At CES 2008 three weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Bill Joll, CEO of On2 Technologies, who has been providing the video codecs used in Skype. Founded in 1992 and having done an IPO in 1999, On2 has become the codec power behind not only Skype but also the Adobe Flash Player and, more recently the QuickTime player on the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Fundamentally On2’s claim to fame is to provide more efficient compression such that video communication requires less powerful resources than required for standard-based video codecs, such as H.264. Using On2’s VP-7 codec, they were demonstrating, at CES, HD video running on 1.7 GHz platforms; video that would otherwise require a 2.8 GHz platform for the same performance using H.264. Bill’s statement to me was that “the H.264 standard would require the three times the processing power of a video service using On2’s VP-7”.
On2 supplied an earlier version of this codec for the initial Skype video offering two years ago. More recently I reported on the launch of Skype’s High Quality Video mentioning how Jonathan Christensen and his team searched out technology to meet their High Quality Video standard of 640 x 480 @ 30 fps over a minimum 384 kbps Internet upload connection. Having determined that the new Logitech webcams with Carl-Zeiss optics were appropriate for their requirements, they and Logitech personnel worked with On2 to make special adaptations to the VP-7 codec to facilitate meeting Skype’s quality standards, optimizing the video codecs for “moving heads” typical of Skype video calls:
Skype has used On2’s award-winning VP7 video compression since 2005. VP7 technology is designed to provide superb video at very low data rates and perform efficiently on low-power processors. The new VP7 update is specifically designed for video conferencing, using optimizations targeted at stable camera video and processor scalability.
‘In conjunction with Skype and partner Logitech, we have been able to optimize VP7 to achieve video-quality improvements while maintaining tremendous bandwidth efficiency,’ said Bill Joll, president and CEO of On2 Technologies. ‘These are remarkable results for video conferencing. Users will find that they can get lifelike High Quality Video at 384 kbps, a fraction of the bandwidth of most broadband connections.’
In one sense we can see the power of the On2 VP-7 codec when comparing Skype’s High Quality Video’s ability to run on connections with speeds as low as 384 kbps while SightSpeed can currently only run 640 x 480 @ 30 fps over a minimum 1.5 Mbps connection.
During the CES show and in a later press release related to their participation in the upcoming Mobile World Congress, it becomes apparent that On2 is attempting to find ways to provide full 720 x 1280 HD video transmission while minimizing processor and bandwidth resource requirements. Currently HD resolution would be possible with Skype video by a simple modification of a certain Skype file but only at 15 fps; however, this also tells us something about why Skype chose to limit their current High Quality Video standard for a “consumer” environment.
We also talked about multi-party video conferencing. Using the current Skype video technology but with software to manage the logistics associated with multiple participants visually while synchronizing the audio, it would be possible to carry on a video conference call without the need for a central server. (Hint: for practical multi-party video you would probably use four 320 x 240 windows to fit all the images onto most desktop real estate.) Of course all participants would have to meet the minimum hardware requirements for High Quality Video. But I have no information from Skype as to if and when such an offering will become available.
Bottom line is that On2 has become a critical component of Skype’s video technology portfolio and appears to be taking the steps to continue this leadership role.
Tags: Skype, On2 Technologies, Skype Video, High Quality Video, VP-7 codec, Logitech
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