YouTube Goes 4K, VP9

My favourite pet topic is back in the news. Janko Roettgers, GigaOm:

YouTube will be demonstrating 4K video at CES in Las Vegas next week, with a twist: The Google-owned video service will be showing off ultra high-definition streaming based on VP9, a new royalty-free codec that Google has been developing as an alternative to the H.265 video codec that’s at the core of many other 4K implementations.

There are two things to unpack in this: YouTube streaming in 4K, and the use of the new VP9 codec Google is developing.

The first isn’t really anything new — you can already find loads of videos on YouTube which stream in 4K. But most of the existing 4K videos on YouTube — indeed, most of any kind of video on YouTube — are dual-encoded in VP8 (WebM) and H.264. If you’ve seen YouTube’s HD offerings, you know that the video quality isn’t great: everything is extremely compressed so, while these videos are ostensibly “HD” resolution, they’re really murky. It’s the same story with 4K.

The question, then, is not only whether a different codec will make a substantial quality difference, but whether that codec will be playable at all. While VP8 has been around since 2008 and owned by Google since 2010, it is used almost exclusively by them. With VP9, though, they insist that it’s going to be better:

This time around, Google has lined up a whole list of hardware partners to kickstart VP9 deployment. YouTube will show off 4K streaming at the booths of LG, Panasonic and Sony. And on Thursday, YouTube released a list of 19 hardware partners that have pledged to support VP9, including chipset vendors like ARM, Intel, Broadcom and Marvell as well as consumer electronics heavyweights like Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

Roettgers makes it sound like this is a different approach than Google took with VP8. However, Mashable’s Google I/O liveblog from 2010 suggests differently:

Google is back on stage, discussing partners. Opera, Skype, Adobe, Nvidia, Logitech, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Theora, Brightcove, and others are part of the [WebM] project.

Despite those large, influential partners, VP8 never really caught on outside of the Google sphere. Skype is the only other major user of the codec, but they also encode in H.264. Based on what I’ve seen so far with VP9, and the support H.265 has received so far, I don’t see this playing out much better. VP9 may have the support of television manufacturers this time around, but there is no existing 4K spec which does not require H.264 and, eventually, H.265 support. Likewise, those two codecs support the Ultra HD colour space. It seems like the codec for 4K has already been decided.