Yes. A dream comes true. After almost 9 years the Flash Player will have a new video codec. Sorenson’s Spark is about to retire, finally. But let’s recap the whole story starting, obviously, from the beginning.
In 2002 Macromedia included in Flash Player 6 a video codec provided by Sorenson. The Spark video codec was a custom and simple implementation of the international standard H.263. Spark supported simple encoding techniques derived from H.263v1 (P-frames with motion estimation and compensation, half-pixel accuracy, 1 reference frame, +-16 pixel long reference frames, RLE and Huffman for entropy coding to name a few) plus some enhanced features like deblocking in post-processing and the special D-frames (Desposable frames) which are like P-frames but cannot be used as reference. Especially this latest technique was introduced to support the main objective of Spark: provide a low latency codec for video communication over the Internet.
Flash Player 6 was so capable to generate and consume video streams but only from a new Macromedia’s server product: The Flash Communication Server (FCS), a revolutionary product ahead of the market of several years. To be honest, everybody know the story: FCS had the potentialities to be a disruptive product but was heavily ruined by an absurdly inaccessible price tag and strongly capped configurations (es: 4500$ for a 10Mbit/s capped version, 990$ for a 1Mbit/s capped version, no developer versions, etc…I’m not kidding). The result: years passed and only a few mad developers (I’m one of them) continued to support the product hoping for a brighter future.
With the successive Flash Player 7, Macromedia decided to unlock the use of Sorenson videos for progressive download. This is the spark that ignited the revolution of video on Internet. After some years of limbo even FCS/FMS was relaunced with less restrictive licenses and the product became more mature release after release (here we could start a different debate about the slowness of Adobe in improving FMS and the recent lawsuite with Wowza but this post has a different topic…).
After only 2-3 years Spark started to be obsolete, even because the implementation of the encoder in the Flash Player was not so optimized and used very simple approaches to rate-control in video encoding. The community started to ask for some improvement in this area but without response until now. I think to have asked for a new encoder for almost 5-6 years. I have also developed in the past some optimization to enhance the encoder performance for screen grabbing or webcam communication but 9-years in computer programming are a whole age and a 30% improvement in efficiency was still insufficient to compare Flash video with Skype video, for example.
So yes, a dream comes true because Adobe has introduced in the current Flash Incubator an H.264 video encoder. Oh yes! H.264 is the state of the art in video encoding, the presence of B-frames could be useful to replace the D-frames and the potentialities of this codec are excellent so that even a poor implementation can lead to excellent improvements over Spark. I’m only a bit afraid for real-time, but from some comments found in the Internet I think that it will be possible to opt for different configuration to address lantency and encoding efficiency.
From the Incubator’s Forum I have estracted this peace of code that show how to change the codec from Spark to H.264 and configure it.
var h264Settings:H264VideoStreamSettings = new H264VideoStreamSettings(); h264Settings.setProfileLevel(H264Profile.BASELINE, H264Level.LEVEL_2); stream.videoStreamSettings = h264Settings;
* stream is the NetStream istance that will perform the publish of the encoded stream to the FMS.
Notice the H264Profile enumeration which is probably capable to specify not only a BASELINE, but also a MAIN or perhaps HIGH profile for encoding. Similarly the H264Level specify the level (substancially reference frames number) presumibly from 2 to 5. I hope to be also able to define the number of consecutive B-frames, and/or something like an accuracy switch (suppose H264accuracy.SLOW, H264accuracy.FAST and so on).
I’m starting to do some testing by myself because I’m really excited of this future Flash Player feature. If you add the new EchoCancellation API, the support of the open source Speex codec, p2p, and mobile availability, I think that a new youth is starting for Flash based communication applications development.
Better late than never.