or can both somehow live in harmony, even if one is royalty-free and the other requires patent licenses? YouTube, meanwhile, appears to be leaving its options open, with Francisco Varela, the company’s global head of platform partnerships, telling Variety  that YouTube is “not announcing that we will not support HEVC.”

Even with that caveat, it will still be a fun question to pose during my travels in Las Vegas next week. And if you have some thoughts on it now, please chime in on the message boards below…

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