LAS VEGAS"There are a lot of little companies out there building codecs -- probably hundreds," said Dr. Mark Nicholls of Tektronix' MPEG Business Development unit, showing off the latest version of the MTS4EA Elementary Stream Analysis Software, which now handles Microsoft's VC-1 codec as well as the many versions of MPEG. "We provide a way for them to see which codecs work better, which ones work worse, and can help developers tweak their own encoders and decoders."
Tektronix is not the only company here at the NAB convention taking VC-1 seriously -- there's also a new Advanced Video Coding Alliance consisting of practically every major player except Microsoft. With brewing codec wars between Microsoft's VC-1 codec and MPEG- 4 Part 10 AVC (aka H.264), one subtle point is easily forgotten: There are many different "flavors" or variations of each codec, depending on who creates it.
"The standards (MPEG) define the decoder, not the encoder," Nicholls said. And the standards don't define how the encoding takes place, just what the encoded signal should look like. That leaves some room for variation, and small third party developers seem to dominate this realm of standards implementation.
"We don't license any codecs directly," says Charlie Gonsalves, Texas Instruments' New Business Development Manager for DSP-Emerging End Equipment (streaming media). "Instead, we refer our customers to third party developers who themselves license the codecs to TI's DSP customers." Gonsalves estimates there are between 3 and 10 such independent developers for any particular codec. At any given moment, one developer's codec may be better than another's, but all keep moving forward, and sometimes which is best is unclear. One codec implementation might have better performance, for example, while another has a smaller footprint. "Even if we create our own codec, we don't license it directly," Gonsalves says, "we'll give it to a third party developer and then they'll tweak it and sell it to TI's customers."
Licensing fees for these codecs can run from a few cents per unit to over ten dollars per unit (see MPEG Licensing Basics).
Though the big codecs " MPEG and VC-1 " are clearly pioneered by big name companies like Sony, Philips, and Microsoft, many smaller companies have gotten into the act, taking on the job of implementing these "standard" codecs on a particular processor or platform.
FastVDO, a 20-person company based in the U.S. and India, is a good example. Also exhibiting at NAB, their line of products includes an H.264 High Profile Windows Media Player, and an ARM based H.264 Baseline Profile codec optimized for mobile video.
"Our codecs are better and cheaper," says Basavaraj Mudigoudar, a design engineer for FastVDO. Asked if he used any of the new Tektronix MPEG analysis tools, which also include a transport stream analyzer introduced last month (see Test System Finds MPEG Faults) and an MPEG signal generator, Mudigoudar scoffed at the notion of buying off-the-shelf tools. "We built our own test tools," he says. "We had to. Five years ago these products didn't exist." Founded in 1998, FastVDO's customers include set top box manufacturers and head end equipment makers for cable and satellite TV. For those just entering the codec making market now, Mudigoudar agrees that off-the-shelf analysis tools may be useful.
Besides offering VC-1 support, the updated Tektronix Elementary Stream analyzer introduced here at NAB also now handles H.264 FRExt (Fidelity Range Extensions) -- the newest version of the "AVC" format (H.264 is the same as MPEG 4 AVC). While TV production and standards-conversion facilities represent Tektronix main market for this test equipment, the codec developer community is also a significant chunk of their business.
The stream analyzer can show how each pixel in a frame relates to the previous frame, can flag any data that is out of range and trigger automatic recording, and can compare encoded video with original YUV values, displaying errors and signal-to-noise ratios. Pricing for this software product, which works on almost any laptop or desktop PC, runs from about $13,000 to $25,000, depending on options (which codecs it can handle.)