Archive for February, 2020

General overview of Duck codecs and their design

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

I’ve finally finished polishing out decoders for all Duck codecs (before it was bought by Baidu) and now they all seem to work fine (except AVC, that one can wait for later—much much later). And while I moved to even more hairier and painful tasks (reorganising nihav-core and even documenting it) now, as I have full understanding how those codecs work, I can give an overview of their design (not the bit-by-bit description of the format, we have The Wiki for that but rather most notable features and similarities to other codecs) and form my opinion on them.

TrueMotion 1

Somehow this might be their most original codec. While it’s simple codec with delta prediction I can’t remember any other codec that used a variable-length codebook with byte indices. Also this is the only codec in the family that works with RGB (16- and 24-bit modes even; the rest of codecs use YUV).

TrueMotion RT

This one is a trivial codec for real-time video capturing (hence the name) that codes deltas with fixed quantisation scheme (2, 3 or 4 bits deltas with predefined step sizes).

TrueMotion 2

This codec is still based on delta coding but now instead of working with individual pixels it works with 4×4 blocks that can have different amount of deltas and even employ motion compensation (instead of coding deltas). Also the data is separated into different streams and each of them is Huffman coded.

The approach with coding different kinds of information in separate chunks will be used in later codecs as well.

TrueMotion 2X

TrueMotion 2X is some weird amalgamation of TrueMotion 1 and TrueMotion 2. It works with 8×8 blocks that may have different amount of deltas like TM2 and information is grouped into chunks like TM2 but it uses variable codebook approach from TM1.

The main distinguishing features of this codec though are having multiple chunk variants for holding the same data and obfuscating data using XORing with 32-bit key derived from a key stored in a frame by passing it through LSFR a couple of times. IIRC frame data also contains the name of person owning the copy of the program so it might be some kind of protection scheme but it looks dubious at best.

3- and 4-bit ADPCM

As you can guess these codecs are based on DVI ADPCM (4-bit variant is essentially IMA ADPCM with different block header), 3-bit variant simply expands three deltas into four samples by interpolating coded differences (which has been done by other formats as well but I don’t remember which ones).

VP3-VP4

Starting with this format Duck moved to the codec design approach which I can describe as “make an equivalent of some existing codec but with some crazy thing replacing some less important stage”. It’s not like they are the only company doing this but it’s probably the only one leaving you with “how did they manage to come up with that idea?” question and VP3 is a very good example of that.

First of all, VP3 has an unusual block clustering: 8×8 blocks are grouped into 16×16 macroblocks and into 32×32 superblocks; blocks in superblocks are walked in Hilbert pattern but macroblocks in superblocks use zigzag pattern. Except that when you have four motion vectors in a macroblock they are stored also in zigzag pattern. Oh, and superblocks are walked in raster format plane after plane. Macroblock having data for both luma and chroma? Leave that to other codecs.

Then we have another feature familiar from TM2 times: data is grouped by type. First you have superblock information (intra/skip/inter), then macroblock information (which kind of motion it uses), then motion vectors and finally block coefficients.

Speaking of motion vectors, there are four features related to them that make these codecs different. First, motion vector prediction uses last/second last motion vector (in the order of decoding) as the base instead of median prediction in other codecs (this scheme will live up until VP9 with some modifications; I guess it’s done so because of the scan order but who knows). Second, motion interpolation is done as averaging two pixels—and for (½,½) case you average pixels on diagonal, which one of two depends on motion vector direction (averaging all four pixels? who would do that?!). Third, the introduction of golden frame as an alternative reference frame (don’t confuse it with altref frame introduced in VP8). This one is probably done to avoid B-frames that were patented at the time (at least that’s what people think). Fun fact: in VP31-VP5 golden frame is selected as last intra frame, in later codecs it can be selected with a special bit or even partially updated but in VP30 any frame with low enough quantiser automatically becomes new golden frame. And fourth, VP4 moved the loop filtering to motion compensation process so the reference picture does not have its edges filtered but when you perform motion compensation you apply it on source block edges using the current strength. This scheme remained until VP7 where they moved to the usual in-loop deblocking again (also it’s fun to encounter blocky intra frame image that gets smoothed with the following frames).

Now the block coefficients coding. VP3-VP9 used essentially the same scheme: decode special token that tells you what you have—a run of end-of-block flags, a run of zeroes, some small non-zero value or a larger value falling into certain range. Then you decode trailing bits if needed and expand token to form coefficient block. For some (error resiliency?) reasons VP3 had those tokens stored by coefficient number for all blocks (with some skips if zero run was coded) while VP4 had them grouped by block.

I should also mention DC prediction here. For obvious reasons it’s not median predicted either but rather calculated as weighted sum of neighbour block DCs in VP3 or “if you have two neighbour values available take their average, otherwise use the last predicted value” in VP4.

And final pet peeve is the DCT they used in VP3-VP6. While it’s good to have clearly defined integer DCT instead of a mess with different DCT implementations in H.263 / MPEG-4 ASP era, they decided to use transform coefficients in range 12785-64277 so essentially you have to multiply signed 16-bit input coefficient by unsigned 16-bit transform coefficient (and discard low 16 bits immediately). Now realize you have SIMD instruction for either signed*signed->take high or unsigned*unsigned->take high operations and not for this case. Sigh.

VP5

The main difference of VP5 from VP4 is the support for interlaced coding mode. And maybe also new binary range coder (named bool coder) that’s been in use even in VP9.

So now all non-binary data in the frame is coded using trees with fixed probabilities (i.e. you read bit with probability stored in the node and it’s zero take left branch, otherwise take right branch). Those probabilities might be constant or set to some new values at the beginning of the frame.

Frame data still contains macroblock information first and coefficient data last.

Motion vectors are predicted using nearest and second nearest (called simply near) motion vectors from already decoded macroblocks scanned in certain order. Also the information about found prediction candidates is used as one of the context variables used to select some probability set in decoding process.

DC prediction is a bit weird and it’s easier to describe it in the form “you have a special cache for top/left DC values and you use them for prediction” except that you have an additional special case for chroma in the first macroblock.

VP6

There are several things that got changed from VP5, mainly coefficient data location and coding method and motion compensation. Also now you can signal that you want this particular inter frame to become new golden frame. And you can enjoy new alpha mode which is coded essentially as a separate frame after the first one but with just one plane.

First, now there are two coefficient ordering modes: the old “MB info first, coefficients later” and the mode where macroblock information interleaves coefficient data.

Second, now you have Huffman coding for coefficient data. You take the original tree with probabilities, calculate weights for each leaf and construct new Huffman tree that might be completely different from the original. And then you decode data by reading macroblock information with bool coder from one place and variable-length codes for DCT tokens from another.

Third, motion interpolation now uses either a special set of bicubic filter coefficients or simple bilinear interpolation. Also there’s a special mode for switching between interpolation methods depending on source block variance (i.e. if it’s greater than certain threshold then use bicubic interpolation, otherwise use bilinear interpolation). I don’t think this feature has been used after VP6 though.

Also it’s worth noting that now VP6 can change block scan per frame (probably it improves compression a bit by eliminating or shortening some zero runs).

Another fun fact is that depending on container (AVI or FLV) VP6 picture might be coded upside-down or downside-up.

AVC

My favourite audio codec. Essentially it’s simplified AAC-LC rip-off (just bands and coefficients, no noise codebooks or pulses or TNS) except for the special frame mode where you can have half of the frame or the whole frame coded with special mode which is essentially some arbitrarily selected subbands that should be merged together in certain order to reconstruct audio. I have the idea how it all works but I don’t want to debug my decoder yet.

VP7

The codec is not like H.264 at all: H.264 has plane prediction mode and VP7 has TrueMotion prediction mode. There is one thing though introduced in VP7 and dropped in VP8 (and resurrected in some form in VP9) called features (there’s also special frame fading mode but hardly anybody cares about that). Features is an alternative mode that may be present for some macroblocks: different quantiser, different deblocking strength, a flag to signal this macroblock should be used to update golden frame and special block drawing mode (related to interlacing but not quite). There are up to four possible feature values where it makes sense (i.e. not for golden frame update flag).

Last feature (called pitch) defines how block coefficients should be put and how motion compensation should be performed. So you can put decoded coefficients in interlaced mode or even doubly interlaced mode (i.e. using every fourth line instead of every second). Motion compensation has these modes too and more: you can get 4×4 block from 16×1 line or from a slanted block (i.e. every next line starts one pixel earlier/later than the previous one).

Another characteristic of VP7 is being evolved rather than designed. There are several places in the codec where you can safely claim they simply have written code (maybe with some bugs) and relied on its behaviour instead of making the code follow some principle. Below are some examples.

Motion vector candidates search may get wrong macroblock coordinates. Here are the words of Peter Ross from his VP7 decoder:

The vp7 reference decoder uses a padding macroblock column (added to right edge of the frame) to guard against illegal macroblock offsets. The algorithm has bugs that permit offsets to straddle the padding column.

Inter DC prediction for DC superblock that says “if three previously decoded DCs were the same then you should use it for prediction” is fine but why should you keep the history from the last frame? I understand it might improve compression if you have the same value for the whole previous frame but it still looks a bit strange.

Spatial (intra) prediction also behaves counter-intuitively. In 4×4 prediction mode when top right block is not available the bottom of macroblock right above should be used instead. And when it’s the last block in row then top right prediction is the replicated pixel from the top macroblock as well. This is hard to explain from codec design perspective but easy from implementer’s point of view: you have top pixels line cached and you update it after you decode the block (so if the data is unavailable you use last decoded data here instead of replicating last available pixel like in H.264).

Conclusion and final thoughts

I hope I was able to demonstrate in this post that Duck codecs have an element of originality but quite often they go so far in originality that you start wondering why they were doing it like that. While some of it might be because of the patent workarounds some things are showing that in some cases they were fiddling with the code instead of trying proper ideas first and implementing codec after the idea (no, idea “let’s use codec X as the base” does not count).

Also while I’m not going to deal with VP8 and VP9 unless I really have to, I can say that the people behind Duck codecs developing AV1 is both good and terrible thing. Good because they know how to propose stuff that looks different but still works similarly to some conventional codec. Terrible because they still don’t know how to design a codec properly—not writing some ad hoc code that does something but rather gather ideas, evaluate them and only after that implementing it. I heard the story that shortly before releasing VP8 to the public Baidu actually showed it to some opensource multimedia people and asked for their opinions and input; somebody (from Xiph IIRC) found a design flaw but it was left unfixed because the encoder relied on it as well and they were reluctant to change it.

AV1.0 Errata 1 shows similar design problems partly for the same reasons and I don’t expect AV2 to be conceptually better. Especially after hearing rumours that Baidu is working on it already probably to force mostly complete work on AOM so the codec is ready by the same time as H.266 (or MPEG/VVC as they say it in Italy). And since most opensource multimedia people are working on AV1 nowadays, the chances of some competitor appearing are slim. So don’t ask questions, just consume AV1 and then get excited for AV2.

Om marsipangrisorna

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

Since I have nothing better to do (obviously) I want to talk about marzipan pig situation in Sweden.
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