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    ETIA 2015 Keynote: Clouds, Pixels, and Video Streams

    June 17, 2015

    The afternoon's featured speaker was Dr. Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer at Netflix. He walked the conference attendees through the challenges Netflix has faced in delivering ever-better content through limited bandwidth. Neil began by stating that he believes we need to free ourselves from the "tyranny of the grid" (the pre-planned TV schedule). Instead of a limited number of fixed choices, Netflix starts out in the opposite direction, with tens of thousands of options available at any time. So its challenge has been to filter that down to a reasonable-sized set that a user can choose among.

    Bigger, brighter, and better

    Netflix is solving that problem in a world that on the one hand has more bigger and brighter TVs, but also an exploding number of inexpensive, small screens, connected over limited bandwidth mobile networks. In terms of bigger, brighter, and better, Hunt believes that the Internet will start being the leader in standards, delivering them before broadcast, cable, and theaters. This will be especially true as they become field-upgradable. As an example, he pointed to Netflix's 1 million active 4K subscribers. On the way they found that HEVC was not nearly as efficient as they had hoped, so 4K video is taking about 16Mbps to transmit (it will be 20Mbps if it is also HDR) -- although they hope that will decrease with further optimizations. Another challenge has been whether to certify 30p devices for 4K, committing Netflix to long-term support of both 30p and 60p, or only work with 60p-capable devices. On the HDR front, Hunt said Netflix has been using it to capture content since 2014. On the viewing front, Netflix struggles with TVs that are set at the factory to be too hot and too bright. Only a fractional number of people actually bother to change that. Netflix is hoping at some point there will be a closed-loop calibration system that provides a predictable viewing condition. Adaptive Streaming is also a major piece of Netflix's customer experience, with stepping down to intermediate resolutions as needed a key part of its solution. On a related front, Netflix wants to see additional progress in high-frame rate capture and rendering, as well as broader field of view up to 100 degrees using multiple cameras.

    Smaller, faster, and cheaper

    At the other end of the spectrum, there are now several times more phones and tablets than TVs -- sometimes connected over one of the several billion mobile broadband accounts. Unlike big screen viewing, most small screen viewing is solo, and usually WiFi because of bandwidth and allocation issues on mobile broadband. Netflix is hoping to get to a 480p quality image at less than 250Kbps, which it does not see HEVC helping with. The solution also needs to be respectful of battery usage. Hunt hope that VP9 can be part of the solution. Viewing conditions can also vary rapidly for mobile, especially if in a moving vehicle. The smaller FOV of a small screen might also mean additional work at the capture stage, according to Hunt. 

    Cloud Encoding

    As Netflix expands to new markets, encoding becomes a massive processing task that needs to be done quickly. It uses the cloud to do the heavy lifting. In fact Netflix's media workflow is entirely virtual -- living in the cloud. Hunt was asked about VR, and opined that Oculus-like devices will remain a niche for passive viewing, with immersive big-screen technologies dominating. Conversely, for interactive entertainment, he sees VR as being much more compelling.

    Tag(s): HDR , HVEC , Cloud , 4K , ETIA

    David Cardinal

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