AV1 Image File Format (AVIF)

By Martin Williams
Published on October 17, 2019
AV1 Image File Format (AVIF)

The major application for high quality compression of photos is Internet speed. While bandwidth does continue to increase each year, so does the quality and size of most Internet media. What that means is that even though data can be transferred more quickly, the need for compressing media into smaller files without losing visual quality has not gone away. In fact, the need for an effective compressing tool may have even grown.

With that said, many people assume that there are multiple resources available for compressing photos. Options such as JPEG 2000, WebP, and HEIF are all available and have experienced success in one form or another. The most promising compression tool right now was developed by the Alliance for Open Media on its AV1 format and is called AVIF. Being worked on by companies like Netflix and Microsoft, AVIF is showing some impressive signs of being the next step in the compression market.

What is AVIF?

The abbreviation "AVIF" stands for "AV1 Image File Format" and is essentially the specification for storing still and animated images compressed with AV1 in the HEIF file format. AV1 is the royalty-free video coding format that has most tech experts believing it is the next step in media compression.

From a legal standpoint and a technical standpoint, AVIF cannot be matched. JPEG XR, for example, had many technical advantages and seemed to be the next step in high quality compression. However, software patents and the need to pay those patent-holders made adoption of the technology almost impossible. The AV1 format is just as technically advanced as the JPEG XR was, but because it is a royalty-free product, adoption will be cheaper and improvements will be accomplished much more quickly.

AVIF version 1.0.0 was released and approved in February of 2019 and is therefore ready to be used in production. This new version supports features like "high dynamic range" and "wide color gamut" to make it the most technically advanced form of high quality picture compression. High Dynamic Range is also known as HDR and wide color gamut is akin to what people now call "Ultra High Definition" photos and videos.

AVIF applications

The main application of AVIF has to do with producing high quality compressed photos that lose as little quality as possible during the compression process. A compressed photo will take less time to download from the Internet than a full-size photo but should maintain the same quality level. This speeds up page loading times, increases website storage capabilities, and allows web pages to be accessed even in low speed areas.

While the AV1 file format software shows potential, there is a major problem in the application of that potential. Most web browsers do not currently support this type of image format. While AV1 can be used in video decoding, its image file format cannot be downloaded by Chrome, Firefox, or Explorer. It is still a new technology and it is being worked on and improved by Microsoft, Netflix, Google, and a host of other top-notch companies, but the current application of this format is limited because most browsers are not ready for it yet.

Encoding and decoding AVIF

As far as encoding goes, any of the three AV1 encoders are capable of producing the actual picture from the data. While you can choose between libaom, rav1e, SVT-AV1 only the libaom seems to pass both the technical requirements and the "eye" test. Once you choose libaom as your encoder, you should use the typical libaom encoder library known as C API. Next prepare the frame, run an encode function, and get the results back.

Once the encoding is complete, you will move to the decoding aspect of AV1 image file format. Now that you can produce the files, you must be able to display them. Since browsers are not yet capable of displaying this particular format, you have to rely on JavaScript and web API's. Until web browsers add native support for AVIF, it will be hard to understand the potential that this format has for improving media compression.

Why is AVIF better than its competitors?

At this point in time, AVIF is not better than its competitors. It has more potential to change the world of image compression than anything else out there, but that potential is still a long way from being reached. Here are some of the qualities that make the AV1 image file format a potential game changer:

  • It supports transparency, HDR, wide colour gamut and all of the things that the AV1 codec does.
  • It provides the highest compression possible, especially at low bit rates.
  • It was created in a royalty-free format which will make adoptions and usage much easier from a legal standpoint.
  • It has the backing and resources of huge technology companies like Google, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, and many others.

There are, of course, issues that must be worked out to ensure the AV1 image file format outshines its competitors, but the features and technical aspects of this format provide everything needed to make it the next best thing. With PNG and JPEG stuck in the past and WebP and HEIF struggling with patents that hold them back from adoption, the AV1 format is poised to become the most popular image format on the web.

The future of AVIF

AVIF is still in the early and experimental stages of existence in 2019. While it is officially ready for production and is being marketed as such, it will probably start to be a more viable option as early as the summer of 2020. There are still some kinks to be worked out with the main kink being the tooling support available for this image format. Currently Chrome and Firefox support AV1 video decoding but they cannot display AVIF images. With major technological companies backing this image format, it will not be long before it is one of the top compression products in the industry.

The bottom line that will make or break the future of AV1 image file format is adoption by Internet users and developers. In the end, nothing else matters because this is what drives success in this field. No matter how great or poor the features or how many patent holders have to be paid, when Internet users choose to use one format over all of the others, it is only then that the format is a success.

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