The end of MP3? Opus Audio Codec promises better sound with less bandwidth

 Opus chart

Did you know there was such a thing as an Internet Engineering Task Force?  Turns out, there’s a “large open international community of network designers, vendors, and researchers,” whose mission is to organize, codify, research and document evolving standards for online applications.  And this week, they approved the Opus Interactive Audio Codec as a new standard for online audio, in a move that may improve the sound of everything from streaming radio to VoIP calls, even as it lowers prices.

The Opus codec was developed by a consortium of researchers from Mozilla, Xiph.org, Skype, Microsoft, and Broadcomm. Previous audio codecs have been optimized for specific uses – MP3 for music, SILK for voice, and so on –– but Opus promises better sound for everything, no matter how low your bitrate.  Opus switches between different codecs based on how much bandwidth it detects, so it can reduce latency and drop-outs on any connection.

Even more exciting than how Opus works is how it’s been developed.  Although plenty of patents have been filed around the technology, all the companies involved in Opus have committed to making the codec royalty-free, with an open-source code base. 

The commitment to an open-source implementation isn’t just hippie good vibes. While MP3 has made a lot of downloaders happy, it’s a patented codec, and anyone who uses it has to pay a licensing fee to the patent-holders.  That means anyone who wants to build an MP3 distributor, an MP3 player, or even a game that uses MP3 to stream its audio can’t make free software, because they’re in hock to the rights-holder as soon as their program is used. If you’ve ever wondered why Apple got into the audio-codec business with AAC, this is a big part of the answer; few companies hate seeing money leave the building like Apple. 

Christopher Blizzard, who’s worked in development at Mozilla, Red Hat, and Facebook, embraces the open-source ideal. “You can still build a Web browser, spider, client, Web server, image editor, a JS library, a CSS library, an HTML editor, a Web publishing system, commerce system – anything that is based on fundamental web technologies – without asking anyone for permission… This is why we’ve had billions of dollars of investment and a fundamental shift in the way that western society acts and communicates – all in the course of a very short period of time. The Web grew up on Royalty-Free.”  So the fact that the most popular audio and video codecs are licensed has a lot to do with the clumsy, thudding progress of online video and audio, including the fact that we still can’t have streaming video on a website without going through a host like YouTube.

Opus won’t solve that problem overnight, but it promises a way forward.  The codec’s slick rebuffering means its first implementation will be plugin-free voice and video chat directly through a Web browser. Firefox supports native playback of Opus files, and Google is working on implementing it in Chrome. And of course, Skype is enthusiastically rolling the codec into the next version of its software. Expect to hear better sound for less money in future browsers, phone apps, and desktop software as the codec freely gives itself to anyone who asks.

Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Gaming

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Emerging Tech

After a record-setting 15 years, NASA ends Opportunity rover’s tour of Mars

NASA has officially called it quits on its record-setting Mars rover Opportunity, eight months after last hearing from the lander. The Rover landed on the Red Planet in early 2004.
Smart Home

Google Home Mini vs. Amazon Echo Dot: Which smart home speaker is better?

We put the two most popular smart home speakers -- the Google Home Mini and the 3rd generation Amazon Echo Dot -- together and tested them on appearance, audio, and abilities. So which should you buy? Find out how they did in our showdown.
Computing

Windows 7 is still immensely popular. Is it really better than Windows 10?

With the end of support of Windows 7 approaching, have you been holding off on upgrading to Windows 10? In this guide, we give look at some of the biggest differences between the most popular operating systems.
Emerging Tech

The 10 most expensive drones that you (a civilian) can buy

OK, these drones may be a bit beyond your budget: Check out the most expensive drones in the world, from industrial giants to highest-end filming tools.
Emerging Tech

A river of stars one billion years old flows across the southern sky

Astronomers have identified a river of stars flowing across our galaxy and covering most of the southern sky. The estimated 4000 stars that comprise the stream were born together and have been moving together for the last one billion years.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.
Computing

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.
Emerging Tech

Descending at an angle could be key to landing heavier craft on Mars

Landing on Mars is a challenge: The heavier the craft, the more difficult a safe landing becomes. Scientists propose using retropropulsion engines and angling the craft to create a pressure differential to land heavier crafts in the future.
Emerging Tech

Ant-inspired walking robot navigates without GPS by using polarized light

What do you get if you cross Boston Dynamics and Ant-Man? You get Antbot, a robot from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) which uses ant-like navigation to move around without the aid of GPS.
Emerging Tech

InSight’s heat probe will dig 16 feet beneath the surface of Mars

New images from NASA's InSight mission to Mars have confirmed that the lander succeeded in setting the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument onto the surface, from where a self-hammering spike will burrow downwards.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!