Codecs – Keeping VR Files Manageable
Codecs. You may not hear a sexier word all day today. For most people a codec really doesn’t matter and it is just some behind the scenes tech word. However, the thing about codecs is it allows for you to view VR porn on your computer. An actual virtual reality video, without compression, is going to sit at a few terabytes worth of size (depending on a handful of variables). If you want to kill your Internet connection real quick, you’ll try to download, or even stream, a video file several terabytes in size. It means you’d never be able to fit something onto your phone, and your computer may at best be able to hold two or three videos. Doesn’t really sound all that great now, does it? Codecs make video streaming, viewing and sharing possible, so having a general understanding of how a video is compressed and the codecs used is important.
A Step Back in Time
If you were a Windows 95 user (even up to the early days of Windows XP), you probably remember the half dozen or more different media players you needed to have on your computer in order to view a given video file. Windows came out with the Windows Media Player and Apple used QuickTime. Then you have the RealTime Player, the eventual VLC Media Player (although this one still has some uses today) and a handful of others. Now why in the world did you need to bog down your 320 MB hard drive with so many media players? Because every single media producer used codecs designed by the companies. Think of it as the computer format wars, only instead of VHS vs. Beta or HD DVD vs Bluray, it was RealTime vs MPC and others. Without getting into all these different media players, it simply became far too difficult for consumers to stay up on all their media player updates and for producers of online content (limited at the time, but still there) to release a half-dozen different media files of the same 15 second clip. More universal codecs were needed.
A Move in the Right Direction
Even if you are not familiar with codecs you likely are familiar with compression. After all, MP3 files changed how ugly the word “compression” is. MP3 is a compressed audio file, stripped of non-essential information in order to make the audio track especially small. Now, a lossless audio file does have tremendous upside over the compressed MP3, but at a time where data storage sat in the megabytes, giving up some audio quality for the ability to carry around hundreds of files proved to be extremely popular. From there, the development of the MP3 player and then, eventually, the Apple iPod.
Now, Apple did not create the MP3 player. In fact, it didn’t come out with such a player until several years into the development and release of other portable MP3 players. The first unit didn’t do all that well in sales, but eventually, the player caught on and went on to dominate the world of compressed audio files. Beyond just commanding attention in the world of MP3 players though, it standardized a single audio file format.
Apple didn’t just stop with the audio files though. It eventually went on to release the video iPod. And, again, while other devices had some video playback potential before the device, Apple created a new file format, the MP4, in order to save quality, compressed video onto the device. This compression format started a new wave of video compression and codec use.
If you were to ask a video editor to show you the kind of video codecs they had to choose from, they would take you into their Avid editing suite and bring up a control menu of codecs. On the menu, you’d literally see hundreds of options. Some codecs were made for streaming video at a time where Internet speeds where no where near what they are today. Others were still for individual media players while others were designed for a data CD, video CD, DVD, TV standard and dozens of other display formats. Most editors likely used three or four of these formats based on particular needs, but, like the days of Windows 95, the lack of a unified video codec caused all sorts of issues.
The MPEG-4 (MP4) video format did pick up some steam with the creation of the video iPod, but it still produced inferior video quality and a single TV episode would eat up far too much storage space. That went on to change with the creation of a video codec called H.264. Also referred to as MPEG-4 Part 10 or MPEG-4 AVC, the H.264 video codec made it possible to produce a near non-compression video quality for half the bit rate of the currently used MP4 video files. This video file format creation made it possible to not only upload higher quality video files onto the Internet, but to boost broadcast display standards and make DVD storage easier.
Now, it is important to understand there are different variations of H.264. It can be used for a lossless video file, which means there is little to no compression. Typically though, it is a lousy compression video file, at least when used online. H.264 is why you are now able to view HD streaming videos on your computer without sitting for days on end to allow the video to buffer.
H.264 has become the standard throughout the media industry and it is currently the standard for all Blu-ray discs. Content downloaded from iTunes or most other media devices are presented in this file format as well. Now, with the development of the video codec, if you were to ask a video editor to show you their codec options, they may just have a dozen or two, with H.264 as one of the most used compression codecs available.
The Future is H.265
Like any kind of video file format and codec, improvements are made. H.264 remained the compression standard for years. Now, the latest version is H.265. Also known as HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), it is a codec designed to handle more information than H.264. The H.264 video codec isn’t going anywhere. It is still a fine format for most media needs. However, there are several different media types that require a more powerful video compression option.
H.265 is able to offer twice the compression efficiency as H.264. If the HEVC codec is used to make a video file half the size of H.264, the video quality is on the same level. However, of HEVC is used to create a video file of the same storage size, the H.265 format will have a higher level of visual quality.
So what kinds of media need to take advantage of H.265? Really, any kind of media can, if the creators want to. The file format has been around since 2013, so while on the newer side, it has been around for a few years (some editing suites just take longer than others to include the new codec). Specifically though, Ultra/4K video content takes advantage of this. At four times the resolution of HD, without added compression it just isn’t possible for this kind of content to load properly on most computers and televisions. The second form of media to take advantage of H.265 is virtual reality. Virtual reality doesn’t just shoot in HD or, as VRHush is concerned, 4K, but in 360-degrees. This drastically increases the size of a video file. Every bit of high-end compression is required to make it even possible to fit such a file onto your mobile phone or computer. Right along with the improvement of virtual reality technology, the H.265 codec makes enjoying VR in your home a reality.
Codecs are not the most exciting bit of information in the virtual reality industry, but it is one of the most important. While there have been hundreds of other codecs designed and still in use today, H.265 is currently the most important. There likely will not be another improved compression format for some time, but the moment one becomes standard, you better believe we’ll be right on it, in order to give you the highest quality virtual reality experience possible.