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From VLC to VideoLAN. Insights from Jean-Baptiste Kempf

From VLC to VideoLAN. Insights from Jean-Baptiste Kempf

Recently, Jan Ozer interviewed Jean-Baptiste Kempf, CEO of VideoLAN, the developer of VLC player and the Dav1d decoder, among other projects. During their discussion, Jean-Baptiste discusses the challenges of encoding and decoding AV1, the future of HEVC and VVC, and the state of HDR support in AV1. He also talks about how VideoLAN is funded and how to get involved in the project.

WATCH ON YOUTUBE: https://youtu.be/kRojufkqRU8

Innovation and Accessibility in Open-Source Multimedia

Jan Ozer

Tell us about VideoLAN and the VLC player.

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

VideoLAN is a nonprofit based in France, whose goal is to work on open-source multi-media projects. and developed quite a few libraries, mostly related to codecs, multicast, and of course video playback, which is VLC. But we have many other projects, and one of them is dav1d.

The VLC code base is not that large, but the user base is huge. We’re talking about 300 to 400 million active users, obviously, which is quite large for very small nonprofits. VideoLAN does not have any employees, so it’s a really small organization.

Jan Ozer

Strangely, even though you're competing against Microsoft and Apple, there's no player that matches the ease of utility and the functionality that yours delivers.

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

Yeah and also, VLC changed the landscape, because before VLC you had to download codec packs, and today those are gone. No one does that anymore. The fact that VLC came with all the codecs inside and it was normal that you could play everything changed quite a bit of things.

Jan Ozer

You've played HEVC for a long time, and AV1 since it came out. What are you thinking about VVC? When will we see that in VLC?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

VVC is inside FFmpeg 7, so the decoder is our newest decoder. It’s not complete. I think there are a few features missing, but most of it is inside. It’s still quite a bit slow, and it will get to VLC quite soon.

Jan Ozer

What is dav1d, and how does that differ from VLC?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

dav1d is a specific project. The idea was that I did not believe the hardware decoders would come very fast when the AV1 specification was out in 2018. In the meantime, you need to have a very good decoder which is extremely difficult. So, we had to do one early on and optimize it to death. And that was the idea of dav1d.

Because we wanted it to be as usable as possible and to be used everywhere, we decided to have a different license, which is why it’s a standalone project. Because it needs to be standalone to not contaminated by either VLC or FFMpeg code bases and licenses.

Jan Ozer

So who is using it? Who can you tell me is using dav1d at this point?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

The question is who isn’t. Joke aside, it’s inside Chrome, which means it’s also inside Edge. It’s inside Safari for AVIF support. So it’s inside iOS de facto, it’s inside MacOS, it’s on Windows.

It’s also probably on all the Linux distributions because it’s part of FFmpeg. So, all major browsers, probably all major operating systems. It’s soon going to be inside Android as default. So de facto it’s everywhere. The question is more about who’s actually using it and who’s actually streaming AV1 and AVIF, not who has the dav1d code base.

Jan Ozer

Who actually is streaming AV1 beyond the commonly known big companies like Netflix, Meta, YouTube, and Vimeo?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

Well, in my opinion, that’s the problem, right? It seems only the big ones are actually deploying AV1 and one of the reasons is because encoding is still very expensive. Encoding times are compared to x264, (x264 being a VideoLAN project too), so it’s quite difficult to have good encoders, and fast enough. So now that it’s by default in Chrome and possible to activate, we might see more and more small shops, but there is nothing massive except the big ones using AV1.

Balancing Performance and Power: The Efficiency of Software Decoding with dav1d on Mobile Devices

Jan Ozer

Most publishers seem to prefer hardware decode particularly on mobile because it gives them both 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second and it doesn't decay battery life. What can you tell me to make me feel better about deploying AV1 on a mobile device that doesn't have a hardware decoder but has the dav1d decoder?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

One of the things that we’ve seen is that in some cases, actually software decoding is faster than hardware, especially at low resolution and lower bitrates, it does not increase much power consumption.

Because the hardware decoders on the software are basically DSPs, right? So you have to turn them on in order to do the decoding. So on lower resolution, lower bit rates, the difference in battery life is not that big. As soon as you start going up [in resolution], then it starts to become important.

So it’s a trade off, right? And I know that some people are looking at streaming AV1 at lower bit rates and then stop doing that on higher bit rates because that’s where they think they will find the most gains without killing too much the battery. Because, of course, you don’t want to decode in software mostly when you have 10 to 20 megabits per second. This is expensive. And mostly the most expensive part is the entropy decoding.

The Future of Video Streaming: Transitioning from H.264 to AV1's Growing Dominance

Jan Ozer

Given what you know about the publishers that you're speaking to, what's your projection about AV1 usage going forward?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

My prediction, and here we’re talking about only web streaming, right? So it’s all like OTT, right? Let’s put aside broadcast, which is a very different world.

The thing is that AV1 will increase its presence compared to H.264 by quite a bit, but it’s going to take time. Everyone will have the H.264 profile, and everything that is HEVC and VP9 will go away. We will keep H.264, and then the next step will be AV1. Everything out of that is gone, or will be gone. Or so small that no one will care about them.

Mostly because it’s going to cost too much. It’s going to cost too much to have all of the decoders on the die, right? So chip manufacturers will have to make decisions, and the question will be, do I keep VP9? Does it make sense? Right? Do I keep VP8? Does it make sense when AV1 usage is growing? So my point is that people will have H.264 decoding and then everything else will be AV1.

Decoding the Codec Wars: The Decline of HEVC, the Potential of VVC, and China's Unique Position in the Next Generation of Video Codecs

Jan Ozer

What are you thinking about VVC versus AV1, and I guess at some point AV2.

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

VVC is dead. I don’t care. Let’s be honest. In 2024, HEVC is nowhere. The reason where it’s nowhere is because of their patent pools, which is completely impossible to understand. We are of course talking about… And you know more than me, but what I’ve  seen is HEVC Advance, MPEG LA (now VIA LA) and then you have Qualcomm, which is outside of every patent pool and Nokia, which turned into, what? Let’s call them what they are, a patent troll, right?

So those people are outside of the pool, so it’s very difficult to license HEVC and that’s basically the biggest issue about HEVC, right? It’s great codec. Let’s be honest, it’s a great codec.

We have 10 years after the HEVC and we are talking about single digits of usage outside of broadcast. So HEVC, it’s gone. VVC is great. And also what they did on VVC that I love, is that the complexity of the decoding is not that big compared to the gain that they have, right?

At the beginning, I expected VVC to be extremely slow and more slow than it actually is. So it’s a good surprise, but it’s based on HEVC and all those pattents just make the situation worse. So unless they fix their patents situation, which I don’t believe they will. They managed for 10 years to not fix their patents issue on HEVC. Why would they do it on VVC? Right.

So the biggest question is China. It seems that China is betting big on VVC, and so in China the answer is very different. But the Chinese market is quite different. In China I think VVC will be big because it’s the first, let’s call it, main codec, right?

Jan Ozer

I guess the major point I would disagree is the HDR and premium content, which I guess is not where you play a lot of the time, but what's your sense of where AV1 is right now with respect to HDR? Obviously, it's not in Dolby Vision, but where is it with the other HDR standards, and how... Do you support it?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

I think there is Dolby Vision profile. 8.4? 10.4? I don’t remember, but there is now a Dolby Vision profile for AV1. (JBK is correct, see here – https://bit.ly/DV_spec).

Jan Ozer

I've heard about that. Then I looked it up and I couldn't verify that, but I'll go back and check.

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

No, no. I’m quite sure about that because some people have asked us to support that into FFmpeg. It takes some HEVC in with Dolby Vision, and output that as AV1 with it. So I think that, no, now there is everything you need on AV1, but yes, it took a lot of time.

And also people don’t understand that the biggest issue with HDR is not how you transport information, but how do you master it? How do you author it? And the reason why Dolby Vision is everywhere and has become so big is that they have all the tools, right, and all the testing. Because testing HDR is a very difficult project.

Jan Ozer

So, what’s happening to fix that within the AV1 development structure?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

I think now, on AV1, you have a way to transport HDR10, HDR10 plus, and AV1, both in PQ and HLG, along with the metadata, right? And AV1 now supports eight, 10 and 12 bits. So in theory now it should be doable.

Jan Ozer

And that all plays on VLC as well as smart TVs that support it?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

Sure. Of course. VideoLAN has a GPU filter library called libplacebo, which is doing basically all the HDR to mappings. HDR to SDR, but also HDR to HDR and all of those. Some people are not happy because it’s very focused on GPU filters, but all that is part of VLC4, and so we can play all those type of HDR. And also I think that people don’t know that library enough. Why its doing a ton of magic into shaders for color conversions.

Sustaining an Open-Source Giant: The Monetization and Community of VideoLAN

Jan Ozer

And so people can find you. Are you going to be at NAB?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

Probably. I usually go to NAB every year. What I do is that every other year I have a booth. I think it’s going to be a year where I don’t have a booth at NAB, because manning a booth takes time.

Jan Ozer

Now I hear you. So how does a nonprofit make money? I mean, how do you monetize 400 million viewers? I mean, that's a tremendous number.

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

I don’t. VideoLAN has no money. The money we receive is donations, and we use those donations to host the servers, manage our trademarks, have the contributors travel for the conferences, and so on. So that’s basically what we do as part of VideoLAN.

The people who are working on VLC or FFmpeg, or dav1d have actual jobs, and some of those jobs are consulting companies, and that’s basically their main jobs.

Jan Ozer

How many years do you have to work there before you get one of those fancy hats?

Jean-Baptiste Kemp

That’s a question that people often ask, and the answer is just to send a patch to VLC. But the truth is, people who asked me for it, just get it. 

Picture of Jan Ozer

Jan Ozer

is Senior Director of Video Marketing at NETINT.

Jan is also a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine , writing about codecs and encoding tools. He has written multiple authoritative books on video encoding, including ‘Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from your Streaming Video’ and ‘ Learn to Produce Video with FFmpeg: In Thirty Minutes or Less’ and has produced multiple training courses relating to streaming media production.

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