High Quality Video: Definitely a Winner for Skype

High Quality Video certainly places superior demands on technology resources; in testing yesterday evening with Phone Boy, Dameon Welch, we found superior performance for the user who has those resources.

In previous posts I have talked about doing a setup for High Quality Video and subsequently putting together the requirements, goals and benchmarks for High Quality Video. Working with a 1.6 GHz CoreDuo Laptop, Logitech 9000 webcam with version 11.5 drivers, Skype 3.6 for Windows and a 6Mbps download/800 kbps upload cable Internet connection at my end and a 2.6 GHz Core2Duo Desktop, and even faster Internet connection at Dameon’s end we did test video calls of both Skype’s High Quality Video and SightSpeed 6.0 to determine what constitutes the better user experience. In today’s post I will describe our High Quality Video results; tomorrow I will provide a summary comparison with SightSpeed. along with commentary on some other experiences that helped to define what to expect for High Quality Video.

As a preamble to our results, and building on my recent interview with Jonathan Christensen, Skype’s GM for Audio and Voice, their High Quality Video is the result of extensive co-operation between Logitech and Skype working together to optimize their codecs and drivers, often at some fairly basic levels to achieve a sustainable high quality video experience. Skype had set initial goals of having a sustainable user experience that could be achieved by a reasonably broad base of Skype users: 640 x 480 @ a sustainable 24-30 fps outcome over an entry level broadband connection (384 kbps). They tested out many webcams on the market to see if there was potential to meet this requirement; nothing worked.

Then Logitech provided a demonstration of a prototype QuickCam Pro 9000 while it was still in development; they had finally found a camera that had the potential to deliver the sustained quality and frame rate in a consistent and reliable way. At that point they launched a co-development effort involving Logitech, On2 and Skype to optimize the codecs along with the capture and rendering software required. They also found it necessary to specifically optimize for real time video conferencing scenarios involving mostly “stationary talking heads” in sustained lighting situations and perhaps people walking into and out of a frame as opposed to the requirements for full motion broadcast video such az YouTube movies. This allowed them to cut back significantly on CPU utilization amongst other modifications.

“The result is that we have certainly arrived at a state-of-the-art situation in terms of coding, capture at the sending side and rendering at the other side”, stated Christensen. Amongst other issues Skype and Logitech had to deal with CPU utilization management, low light conditions, image sharpness and intelligent adaptation to varying network conditions (especially at the end points) to deliver a service that could work at a minimum 384 kbps bandwidth. While the released service reduces the wide variability of outcomes seen with other webcam configurations and provides a fairly consistent result, they are still working on issues such as better and more intelligent network utilization but they feel they have the camera, driver and coding issues well under control.

The Complete High Quality Video Experience

Over the past few days I have tried out the High Quality Video with almost all my Skype calls, even if the other party did not have a webcam. While the sending (capture) end of the call requires relatively new hardware (Dual core processor, Logitech webcams with Carl-Zeiss optics) the receiving end can view High Qualty Video even with higher speed single core processors and have an excellent video viewing experience (based on comments of several viewers).

The real challenge was to find a situation where both parties met the requirements for High Quality Video; yesterday evening “Phone Bay” Dameon Welch (who normally uses a Mac) had finally put together a Windows configuration, using one of the Logitech Carl-Zeiss cameras where we could truly test bi-directional video calling over reliable network conditions. (In another post I’ll talk about how testing for High Quality Video is resulting in the exposure of underperforming DSL services.)

Display Options with Skype High Quality Video

Display Options with High Quality Video

Launching a call: once connected the receiving party sees the window on the left in the active call tab of the Skype client; after about 30 seconds High Quality Video has been established. The promotional bar at the tope goes away after a minute or so. The white logo in the upper left appears when the frame rate exceeds 24 fps; why this particular number is a question we have put Skype. Using the “technical call info” we found that, while occasionally the frame rate would drop to, say, 12 – 15 fps, the picture quality did not deteriorate noticeably. Certainly a crisp, sharp picture, moving the head or hand across the viewing range would not result in “shadowing” or other artifacts, even below 24 fps. The “camera” icon on the left in the bottom frame allows you to capture the picture; in the resulting captured image window two mouse clicks trigger a “file transfer” of the captured image back to the other party while the image is also stored in your “My Skype Pictures” folder.

 

High Quality Video with Call Management Options

High Quality Video with Call Management Options

 

Above is a “Video in Window” image (reduced from 640 x 480 to accommodate the width available in this post). While not having the logo due to insufficient frame rate (~ 15 – 20 fps) it represents the quality of video image we saw. Most importantly we did not see any “shadowing” if he moved his head or put up his hand and raised his five fingers. On the other hand this image is an example of the “intelligent adaptation” inherent to the Skype software at work, where Skype will adjust to both CPU utilization and changing network conditions (jitter, return time, etc.) such as to maintain a high quality picture even when not working above 24 fps.

CPU utilization management is one feature of the new Skype video where the software is monitoring CPU usage such that Skype video does not consume all the CPU resources. In one situation where I found the video “capped” at sending 15 fps, simply turning off my SlingPlayer (which itself was using about 2.5 Mbps of bandwidth via an internal LAN connection to my SlingBox) allowed the frame rate to increase above 24 fps to invoke the High Quality Video logo on a sustainable basis.

Full screen video at 1650 x 1080 gave again a good picture, maybe with a bit of pixelation in going from 640 x 480. In the SightSpeed comparison tomorrow I will comment on the “intense” room light above Dameon’s head and how the Skype video adjusts for the saturation such an intense light can create.

 

Checking out the "close-up" focus with a High Quality Video webcam

Finally an image that demonstrates some of the optics of the camera: close-up of a Pokemon card showing both how the auto-focus feature adjusts and the quality obtained even when an object is only 4 to 6 inches from the camera. And in my image at the lower left I had reduced the room lighting to one 50-watt recessed “under-the-shelf” lamp above my work surface, yet Dameon was able to distinguish the stripes on my shirt. This is the Logitech “Right Light” sensing in operation where it can pick up images in very low lighting situations. (And the High Quality Video logo during this conversation had held at this point for over 15 minutes.)

Clearly Dameon and I agreed that Skype’s High Quality Video is a winner and provides, in hardware and software configurations meeting all the requirements, an excellent user video experience. The issues here include:

  • Skype’s High Quality Video, as a free service, represents one more threat to the personal communications segment of business video conferencing, even at the enterprise level. Business model disruption at work again.
  • Having enough Skype users using the Logitech webcam to take advantage of the Carl-Zeiss optics and driver optimization. Dual core processor PC’s have now been on the market for eighteen months and become the entry level standard; the new Logitech Carl-Zeiss optics cameras are priced at the same level as their previous generation webcams.
  • Ensuring a good quality Internet connection at least meeting the minimum 384 kbps speed but, in subtle ways, High Quality Video works better (for instance ramps up to the desired frame rate faster) on higher speed connections.

Dameon’s post; (Link to come when available)

Tom Keating and Rich Tehrani have done some testing as well:

As always, Skype has over-delivered on their free offering, providing superior functionality at the bargain basement price of zero dollars. Obviously you will need a new video camera and possibly a new pc to take advantage of the highest quality Skype video yet but these seem like small sacrifices to make when you consider you will not have to pay a recurring service fee to videoconference at far superior resolution.

This new product is certainly a win for the world’s most popular IP communications software company and moreover for users of the popular software/service.

Tomorrow: the SightSpeed comparison, working with Macs, other experiences and a summary.

Tags: Skype, High Quality Video, Logitech, Skype 3.6, Dameon Welch, Phone Boy, Jonathan Christensen, QuickCam Pro 9000, On2 Technologies, Carl-Zeiss optics

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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