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Feature: Graphics & Multimedia

Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on January 05, 2008 (1:48:00 PM)

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Free software for video is currently in sad shape. The only two widely distributed free video editing programs, Kino and Cinelerra, are nowhere near as capable as competing commercial software. Hardly any professional video producers use either one. But most people aren't as concerned with the software used to make video as with the software they need to play it, especially in their Web browsers, and on this side of the video equation it looks like things are going to get a lot better for free software enthusiasts in 2008.

The two most prominent video codecs currently available under free software licenses are Xvid and Ogg Theora. In a technical sense, Xvid is clearly the better of the two. Any videomaker who renders a work in Xvid, then renders that same work in Theora with settings that produce a similar file size for the resulting video, will instantly prefer Xvid not only for output clarity but also for rendering speed. Xvid is not just an excellent free software video codec, but is an excellent video codec, period. It is often used in commercial video production, and many proprietary video editing programs render directly into Xvid format, while I have found none that directly render Ogg Theora files.

The problem with Xvid is that it works within the MPEG-4 framework, which is so patent-encumbered that today no one really knows who has "rights" to it. Indeed, right now, no new MPEG-4 licenses are even being issued. If you are using typical free GNU/Linux video players, and you play Xvid videos in a country whose government believes in software patents, you may be violating patent law every time you use Xvid.

But then, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, you may be violating 200+ Microsoft patents just by running GNU/Linux. And not everyone believes Xvid violates anyone's patents. In an email, Michael Militzer of Xvid.org said:

Xvid is an implementation of the MPEG-4 standard, which is an international standard under ISO/IEC 14496-2. We support open standards and have chosen to follow the MPEG-4 standard to ensure interopability also with other, third-party applications and hardware devices.

It is well known that some parties believe they hold patents that are essential to the MPEG-4 standard. The interests of these patent holders are bundled by the MPEG Licensing Association (MPEG-LA). The MPEG-LA offers patent portfolio licenses for different MPEG standards, including MPEG-4.

We never have experienced any problems with MPEG-LA. And from the patents we've studied we have yet to see one that's not either trivial or where not prior art can be found (or which actually has been granted unlawfully). So whether these patents really cover the MPEG-4 standard [and] are valid and enforcable may depend on your jurisdiction. Here in Germany, algorithms, processes or computer-implemented inventions are not patentable. Nonetheless of course, these patents exist. We however do not consider the situation for Xvid to be much different than for other applications or other open source projects. Also, other application fields are heavily patented (like image or word processing), so I suppose you could find some potentially dangerous patents for many projects if you perform careful research. The existence of the MPEG-LA as a royalty-collecting body for the MPEG standards just highlights these patent issues, while they exist (unnoticed) for many other applications just the same.

The aim of Theora is to circumvent such software patents (to avoid the MPEG-LA patents) by creating [another] bitstream format. This is however very difficult, if not impossible, because of the sheer mass and triviality of the existing software patents.

Theora claims to be not encumbered by patent issues but IMHO that is just a claim and nothing more (because of the above). Theora is obviously not applicable to the MPEG-LA patent portfolio license because it's not compatible to a MPEG standard (it stems from On2's proprietary VP3). However, the employed underlying compression methods are essentially very similar to MPEG compression: input images are converted into YUV colorspace, the image is partitioned into smaller blocks for compression, there's MPEG-like intra and inter prediction and a block-based transform is applied for energy compaction. All these basic concepts are already patented.

In 2002 ON2 open-sourced VP3 and handed its maintenance and future development to Xiph.org, which was already the steward of the non-proprietary Ogg Vorbis audio format.

Ogg Vorbis has developed a user base that, while nowhere as large as the one for the patent-encumbered MP3 audio format, is certainly respectable. Virtually all Linux audio players handle Vorbis, and so do many that run on Windows and Mac OS. I personally own several royalty-free sound effect and music libraries that came to me in Vorbis format, and I have no trouble using them with commercial video editing software.

But when we move from talking about Vorbis to talking about Theora, we come to a screeching halt. Outside of Linux-land, hardly anyone uses it, and Theora encoding is in a sad state, especially for those computer users (estimated at 95%+) who prefer a GUI to command-line work. Not only that, the DirectShow filters for Theora don't work correctly, so Windows-based video editing programs can't render directly to Theora by using simple plugins the way they render to Xvid or QuickTime once you install the correct codecs for those formats.

Ogg honcho Christopher "Monty" Montgomery says he's well aware of Theora's encoder problems, and that he and others are working to solve them. He has pointed a lot of people -- including me -- to this screed about what Theora needs in order to be a competitive method of delivering video over the Internet. Even if all the faults mentioned on that page are corrected, there will still be those who say H.264 is better than Theora from a technical standpoint, and they'll probably be right. But, beyond a certain basic point (clear colors, lack of blocky "digital artifacts," well-synchronized sound, reasonable file size:clarity ratio), quality may not matter to anyone except videophiles.

Face it: millions of people are satisfied listening to MP3 music and watching YouTube (FLV) videos, neither of which give anything like the best reproduction of their original source material. I suspect that, if Theora becomes "good enough" in the same way MP3 and FLV videos are "good enough," and tools for converting mainstream video formats to Theora become as easy to use as an MP3 encoder or -- better yet -- as easy to use as YouTube's upload utility, we will see a dramatic increase in Theora's popularity.

Monty says the Theora converter is "obsolete by 10 years," that he's now writing a "real encoder" for Theora, and that it will "be another couple of months until its mainline release." He also says a lot of the problems with the original Theora code and encoder aren't because they're buggy in the usual sense, but because the original codebase was "written by people who were self-taught," and that their lack of experience shows.

On the Windows and DirectShow front, Monty says Xiph lost one of its most talented Windows coders -- he went to work for Microsoft -- and that one of his dreams is to be able to hire volunteer Xiph coder Timothy Terriberry to work on the project full-time. (Monty himself works for Red Hat on free media software.)

Future prospects

Meanwhile, there's the FSF-endorsed Gnash project, which will play some online FLV videos, but won't currently work with the most popular Flash video sites. Gnash is codec-agnostic. It will play videos encoded in H.264, Xvid, Theora or (supposedly) almost any other video codec you happen to have on your computer.

Another hope for the future is Fluendo's Cortado Java applet, which streams Theora video to any computer that has Java installed. It could presumably be used with other codecs and media frameworks just as easily, thereby eliminating the problem of users needing this or that codec on their computers to watch videos from different sources. Now that Java is Free Software, no one can really object to having it on their computer on licensing grounds (except possibly a few Microsoft executives), and it is available for a wider variety of platforms than Flash, too.

Meanwhile, there are other 100% free and open source video codecs under development. They may or may not violate someone's patents. As Xvid's Michael Militzer says, "I think you can just conclude here that software patents are evil." And so they are, but for those of us in less-advanced countries, including the USA, they are a fact of life at this point in time.

On the video editing side, Christian Einfeldt of Digital Tipping Point believes Cinelerra may become much more useful in the near future than it is now. I, myself, am about to start experimenting with Kino for all of my simpler video editing projects. And these aren't the only two Linux/FOSS video editing projects out there, just the best-known and most mature ones. There are many others under development, and some of them show a lot of promise.

A bright FOSS video future, but don't expect miracles by tomorrow afternoon

Xiph.org's people are working on a better Theora encoder, and are aware that the best hope for increased Theora spread is not yelling at people to get them to use their video delivery system, but in making it work better.

The people who scream, "How dare you use proprietary software to edit videos! Haven't you ever heard of Cinelerra?" all have one thing in common: they've never tried to use Cinelerra to produce sophisticated video on a tight deadline. If they had, they'd know why dead-broke indy film kids would rather beg, borrow, or steal to get Final Cut Pro or one of its commercial competitors than use free-as-in-beer Cinelerra. But Cinelerra is improving, and it may be only another year or two before low-budget video and film producers start using it of their own free will, without anyone yelling at them.

In fact, the screaming is probably counterproductive. It makes Free Software advocates sound like Steve Ballmer complaining about Linux. It's better to take the Firefox tack: improve your software's usability and reliability, and market the positive things about it in a positive way.

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on Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.69.130.94] on January 05, 2008 03:04 PM
"Now that Java is Free Software" - part of Sun's Java implementation may now be released under the GPL, but it's still not possible to get the full functionality of Sun's proprietary Java, or even enough to run most Java software, without using Sun's non-free components. Sun Java is still not free software, and free Java implementations are still not good enough to be routinely usable.

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.0.178.98] on January 05, 2008 03:42 PM
DIRAC is also an interesting development. With the Beeb's support, it may well become THE opensource (MPL) video codec.

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.145.55.60] on January 05, 2008 04:37 PM
Theora is a dead fish in the water. It is abandoned technology and totally obsolete. There are lots of reviews online comparing theora with other codecs and in every one theora is dead last.

I personally have more confidence in DIRAC, which is engineered from scratch by developers at the BBC and looks very promising (but isn't quite finished yet).

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.168.70.124] on January 05, 2008 06:30 PM
check out KDEnlive.org for KDEnlive, a great video editor with a ton of output formats (based on MLT and MLT++, which are based in turn on FFMPEG)

Unfortunately there exist two issues right now: the 0.5 release is a bit old, so building from source is recommended; the second issue is that NTSC output is currently broken due to some underlying changes in MLT. bugs are reported but no fix yet.

If you can wait on the exporting of your videos (until NTSC rendering is fixed, or if you use PAL), the video editor KDEnlive is really good and really stable and very nice to use.

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Re: Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.20.134.66] on January 07, 2008 05:22 PM
I agree kdenlive blows cinelerra out of the water

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.60.245.188] on January 05, 2008 09:30 PM
OGG all the freakin way, ANYTHING that is open source I will back with my damn life and all my power, SCREW the propietary crap and its stunting of digital growth.

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Gnash

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 128.61.87.165] on January 05, 2008 11:50 PM
I'm using Gnash cvs, and it currently works quite well with YouTube.

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You didn't mention Jahshaka!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.220.109.76] on January 06, 2008 01:45 AM
Whoa there! You haven't mentioned Jahshaka (http://jahshaka.org). Jahshaka is an awesome FLOSS video editing program!

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Re: You didn't mention Jahshaka!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.92.247.169] on January 06, 2008 09:39 PM
Everyone I've ever talked to whose used it says Jashaka sucks. So I think that's why it wasn't mentioned. It also wasn't mentioned because the conversation is mostly about codecs, not effects programs. Why not promote Jashaka after you've actually used it. I'm thinking you probably haven't, you've just seen some screenshots.

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 220.233.124.29] on January 06, 2008 08:48 AM
To the person who mentioned Jashaka, it would awesome if I could get the flapping thing to actually build. Or they released up to date binary packages for Ubuntu.

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 150.101.221.146] on January 06, 2008 11:07 AM
Probably worth adding Eugenia's December 3rd (2007) rant about the abysmal state of Linux video editors to the mix:
http://eugenia.gnomefiles.org/2007/12/03/the-linux-video-editor-situation/

What I found particularly interesting on Eugenia's page were some of the comments regarding the use of Blender as a Video Editor. For example, this link here:
http://wiki.blender.org/index.php/Manual/Video_Sequence_Editing

Since the pace of development on Blender has picked up significantly during the last year, particularly around the production of "elephants dream" that was the first movie made entirely with open source software, perhaps Blender could become the video editor we need!

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 99.237.90.169] on January 06, 2008 02:36 PM
I've found avidemux, which is free software available for linux and MS Windows, to be an excellent video editor and more versatile than Kino.

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Blender Anyone?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 206.116.6.170] on January 06, 2008 07:49 PM
Cinelerra and all of the other half baked Linux projects are not even close to the ability of Blender.

It has the NLE component, and more importantly -- the nodal editor.

Give up on the half baked projects and get behind Blender please. Notable assets for use in a professional project:
1) OpenEXR - de facto standard in _professional_ Visual Effects circles.
2) Amazingly versatile and easily modified nodal editor subsystem. Includes a good number of useful nodes while expanding at a blistering pace.
3) Fully customizable and GL accelerated interface to meet the needs of a variety of workflows. It offers an extremely professional feeling environment without all of the K / G clunk.
4) 16bpc and _higher_ bpc support. Export support in development.

The biggest gap holding back Linux editing at this point is knowledge. The non-whole framerate patch is in on Blender and DVC100 patches just hit ffmpeg's SVG thanks to Maas work.

For the sake of Free Software motion picture editing, please consider Blender.

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Re: Blender Anyone?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 150.101.221.146] on January 07, 2008 11:00 AM
Hi Anonymous. You might have missed my anonymous post at 11:07am that mentioned Blender. The things you are saying confirm my suspicion that perhaps Blender offers interesting possibilities as a Non Linear Video Editor. Do you have any recommended links to introductory tutorials specifically relevant to its use as a video editor?

ta
frank

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Re(1): Blender Anyone?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 206.116.6.170] on January 07, 2008 08:19 PM
Hi Anonymous, Anonymous here. Start with the document you have listed there. I would suggest getting an SVN copy of Blender, as the bulk of the extremely useful stuff (which also needs testing) is in there such as Non-Whole frame support and some new nodes. The essence of the Blender components are quite simple (as with the NLE), but might involve reading earlier chapters as to how they work within the system. Hope this helps...

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.146.147.8] on January 07, 2008 03:38 AM
"no new MPEG-4 licenses are even being issued"

Interesting, and apparently since early 2006, see http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.mpegla.com/m4s/index.cfm

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.78.98.109] on January 07, 2008 10:19 AM
I'm personally a literary nerd and not too concerned with the state of video under Linux. <3 my CLI.

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.211.178.100] on January 07, 2008 09:04 PM
Another avidemux user here, I only need to edit out commercials and convert formats some, and avidemux is good enough for that.

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x264? FLV Good Enough? JVM in a Corporate Environment....

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.16.234.43] on January 09, 2008 02:41 PM
A few comments......

- Why no mention of x264? I discarded Theora long ago as not having the necessary quality, regardless of file size and encode speed, at the same bitrate as xVid. Recently I compared xVid with x264 encoded content. While xVid was encoded faster, using FFMPEG, the quality of x264 was vastly superior. http://slashdot.org/~PhillC/journal/192152

- I hate watching crap YouTube videos in a "good enough" FLV format. Many of the YouTube videos aren't "good enough" at all. It's just that YouTube has the majority market share at this time. If FLV was "good enough" why does the latest Flash player support H.264 encoded content? Now any valid H.264 encoded MPEG4 files will playback through an embedded flash player, assuming the client has the latest version installed. I've tested this with x264 encoded content and playback works fine. http://www.kapitalmototv.co.uk/flash/ I think it's been recognised that for higher resolution online video standard FLVs are not "good enough" at all.

- I've tried Fluendo's Cortardo applet over a year ago, so it's not exactly a new development. I really wanted to use it. The main problem is that when online video, delivered using Cortardo, was viewed in a corporate environment, the result was disappointing - mostly complete browser crashes in IE and Firefox. This was due mostly to incompatible JVMs and no way for the end user to upgrade in a locked down desktop environment. The same issues occur with the commerical Java based playback from Veritas.

It is good news that Theora will have a new encoder, but what's really needed is codec improvements over the ancient On2 VP3 offering.

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No mention of swfdec?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 124.169.3.58] on January 14, 2008 03:50 PM
swfdec works with YouTube.

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FOSS Codecs for Online Video: Usability, Uptake and Development 1.2

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 124.168.2.120] on January 18, 2008 01:50 AM
thanks for your interesting article.

i wrote a report last year for the Transmission network of social-change online video distribution projects called " FOSS Codecs for Online Video: Usability, Uptake and Development". It's a review of the best available tools for the creation, playback and embedding of online video using Free and Open Source Software video codecs, and a set of recommendations for development to enhance their adoption by social change video projects on the web.

http://wiki.transmission.cc/index.php/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video:_Usability_Uptake_and_Development_1.2

a PDF is available here:

http://www.engagemedia.org/Members/anna/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video_1_2.pdf

i had a few comments to make.

proprietary video-editors *can* export Ogg Theora/Vorbis - using the QT Xiph component. You can use this to export directly from the Final Cut timeline:

http://wiki.transmission.cc/index.php/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video:_Usability_Uptake_and_Development_1.2#Support_in_Proprietary_Transcoders_for_FOSS_Codecs

GUIs are now available to create Ogg Theora/Vorbis on all platforms (best solutions are listed for creating both Xvid and Ogg for Linux, Mac and PC):

http://wiki.transmission.cc/index.php/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video:_Usability_Uptake_and_Development_1.2#Transcoders

there are a few issues with the Cortado applet to be aware of, that may impede its uptake, though further development could improve this situation. for example a lack of decent controls and performance issues:

http://wiki.transmission.cc/index.php/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video:_Usability_Uptake_and_Development_1.2#Cortado_Java_Applet

however there are other options for embedded playback of Ogg, which are explored here:

http://wiki.transmission.cc/index.php/FOSS_Codecs_For_Online_Video:_Usability_Uptake_and_Development_1.2#Browser_Playback

i certainly agree with you about FOSS options for video-editing. i will be sticking with Final Cut Pro for the time-being, as efficiency is so important with editing - my project hours would at least double using a less mature NLE.

i feel Theora is definitely "good enough" now in terms of its efficiency and quality as an encoder (i like your point about the low-quality that people have come to accept from YouTube), and as you point out uptake will have more to do with having easy-to-use applications for the playback and creation of Theora files than with slight differences in appreciable quality which only videophiles will notice.

the report tries to identify these key areas for improvement. we're hoping to find some support for reaching these goals - hopefully some of these solutions will also be applicable to other FOSS codecs as they emerge, including Dirac.

please feel free to contact us if anyone would like to get involved in this development:

http://www.engagemedia.org/contact-info

Cheers,
Anna
EngageMedia.org / Plumi.org

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Improved Ogg Theora coming soon to an Internet near you

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 124.168.2.120] on January 18, 2008 01:52 AM
ugh. a WYSIWYG / HTML for comments would be nice! i hope ppl can read that comment above...

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