Not long ago In-Store Solutions launched the Freetalk Everyman HD Webcam for Skype. I’ve had a number of webcams before, even one capable of real “HD.” I bought the Logitech Webcam Pro 9000 last summer when I was trying the LifeSize Desktop video conference client. HD in this application means 1280 x 720 pixels.
So initially I thought that the Freetalk Everyman HD Webcam for Skype was less than exciting. Upon further investigation I find it very interesting for one specific reason; hardware acceleration of H.264 encoding.
According to the press release:
“Unlike most High Quality webcams on the market today, the Everyman encodes the video signal in real time, meaning you do not need to utilize all of your computer’s resources while conducting a Skype video call.”
The wording of the release is a little strange. The facts are more clearly stated over at the Skype Gear Blog.
The video encoding happens within the FREETALK Everyman HD Webcam (using a built-in H.264 hardware encoder), which means that it doesn’t overwork your computer’s processor.
Did you get that? I mean really get it? A $50 webcam that has on-board hardware accelerated H.264 encoding! It’s still USB attached, and USB powered.
It can only muster 22 frames per second at 720p, which is a little less that I would have hoped. It would be nice to have managed 30 frames/sec since that what US viewers are most accustomed to viewing on TV.
Some years ago it was unusual for a computer to have hardware acceleration for MPEG-2 or H.264 video playback, at the time that being in the domain of top-end video cards. Now any VGA capable of moving pixels around screen supports hardware accelerated playback of such video formats. Even lowly netbooks can playback full-screen video ripped from DVDs. Some with the newer ION2 chipsets can even playback HD video.
Encoding video is very different. Working with video is an asymmetric process, requiring considerably more processing power to compress the stream than later decompress it for viewing. However, just as the cost of DVD players fell over time, the cost of hardware for encoding video streams is falling. Eventually it could be a basic feature of any or even every PC.
Remember when you needed to add an expansion card to a PC to have audio capability? Now every PC, including every laptop and netbook have audio built-in. It adds only pennies to the cost of the device. With the advent of a new wave of compression chips video encoding could follow the same path to ubiquity.
Such hardware capability would mean that desktop video conferencing could begin to truly flourish in home and business settings. It could become as mainstream as Skype for voice calls is today.
I had some idea that this was going to happen a few months ago, and tweeted about it. That tweet caught the attention of Jeffrey Rodman, CTO of Polycom who answered in the form of a post on his personal blog. He was of the opinion that this would not happen. He seems to say that adding a compression chip to a laptop doesn’t provide a complete solution. He closes by stating;
We won’t be seeing dedicated H.264 processors in laptop computers anytime soon, at least as we currently think of the laptop.
I still wonder about this. Jeff’s argument is sound. Perhaps we might see dedicated compression hardware that’s not specifically tailored solely to H.264.
As has been discussed a great deal very recently (here and here) H.264 has become the dominant video compression scheme used online, but it is patent protected. The related patent pool is administered by MPEG-LA. Polycom is a member of that patent pool, which is one reason why I’m so interested in Jeff Rodman’s blog post.
This is all just a bit of conjecture about possibly interesting future trends. For the moment I look forward to trying the Freetalk Everyman HD Webcam for Skype to see just how good the resulting video might actually be.