Google Upgrades Hangouts with 720p Video

For users of Google's Hangouts social tool, bumping up the video quality to 720p is undoubtedly good news – friends and family just got a little clearer. But what's even better is what Google plans to implement later on down the road: open standards and a plugin-free video experience.

GigaOM reports that Google quietly began rolling out 720p video in Hangouts to a subset of its users over the last several weeks, and is looking to be completely upgraded soon. More specifically, the current Hangout video codec is transitioning from H.264 to VP8, an open and royalty-free video codec Google initially launched back in 2010. This transition will be "more or less" invisible to Hangout users other than cleaner video and the ability to conduct video Hangouts in HD.

MORE: 10 of the Best Free VoIP Apps for Your Desktop

According to Google’s Vice President of Engineering Chee Chew, Hangouts in HD wasn't possible using the H.264 codec because handling HD streams from ten participants would have required too much processing power. Using the VP8 codec means Google can dish out higher-quality streams at low bit rates, an important feature for mobile video chats.

However as previously indicated, the upgrade is just one step up in a bigger scheme to provide streaming video without the need for a browser plugin. Eventually the company will switch over to WebRTC as previously indicated when Hangouts was first launched two years ago. The standard has yet to be implemented because, according to Chew, WebRTC simply needed to mature. The company also wanted to focus on optimizing the overall experience first, which includes perfecting those silly effects that rely on facial recognition.

Chew told GigaOM in an interview that transitioning over to WebRTC will likely take several more months, but once in place, the standard should provide an even more immersive video chat experience. He explained that when video becomes a native HTML element, the team will have an easier time making subtle improvements and adding overlays.

Moving to the new VP8 codec is especially important to Google because it means the company no longer relies on Vidyo's implementation of the H.264 codec. The two companies originally teamed up to provide video chat in Google Talk, and continued their business relationship when Google launched Hangouts and eventually merged Talk into the newer platform.

Surprisingly, Vidyo CEO Ofer Shapiro actually seems to get why Google is moving to another solution. "The need to install something is somewhat of a barrier [to the use of video chat]", he acknowledged. However, the company isn't completely out of the Hangouts picture: Vidyo plans to support WebRTC and open video codecs starting with VP9.

For clarification, Scalable Video Coding (SVC) is an enhancement to the base H.264 video codec that was specified in Annex G. SVC "standardizes the encoding of a high-quality video bitstream that also contains one or more subset bitstreams". Google used Vidyo's implementation of SVC in Hangouts up until the new VP8 codec rolling out now. Google will use Vidyo's SVG tech again for VP9 and the joint plugin-free WebRTC effort.

Kevin started taking PCs apart in the 90s when Quake was on the way and his PC lacked the required components. Since then, he’s loved all things PC-related and cool gadgets ranging from the New Nintendo 3DS to Android tablets. He is currently a contributor at Digital Trends, writing about everything from computers to how-to content on Windows and Macs to reviews of the latest laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and more.