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Designing IP-Based Video Conferencing Systems: Dealing with Lip Synchronization

Chapter Description

Two issues typically complicate the process of decoding audio and video streams and allowing them to play with perfect synchronization. This chapter covers the process of realigning the audio and video streams at the receiver to achieve perfect lip synchronization.

Understanding the Sender Side

Figure 7-4 shows the video and audio transmit subsection of a video conferencing endpoint. The microphone and camera on the left provide analog signals to the capture hardware, which converts those signals into digital form. The sender encodes both audio and video streams and then packetizes the encoded data for transport over the network.

Figure 7-4

Figure 7-4 Sender-Side Processing

Sender Audio Path

This section focuses on the audio path, which uses an analog-to-digital (A/D) converter to capture analog audio samples and convert them into digital streams. For the purposes of synchronization, it is necessary to understand how each of the processing elements adds delay to the media stream.

The delays in the audio transmission path consist of several components:

  • Audio capture packetization delay—Typically, audio capture hardware provides audio in packets, consisting of a fixed number of samples. These packets are often called audio device packets. Most computer-based hosts, and all professional audio interfaces, offer configurable packet sizes. The packet sizes are typically specified to have units of samples, with pro audio interfaces offering packetization delay as low as 64 samples. At 44.1 kHz/stereo (44,100 samples/second), 64 samples corresponds to a time latency of

    Chapter 07 Equation 01

    In this example, the audio card issues 689 packets per second. If each audio sample is 16 bits, with left and right channels, each packet contains

    64 samples x 2 bytes/sample x 2 channels = 256 bytes

    These packets are in the form of raw bytes and contain no special packet headers. In both standalone endpoints and PC-based endpoints, the audio capture hardware typically issues an interrupt to the main processor to indicate that a new audio packet is available.

  • Encoder packetization latency—Audio codecs often use an algorithm that takes fixed-sized chunks of input data, known as audio frames, and produces encoded output audio frames. These frames are not to be confused with frames of video. For instance, the G.723 audio codec specifies an input frame size of 30 ms. For 8-kHz mono audio, 30 ms corresponds to 240 bytes. Because codecs must take fixed-sized frames of raw data as input, it is the responsibility of the conferencing firmware to collect packets from the audio card and assemble them into frames of the proper length for the codec. Because the sender must collect multiple audio packets to assemble an audio frame, this type of packetization is considered an aggregation process. Aggregation always imposes a delay, because the packetizer must wait for multiple input packets to arrive.
  • Encoder processing latency—Encoders process each frame of audio and must complete the processing before the next frame of audio arrives. The G.711 codec uses a simple algorithm that can process audio frames with almost no delay. In contrast, the G.723 codec is more complex and might involve a longer delay. However, for any codec, in no case will the delay exceed one frame time; otherwise, the codec would not be able to keep up with the data rate.
  • RTP packetization delay—The RTP packetizer collects one or more audio frames from the encoder, composes them into an RTP packet with RTP headers, and sends the RTP packet out through a network interface. The packetization delay is the delay from the time the packetizer begins to receive data for the RTP packet until the time the RTP packetizer has collected enough audio frames to constitute a complete RTP packet. When an RTP packet is complete, the RTP packetizer forwards the packet to the network interface.

Both the packet size of encoded audio frames and the packet size of RTP packets impact delays on the sender side, for two reasons:

  • Whole-packet processing—Advanced audio codecs such as G.728 require access to the entire input frame of audio data before they can begin the encoding process. If a frame requires data from multiple audio device packets from the capture device, the audio codec must wait for a frame packetizer to assemble audio device packets into a frame before the encoder may begin the encode process. Lower-complexity codecs such as G.711 process audio in frames but do not need to wait for the entire frame of input data to arrive. Because the G.711 codec can operate on single audio samples at a time, it has a very low latency of only one sample.
  • RTP packetization delay—Even for encoders such as G.711 that have very low latency, RTP packetization specifies that encoded audio frames must not be fragmented across RTP packets. In addition, for more efficiency, an RTP packet may contain multiple frames of encoded audio. Because the RTP packetizer performs an aggregation step, it imposes a packetization delay.

The final stage in the audio sender pipeline is the network interface, which receives packets from the RTP packetization stage and forwards them onto the network. The latency of the network interface is low compared to the other stages. To better show the delays in the transmit portion of the audio path, Figure 7-5 shows a timeline of individual delays.

Figure 7-5

Figure 7-5 Audio Delays

Time is on the x-axis. In addition, the length of each packet in Figure 7-5 indicates the time duration of the data in the packet. In this figure, the entire packet or frame is available to the next processor in the chain as soon as the leading edge of that packet appears in the diagram. Figure 7-5 shows a common scenario in which successive processing steps perform packetization, increasing the packet size in later stages of the pipeline.

Video Source Format

Most video conferencing endpoints can accept analog video signals from a standard-definition video camera. Three video formats exist:

  • National Television Systems Committee (NTSC), used primarily in North America and Japan
  • Phase-Alternating Line (PAL), used primarily in Europe
  • Séquentiel couleur à mémoire (SECAM), used primarily in France

Many video endpoints can accept either NTSC or PAL formats, whereas SECAM is less well supported. Table 7-1 shows the maximum possible resolution of each format and the frame rate of each.

Table 7-1. Video Formats

Format

Usable Video Resolution

Frame Rate

NTSC

640x480

29.97

PAL

720x576

25

SECAM

720x576

25

The vertical resolution of a video frame is measured in lines of video, and the horizontal resolution is measured in pixels. Even though the NTSC video signal has a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second, the frame rate is often referred to as 30 FPS (frames per second). Each of these formats uses a scanning process called interlacing, which means that each frame is actually composed of two interlaced fields. Figure 7-6 shows a sequence of interlaced frames for NTSC video.

Figure 7-6

Figure 7-6 Interlaced Video Sequence

In the sequence, each frame consists of two consecutive fields: The odd field is the first field, and the even field is the second field. The odd field captures every other line of video starting with the first line. The even field captures every other line of video starting with the second line. The field rate is double the frame rate; in this example, the field rate is 60 fields per second. The field that starts with the top line of video in the interlaced frame is often called the top field. The field that ends with the bottom line of video in the interlaced frame is often called the bottom field.

It is important to note that even though a frame is often considered a single entity, it is actually composed of two fields, captured at different points in time, separated by one-sixtieth of a second. When a television displays the video signal, it preserves the one-sixtieth-of-a-second field separation.

Interlacing was adopted as the television standard to satisfy two requirements:

  • The television display must be refreshed faster than 40 times per second to avoid the perception of flicker. This requirement is accomplished with the NTSC field rate of 60 fields per second.
  • Bandwidth must be conserved. This requirement is satisfied by transmitting only half the frame content (every other line of video) for each refresh of the television display.

A video endpoint can process standard video for low-resolution or high-resolution conferencing, but the approach taken for each differs significantly.

Low-Resolution Video Input

If the video endpoint is configured to send low-resolution video, the endpoint typically starts with a full-resolution interlaced video sequence and then discards every other field. The resulting video has full resolution in the horizontal direction but half the resolution in the vertical direction, as shown in Table 7-2.

Table 7-2. Video Formats: Field Sizes

Format

Usable Field Resolution

NTSC

640x240

PAL

720x288

SECAM

720x288

When capturing from a typical interlaced camera and using only one of the fields, the encoder must always use the same type of field; that is, it must stick to either even fields or odd fields. In the case of NTSC video input, discarding every other field results in video with a resolution of 640x240, at 30 (noninterlaced) FPS. The video endpoint typically scales the video down by a factor of 2 in the horizontal direction to obtain an image with the desired aspect ratio. The resulting video image is considered a frame of video, even though it was derived from a single field.

Alternatively, low-end, PC-based endpoints may use a video signal from a consumer-grade webcam, which might supply a lower-resolution, noninterlaced video signal directly. A common webcam resolution is 320x240 at 15 FPS.

High-Resolution Video Input

Endpoints that intend to use the full resolution available from a standard video camera must use video data from both fields of each frame and therefore must use a video codec that handles interlaced video. When you are using video from an NTSC camera, endpoints that have an interlace-capable codec can support resolutions up to 640x480 at 60 fields per second.

Sender Video Path

Video capture hardware digitizes each image from the video camera and stores the resulting fields of video in a set of circular frame buffers in memory, as shown in Figure 7-7.

Figure 7-7

Figure 7-7 Video Capture Buffering

The capture hardware fills the frame buffers in order until it reaches the last buffer, and then it loops back to frame 1, overwriting the data in frame buffer 1. Notice that each frame buffer contains two fields: an odd field and an even field, corresponding to the odd and even field of each frame of interlaced video.

To reduce the capture-to-encode delay, a video encoder may be able to start encoding a new field of video before the capture hardware writes the entire field into memory. Figure 7-8 shows two possible scenarios for sender-side video capture delays.

Figure 7-8

Figure 7-8 Sender-Side Video Capture-to-Encode Delays

Most video encoders operate on chunks of video data consisting of 16 lines at a time. Therefore, the encoder can provide lower capture-to-encode latency by processing video data after the capture hardware has written 16 lines (of a field) to the frame buffer, corresponding to a latency of 1 ms. However, some video encoders may wait for an entire field of video to fill a frame buffer before beginning the encoding process for that field. In this case, the video capture delay is 1 field of video, corresponding to 17 ms.

A video encoder may encode at a lower resolution and frame rate than the capture hardware. Figure 7-9 shows an encoder that operates at 320x240 resolution, at a nominal frame rate of 30 FPS, by extracting every odd field and scaling it from 640x240 to 320x240; the /2 boxes denote the horizontal scaling.

Figure 7-9

Figure 7-9 Encode Process for 30-FPS Video

In this scenario, the encoder normally encodes every odd field to achieve 30 FPS. However, if the content of the video changes by a large amount as a result of excessive motion in the video stream, the encoder might fall behind for two reasons:

  • The CPU requirements of the encoder might increase, resulting in higher per-frame encoding latency, which might force the encoder to reduce the frame rate.
  • The extra motion in the input video might cause the size of the encoded frames to temporarily increase. Larger encoded frames take longer to stream at a constant bit rate, and therefore, the sender might fall behind when attempting to transmit encoded frames onto the network at the real-time rate. In response, the encoder might decide to skip frames to reduce the frame rate. Temporarily pausing the encoding process allows the encoded video bitstream to "drain" out the network interface.

Figure 7-9 shows an example in which larger encoded video frames might cause the bitstream on the network to fall behind the real-time rate. Typically, encoders track the delay from the capture time to the network transmission time; if this delay exceeds a threshold, the encoder begins dropping frames to catch up. Figure 7-9 shows an example in which the encoder falls behind and decides to catch up by dropping the fourth output frame. Encoders routinely trade off between frame rate, quality, and bit rate in this manner.

Two delays exist in the video path on the capture side:

  • Video encoding delay—The encoding delay is the delay from the time that all data for a frame is captured until the time that the video encoder generates all encoded data for that frame. Video that contains large areas of motion might take longer to encode. In Figure 7-9, the latency of the encoder changes over time. However, despite the time-varying latency of the video encoder, the video stream is reconstructed on the receiver side with original uniform spacing.
  • RTP packetization delay—The RTP specification determines how the video bitstream must be spliced into RTP packets. Typically, video codecs divide the input image into sections, called slices, or groups of block (GOB). The RTP packetization process must splice the encoded bitstream at these boundary points. Therefore, the RTP video packetization must wait for a certain number of whole sections of the video bitstream to arrive to populate an RTP packet. The packetization delay is the time necessary for the packetizer to collect all data necessary to compose an RTP packet.
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