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Encoding & Transcoding 2018: Part 3
We wrap up our survey of the encding and transcoding landscape with looks at Verizon Digital Media Services, Media Excel, Comprimato, Elecard, Capella Systems, Epic Labs, EuclidIQ, and NGCodec.
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We wrap up our survey of leading vendors in the encoding and transcoding market, which we began in part 1 with an overview of the technologies and looks at Harmonic, AWS Elemental, and Telestream. Part 2 looked at Encoding.com, Beamr, Brightcove, Bitmovin, Cisco/Synamedia, and Ericsson/MediaKind. Part 3 looks at Verizon Digital Media Services, Media Excel, Comprimato, Elecard, Capella Systems, Epic Labs, and EuclidIQ

Verizon Digital Media Services 

Verizon Digital Media Services (VDMS )delivers its Uplynk suite of streaming video services to a wide range of customers. On just the channel side, VDMS services over 1,600 broadcasters, including most of those in the U.S.

VDMS is a software-based company that operates in the AWS cloud. For encoding, VDMS uses its own proprietary encoding software, the Slicer, which cuts videos into two-second chunks for transcoding and processing. (Verizon Ventures has invested in Beamr and other encoding companies, but VDMS doesn’t currently work with any of them in encoder production.) 

“We take our customers raw contribution feed … and we encode it into a mezzanine format … then [transcode] that into an ABR streaming format like HLS, then we start doing ad insertion,” explains Tom Quinn, the VDMS lead product manager for encoding. “That’s a point of tight integration with the partner where they have an ad decisioning system and they give us ads and we actually insert them into the stream… which makes its way out to our CDN.” VDMS is the only video platform that operates its own CDN (Edgecast).

For customers with their own infrastructures, VDMS can deliver the Slicer on a generic appliance or let the customer download the Slicer at no charge onto their own appliances. For larger customers, VDMS offers Slicermonitoring through a dashboard for analysis and monitoring of multiple streams at various stages of the video processing workflow.

Most of VDMS’s encoding is H.264, with some HEVC. VDMS does no VP9 encoding. About 80% of the VDMS workflow is live.

“Live is definitely our sweet spot, and live is much, much more complicated than VOD,” notes Mary Kay Evans, VDMS's chief marketing officer. “The good news for us is that if you can manage live, then the VOD asset is ready right then.”

VDMS has been very involved with eSports, which has presented latency, monetization and other challenges to all companies in the eSports space.

“Latency … and monetization are major issues,” explains Evans. “If [rightsholders] are going to put it online, they’ve got to be able to make money at it.” 

“Our live solution actually allows you to have one-to-one session management with every single viewer at the lowest latency behind live that we’ve seen,” adds Evans. “30 seconds behind live, monetized, meaning personalized ads are being served… others claim to be able to stream 10 seconds behind live, and we can, too … but not with personalized ads being inserted. And that’s a big differentiator." 

Latency isn’t only a problem with eSports. The “neighbors cheering down the street” latency issue is notorious for all live sports being streamed OTT. 

“Historically, the Uplynk solution was roughly 60 seconds behind live… Over the last six months, we’ve managed to shave [that] down to 30 seconds,” says Ariff Sidi, VDMS’s chief product officer. “We’re making modifications on the backend systems to ultimately shave it down to roughly 7 to 12 seconds … which is competitive to a DirectTV broadcast.” Ariff adds, “Where we want to get to is when our customers are the ones who are cheering first.” 

“Live [OTT] is going to get to the place where everybody is able to do it fast … but it isn’t just the fastest. It’s having the full ecosystem so that it’s easy,” says Evans. “Ads just happen and you don’t have to be working with an external partner for that piece. And delivery happens and you’re not having to manage who’s going to deliver this for me on the fly. You need that all handled by one vendor that is simply taking the raw stream from you.” 

Media Excel 

Founded 18 years ago in Austin, TX, Media Excel today offers live and VOD transcoding and contribution appliances as well as encoding/transcoding software for deployment on cloud-based virtual machines. While the transcoders are software based, Media Excel offers appliances to facilitate the ingest of SDI through a physical card. 

Another factor in the decision to offer appliances is that Media Excel works with a large number of telcos. “Those folks are familiar with deploying appliances,” notes Nikos Kyriopoulos, Media Excel’s VP of product and business development. 

Media Excel’s most successful product is its Hero Live encoder, which encodes AVC/H.264 and HEVC/H.265 and can package to HLS, DASH, or CMAF. The Hero Live encoder enables integration with DRM, ad insertion, subtitling, and other features.

More than 80% of the company’s business comes from live encoding, and around 60% of that is from 24/7 linear channels. The rest of the live business comes through live events, such as the NFL games encoded on Media Excel for Verizon. The company has also worked in eSports, encoding steams of Fortnite competitions. 

The Hero File encoder for VOD is essentially the same product as the Hero Live but with a different dashboard interface.

“Some of our CDNs have their own streaming projects and many (e.g. Limelight, Akamai, Level 3) have chosen Media Excel to do their transcoding,” says Kyriopoulos. “Media Excel’s ability to switch from live to VOD workflows is amazing for the CDNs, because they can shift as needed.”

The Hero Event encoder has been reduced in terms of density and price from Hero Live, but not in terms of features. This fills a gap in the market for a full-featured (ad insertion, closed captioning, etc.) encoder at a lower cost. The Hero Cloud is a software-based encoder for managed services but does not include the services themselves.

Media Excel has earned a reputation for reliability and quality, resulting from and likely contributing to its work with the military. 

“We have a footprint in the U.S. Department of Defense, with the Japanese Navy and with the British [military]… for theater of war operations,” notes Kyriopoulos. “That’s probably for our reliability and quality, because that’s what those institutions expect.”

Kyriopoulos surmises that Media Excel is less known in the VOD space because reliability isn’t as big a concern with VOD. If there’s a problem, just run it again.

“Media Excel, as a company, puts three things on the table,” says Kyriopoulos. “One is quality, second is reliability, and third is flexibility … [We are available] as an appliance, as a virtual layer or in the cloud.”

Comprimato

Founded in 2013 in Brno, Czech Republic, Comprimato is tightly focused on creating the fastest JPEG2000 contribution encoder on the market. Originally, the company licensed its codec technology to other software companies. Then, about a year ago, it added its own video encoding software product that it now sells directly to broadcasters and telco operators. The company’s pure software, GPU accelerated encoder has rapidly achieved wide adoption. 

“Every movie you see today was encoded on JPEG2000 … Ten years ago, they decided to standardize with JPEG2000,” says Comprimato founder and CEO Jiri Matela. "The differentiator for us is GPU acceleration, which provides performance and density that is otherwise only available in hardware appliances.”

Comprimato’s customers include Hollywood companies like IMAX, Technicolor, and Deluxe, as well as providers of content to Netflix. On the live side, Comprimato’s current focus, most of the company’s customers are 24/7 channels like ESPN or telcos and broadcasters in Russia and Europe who are doing contribution or live TV distribution via OTT or IPTV.

Customers use Comprimato on the contribution side when they transmit from stadiums to studios, using high-bandwidth JPEG2000. The same software can also do distribution, so once the stream arrives in studio, it can be immediately transcoded into a distribution format, most often H.264.

Rostelecom, the largest digital services provider in Russia, has a huge contribution network connecting different soccer stadiums using the JPEG2000 format. 

“In the studio, they had a problem. They needed a contribution decoder to get back to SDI … to then feed an H.264 encoder, then a packager, and then out to Akamai,” notes Matela. “Comprimato replaced the contribution decoder and H,264 encoder with one software, so not only did Rostelecom save money on hardware, they also cut down on latency, This is why they like us. We did a similar thing for ESPN.”

About 60-70% of Comprimato’s business is in the US and Canada, with the rest in Europe and Russia. So far, the company has no customers in Asia. While Comprimato is exploring the cloud, all its customers currently want their own on-prem software.

“There are several reasons for that,” notes Matela. “Cloud for a 24/7 operation is super expensive. Latency is also an issue. Whenever you push anything to cloud, it takes time … and when you are in the live business doing broadcast sports, very often you can’t afford latency.” 

Elecard 

Based in the engineering-university town of Tomsk, Russia, Elecard has been researching and building video codecs since the 1980’s. The company currently offers its CodecWorks software product for live encoding and transcoding into HEVC/H.265 (including 4K), AVC/H.264 and MPEG-2 video supporting ABR via HLS and MPEG-DASH. Elecard also offers its Converter Studio suite of software transcoders for file-base encoding and packaging.  

Today, most of the company’s encoding business is live and is more focused on events than 24/7 linear channels. Elecard has around 160 employees, most of whom are based in Tomsk. The company’s business is roughly equally divided between Russia, the U.S. and Europe, but is growing its Asia business with sales and marketing teams in China and Vietnam. 

Elecard sees its pedigree as a developer of video codecs as a key differentiator for its current focus as a producer of tools for analyzing and monitoring encoded video streams. The company offers three three tools for stream analysis and monitoring: Borofor live streams, StreamEyefor encoded files, and Probo SDKfor companies that want to use Elecard technology to build their own analysis and monitoring solutions.

Elecard’s analysis and monitoring tools are found in the R&D labs of many of the encoding companies that presented at IBC. Boro can be used for both contribution and distribution streams, so companies can monitor the quality of both incoming and encoded streams. StreamEye can identify errors in encoded files and notify team members in which frame the problem lies, simplifying troubleshooting. 

Elecard products currently support AVC and HEVC and will be ready to support AV1 when it is released. The company touts the flexibility and ease-of-use of its GUIs as another key differentiator.

Capella 

Capella, with 12 employees in San Jose and a small sales and marketing team in Tokyo, was founded in 2010 by alumni of Rhozet, the pioneering video encoding company that was purchased by Harmonic in 2007. 

Capella offers its Cambria FTC file-based encoder as well as its Cambria Live encoder, each of which account for about half of the company’s revenue. Both are software based. Capella’s customers include broadcasters and post-production houses as well as content providers, some of which submit to Netflix. Capella also shares customers (e.g., TV stations in Japan) with online video platforms like Brightcove.

After Rhozet's acquisition, Capella’s founder and CEO, Ikuyo Yamada, saw opportunity with Tier 2 and Tier 3 customers that wasn’t being exploited by larger players in the encoding space. 

“A lot of big players are still focused on traditional Tier 1 customers like broadcasters,” says Yamada. “But because the technology [and fast internet] is so available, it allows non-broadcasters to do a lot of live streaming.”

“For Tier 2 and Tier 3 customers, the traditional products developed for Tier 1 customers are very difficult to use,” Yamada adds. “My goal is to create a product where if you know how to work a PC then you know how to use our application.” 

Capella’s small size allows it to be agile and cost effective, which in turn enables it to meet the needs of less conventional customers. For example, Capella does live streaming from churches in Korea as well as hotel wedding venues in Japan.

Yamada also saw that server-side ad insertion (SSAI) presented monetization opportunities heretofore unrecognized. “Cricket events in India go on for five days and have very, very high viewership,” she notes. “With SSAI, customers can offer live streams and easily make millions of dollars. Our Cambria Live is being used for those type of events.”

Yamada also sees monetization opportunities in many niche events that have not typically been broadcast but can be streamed OTT, from quarterfinal matches at Wimbledon to minor league baseball games in Japan.

Capella’s Cambria Live encoder was used to stream FIFA World Cup events throughout Japan. The company’s Cambria FTC file-based encoder supports up to 8K HEVC (no HEVC for Cambria Live yet), and has been used mostly for events and demonstrations in Japan.

Here again, Yamada senses opportunity. She notes that if she can get her product to be good enough to satisfy the very quality sensitive Japanese market, she is confident she will be successful in the U.S.

Epic Labs

Madrid-based Epic Labs was founded in 2015 by four engineers from Akamai and EMC. The company aspires to help media companies transition from a broadcasting world to an IP-based world, and in the process leverage machine learning, advanced encoding algorithms and innovative packaging techniques to create a higher quality of experience for streaming media. 

Epic’s core product is its LightFlow Engine, which features per-title, per-scene encoding to achieve low latency, high QoE encodes. Epic’s value proposition is to achieve high-quality per-title encodes, both VOD and live, at an affordable price.

“For live, we apply exactly the same algorithm that we apply for VOD,” explains Guillermo Ayala Benito, Epic Product Manager. “The only difference is that we let the live feed run … sample it in parallel, analyze it, and then after 90 to 120 seconds we come up with an optimal encoding configuration. We then push that configuration into our encoder and you start benefiting from the optimal configuration.” 

Epic breaks certain predictable content up into a playlist of titles. For example, a football match might start with talking heads (title 1), then the match itself (title 2) followed by a commercial break (title 3). The match would then continue (title 4), perhaps followed by post-match talking heads (title 5). Epic would apply different encoding profiles to each type of title, with lower bitrates for static talking heads and higher bitrates for high-motion action, like the match.

“Our customers want to get the bitrate down, but they’re very interested in quality,” says Benito. “In many cases, they are IPTV players or broadcast players that are entering OTT for the first time, and they have the problem of the prestige. If you are the BBC and you go over the top, you are still the BBC.”

EuclidIQ

EuclidIQ is a Boston-based video compression engineering firm with six full-time employees, four of whom are PhD video engineers (they also hire independent contractors). EuclidIQ’s focus has been entirely file-based and runs on pure software in the cloud (AWS). 

While many video encoding companies focus on the sexier challenge of UHD, EuclidIQ works with service providers in emerging markets (think India) to deliver the best quality video possible over sub-optimal networks.

“If you try to fit a 5Mbps video into a 1Mbps network, then it’s going to look really bad,” says Nigel Lee, EuclidIQ’s CEO. “We’re able to deliver video in very bandwidth limited situations where they’re still on 2G and 3G and under 1Mbps. You have to figure out a way to present a satisfactory video, not necessarily pristine, in these low bandwidth scenarios. 

High-bandwidth broadband has yet to reach many corners of the world, presenting a wealth of opportunity for companies like EuclidIQ. Lee notes, “We are 100 times smaller than some of the other companies out there, but we focus on doing something different from what other people do.”

Delivering acceptable video in these environments presents engineering challenges as great as those faced in the 8K UHD world. EuclidIQ’s team of engineers have developed their own AI algorithms through perceptual quality optimization to achieve the desired results.

“What we’ve done in our company is make sure that we provide good data for the AI algorithms,” says Lee. “That’s what we believe distinguishes our CAE from others. We have better data that we put into it.”

When selling its services out in the field, EuclidIQ often finds itself comparing “apples to apples,” rather than demonstrating stunning encodes through high bandwidth networks. “Most companies [have whatever codec they’ve been using] and then they compare against ours [in real-world, low-bandwidth situations],” says Lee. In many cases, those are competitions that EuclidIQ is winning. 

NGCodec

NGCodec is a 6-year-old startup based in Silicon Valley that does one thing - build hardware-accelerated live encoders based on FPGA. NGCodec’s RealityCodec appliances live in the cloud (AWS, Alibaba, Huawei) and are available through a software-as-a-service model. The company’s customers are those who want to build their own workflows using open source software.

NGCodec focuses exclusively on video encoding—no audio, no subtitles, no DRM, no packaging—and delivers AVC, HEVC, VP9 and AV1 encodes with multiple ABR outputs. Gunasekara confidently notes, “We believe that we have the world’s best encoding technology.”

Gunasakara has made a number of decisions that separate NGCodec from the encoding pack. While the great majority of encoding companies now focus on software solutions, NGCodec has cast its lot with relatively new (about three years old) FPGA technology. FPGA offers more flexibility than ASIC hardware, yet delivers higher performance than software-based solutions.  

“We’ve gone against the grain,” notes Gunasakara. “Ten years ago, hardware was the model because you couldn’t do it in software. Then five years ago people started moving to software and they thought that that was the right answer. We went in the complete opposite direction six years ago and [ultimately] chose FPGA.”

Gunasakara likes FPGA’s combination of flexibility and performance. “Standards are getting so complex … and if you try to do live video with software you don’t have enough performance … By using hardware acceleration and doing live, we can drastically lower the bitrate.”

While NGCodec is actively involved in HEVC and AV1 R&D (as are many encoding companies today), the company is one of the few that still sees life in VP9, particularly in the exploding eSports space.

“Esports is already a huge part of our business, both here in the west and in China,” says Gunasekara. “It’s a massive phenomenon in the younger demographic… we’ve done quite a lot of optimization in our encoder to make it really good at synthetic or computer-generated graphics.” NGCodec has built a strong reputation in the eSports space, and has recently announced a major new licensing agreement with Twitch to employ NGCodec’s VP9 encoding solution over the Twitch eSports platform.

What's Next? 

According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, IP video traffic will make up 82% of all global consumer internet traffic by 2021, up from 73% in 2016. Additionally, by 2020, there will be 26.3 billion networked devices globally, up from 16.3 billion in 2015. With 5G on the horizon, the quality and volume of mobile video will continue to impress. 

Over the next year, in addition to this continued growth of online video, we can expect to see reductions in latency of OTT streaming, continued codec efficiency improvements, innovations in CAE, and new applications of AI and machine learning for encoding and other aspects of the video workflow.

As consumers demand a better and more consistent QoE, companies will strive to improve the metrics (PSNR, SSIM, JND, etc.) that they already use to define "quality." But as Nigel Lee of EuclidIQ points out, "What the computer algorithms in the video industry are trying to do is mimic what humans are seeing … In this industry, the human is still the gold standard."

We can also expect some surprises. For example, how many predicted a year ago that one of Azure's largest providers of video content for storage and access would be Axon, a company that this year uploaded 20 petabytes of police department bodycam footage to the cloud?

“The security camera industry is all going to go to the cloud. That’s where the next generation of codecs is really important," notes Kieran Farr, Bitmovin’s vice president of marketing. "You're only accessing this content very rarely, so you want to make sure you're storing this in the most efficient way possible." 

To quote Capella’s Yamada, "When there is a lot of change, there is a lot of opportunity, and it doesn’t come so often. We’re in a very interesting time.”

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