Exploring VP9 as a progressive still image codec

At Wikipedia we have long articles containing many images, some of which need a lot of detail and others which will be scrolled past or missed entirely. We’re looking into lazy-loading, alternate formats such as WebP, and other ways to balance display density vs network speed.

I noticed that VP9 supports scaling of reference frames from different resolutions, so a frame that changes video resolution doesn’t have to be a key frame.

This means that a VP9-based still image format (unlike VP8-based WebP) could encode multiple resolutions to be loaded and decoded progressively, at each step encoding only the differences from the previous resolution level.

So to load an image at 2x “Retina” display density, we’d load up a series of smaller, lower density frames, decoding and updating the display until reaching the full size (say, 640×360). If the user scrolls away before we reach 2x, we can simply stop loading — and if they scroll back, we can pick up right where we left off.

I tried hacking up vpxenc to accept a stream of concatenated PNG images as input, and it seems plausible…

Demo page with a few sample images (not yet optimized for network load; requires Firefox or Chrome):
https://media-streaming.wmflabs.org/pic9/

Compared to loading a series of intra-coded JPEG or WebP images, the total data payload to reach resolution X is significantly smaller. Compared against only loading the final resolution in WebP or JPEG, without any attempt at tuning I found my total payloads with VP9 to be about halfway between the two formats, and with tuning I can probably beat WebP.

Currently the demo loads the entire .webm file containing frames up to 4x resolution, seeking to the frame with the target density. Eventually I’ll try repacking the frames into separately loadable files which can be fed into Media Source Extensions or decoded via JavaScript… That should prevent buffering of unused high resolution frames.

Some issues:

Changing resolutions always forces a keyframe unless doing single-pass encoding with frame lag set to 1. This is not super obvious, but is neatly enforced in encoder_set_config in vp9_cx_iface.h! Use –passes=1 –lag-in-frames=1 options to vpxenc.

Keyframes are also forced if width/height go above the “initial” width/height, so I had to start the encode with a stub frame of the largest size (solid color, so still compact). I’m a bit unclear on whether there’s any other way to force the ‘initial’ frame size to be larger, or if I just have to encode one frame at the large size…

There’s also a validity check on resized frames that forces a keyframe if the new frame is twice or more the size of the reference frame. I used smaller than 2x steps to work around this (tested with steps at 1/8, 1/6, 1/4, 1/2, 2/3, 1, 3/2, 2, 3, 4x of the base resolution).

I had to force updates of the golden & altref on every frame to make sure every frame ref’d against the previous, or the decoder would reject the output. –min-gf-interval=1 isn’t enough; I hacked vpxenc to set the flags on the frame encode to VP8_EFLAG_FORCE_GF | VP8_EFLAG_FORCE_ARF.

I’m having trouble loading the VP9 webm files in Chrome on Android; I’m not sure if this is because I’m doing something too “extreme” for the decoder on my Nexus 5x or if something else is wrong…

Scaling video playback on slow and fast CPUs in ogv.js

Video playback has different performance challenges at different scales, and mobile devices are a great place to see that in action. Nowhere is this more evident than in the iPhone/iPad lineup, where the same iOS 9.3 runs across several years worth of models with a huge variance in CPU speeds…

In ogv.js 1.1.2 I’ve got the threading using up to 3 threads at maximum utilization (iOS devices so far have only 2 cores): main thread, video decode thread, and audio decode thread. Handling of the decoded frames or audio packets is serialized through the main thread, where the player logic drives the demuxer, audio output, and frame blitting.

On the latest iPad Pro 9.7″, advertising “desktop-class performance”, I can play back the Blender sci-fi short Tears of Steel√ā¬†comfortably at 1080p24 in Ogg Theora:


The performance graph shows frames consistently on time (blue line is near the red target line) and a fair amount of headroom on the video decode thread (cyan) with a tiny amount of time spent on the audio thread (green) and main thread (black).

At this and higher resolutions, everything is dominated by video decode time — if we can keep up with it we’re golden, but if we get behind everything would ssllooww ddoownn badly.

On an iPad Air, two models behind, we get similar performance on the 720p24 version, at about half the pixels:


We can see the blue bars jumping up once a second, indicating sensitivity to the timing report and graph being updated once a second on the main thread, but overall still good. Audio in green is slightly higher but still ignorable.

On a much older iPad 3, another two models behind, we see a very different graph as we play back a mere 240p24 quarter-SD resolution file:


The iPad 3 has an older generation, 32-bit processor, and is in general pretty sluggish. Even at a low resolution, we have less headroom for the cyan bars of the video decode thread. Blue bars dipping below the red target line show we’re slipping on A/V sync sometimes. The green bars are much higher, indicating the audio decode thread is churning a lot harder to keep our buffers filled. Last but not least the gray bars at the bottom indicate more time spent in demuxing, drawing, etc on the main thread.

On this much slower processor, pushing audio decoding to another core makes a significant impact, saving an average of several milliseconds per frame by letting it overlap with video decoding.

The gray spikes from the main thread are from the demuxer, and after investigation turn out to be inflated by per-packet overhead on the tiny Vorbis audio packets… Such as adding timestamps to many of the packets. Ogg packs multiple small packets together into a single “page”, with only the final packet at the end of the page actually carrying a timestamp. Currently I’m using liboggz to encapsulate the demuxing, using its option to automatically calculate the missing timestamp deltas from header data in the packets… But this means every few frames the demuxer suddenly releases a burst of tiny packets with a 15-50ms delay on the main thread as it walks through them. On the slow end this can push a nearly late frame into late territory.

I may have further optimizations to make in keeping the main thread clear on slower CPUs, such as more efficient handling of download progress events, but overlapping the video and audio decode threads helps a lot.

On other machines like slow Windows boxes with blacklisted graphics drivers, we also benefit from firing off the next video decode before drawing the current frame — if WebGL is unexpectedly slow, or we fall back to CPU drawing, it may take a significant portion of our frame budget just to paint. Sending data down to the decode thread first means it’s more likely that the drawing won’t actually slow us down as much. This works wonders on a slow ARM-based Windows RT 8.1 Surface tablet. :)