Significant gains in video compression were much in evidence at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC, otherwise known as H.265, promises a 50% improvement in compression over the widely employed AVC/H.264 standard, for similar quality. The first deployments could come sooner than some might expect, in a matter of months.

The 50% gain was a design objective for the new standard and is widely claimed, although it remains to be seen whether it will be proved in practice. HEVC promises to squeeze a quart into a pint pot, although do not expect it to squeeze an Imperial pint into an American pint pot.

It may be years before HEVC becomes widespread in broadcasting. An obvious application is to enable delivery of 4K channels, which have four times the resolution of high-definition television. With new compression techniques this could be delivered using around twice the capacity of current HD services.

A more imminent use is likely to be in mobile and online distribution, using the efficiency gain to reduce the network capacity required to deliver services, allowing operators to reach more customers, or to enable higher quality images for the same bandwidth. So the impact may be seen first on smartphone and tablet screens, with software players already available for multiple platforms, including iOS, Android, Mac and Windows.

The new standard was only ratified at the start of the year but vendors were already demonstrating their implementations, which have been in development for some time.

“Now that we’ve seen the industry-wide approval of HEVC as a standard, we’re rapidly moving from creation to implementation,” said Joe Cozzolino, responsible for network infrastructure solutions at Motorola Mobility, which is now owned by Google.

“It took almost four years from the time MPEG-4 was made an industry-wide standard before the necessary refinements in the MPEG-4 tool kit took place and the standard reached its fullest potential. We’re only two months into the approval of HEVC, and we’ve already reached an unprecedented level of progress.”

Motorola was able to show HEVC being decoded by a Google Nexus 10 tablet, the latest Apple iPad, and a set-top box.

Harmonic showed real-time and file-based encoders, with UltraHD material at 3-7Mbps displayed using a Broadcom decoder and a software decoder from NTT Docomo.

“While native Ultra HD content is the ideal, the demo also outlines the benefits of Harmonic’s superior preprocessing when upconverting HD content for display on an Ultra HD screen,” explained Ian Trow, who leads emerging technology and strategy at Harmonic.

Envivio promised HEVC for live and on-demand applications for new installations or as a software upgrade for Envivio Muse customers with the latest kit.

“HEVC offers a number of advantages for operators, most immediately in enabling a high definition experience for multi-screen and OTT at bit-rates that meet the bandwidth requirements for those services,” said Julien Sign &egraves, the president and chief executive of Envivio.

Thomson Video Networks announced that its ViBE multiscreen video encoding and transcoding system now provides support for HEVC, again available through a software and licence upgrade.

“By integrating the new HEVC compression standard into the ViBE VS7000, Thomson Video Networks is paving the way for HD and Ultra HD content on any kind of device and any kind of network,” said Eric Gallier, who heads marketing for the company. “Combining the bandwidth savings of HEVC with exciting new technologies such as MPEG-Dash, eMBMS and LTE, the VS7000 lowers operating expenses while easing the path to video delivery in today’s multi-platform world.”

Ericsson introduced the SVP 5500, the first HEVC encoder for mobile applications, back in 2012. It is working with Korea Telecom SkyLife to explore the potential for use in new services, including ultra-high definition television.

Elemental Technologies invited visitors to bring their own source video for a demonstration of their real-time encoding on commodity hardware, streaming output at 500Kbps to a tablet and at 1080p to a high-definition television.

Ateme meanwhile announced the first open source implementation of a software media player. GPAC can now be used to play back HEVC streams and files. The test bed currently works on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux systems and can display HEVC Main Profile at 1080p. It was demonstrated in combination with the Ateme TITAL live and file transcoder.

“Ateme has been an early supporter of HEVC features in GPAC and took an active part in the integration effort because this will help our clients assess the performance of our Titan product line in HEVC,” said Jerome Vieron, manager for advanced research at Ateme.

Samsung now has support for HEVC in their television sets, which may surprise some. Orange is likely to be the first operator in Europe to take advantage of this, delivering 1080p video over broadband to the latest Samsung displays. Standard definition will be provided for other models.

It will still be necessary to support AVC/H.264 for many services, so in reality HEVC/H.265 becomes yet another standard to support. Yet it seems that HEVC is already a practical rather than a theoretical proposition for some applications, with some compelling benefits. Expect to see it coming to a small screen, if not a large screen, near you very soon.