FFmpeg 6.1 drops a Heaviside dose of codec magic

New versions of this amazingly versatile tool, used in most streaming video services and devices, don’t come along very often.

Although FFmpeg has been around since 2000, it only reached version 6 in February. Despite its modest point-one version number bump – and remarkably terse release notes – this is a major release. The announcement has rather more information, as does the changelog.

The release’s codename is a tribute to the great 19th century mathematician Oliver Heaviside, the inventor of the coaxial cable along with several radical mathematical methods, which for instance enabled the performance of telegraph cables to be mathematically modeled for the first time. The other thing named after him is the Heaviside layer, the part of the ionosphere that long-distance radio signals reflect off to travel around the world (and not, in fact, where cats go to heaven.)

We can’t better the project’s own self-description:

If you own some gadget that can play digital video either off the internet or a network server or some storage device, the moving pictures you see were very probably encoded or decoded or translated by FFmpeg.

This version includes support for multi-threaded hardware-accelerated video decoding of H.264, HEVC, and AV1 video using the cross-platform Vulkan API, the next-gen replacement for OpenGL, which was added to the codebase in May.

The pace of development of FFmpeg has been speeding up slightly in recent years, given that it took 13 years to get to version 2.0. We can’t help but wonder if that’s connected with the departure of the former project lead in 2015.

The developers are planning to release version 7.0 in about February next year. Even so, the “Heaviside” release, which has been refactored to support even more formats and introduce new methods for faster performance or reduced processor utilization, is smaller than previous releases.

The project was started by French programming überboffin Fabrice Bellard, who is also the man behind the QEMU multi-system emulator and hypervisor, which we mentioned while looking at Apple hypervisor UTM recently. He was also behind the BPG graphics format, an in-browser PC emulator that can run Linux, and for a while he held the world record for calculating the most digits of Pi: 2.7 trillion of them, on a surprisingly modest desktop PC rather than a supercomputer.

Lest we forget, he also won the International Obfuscated C Contest no less than three times, one of these with an impossibly small C compiler, which deobfuscated became TinyCC.

Bellard’s most recent project is a text-compression tool, which uses a large language model running on a GPU to achieve remarkable compression ratios. This is, of course, the sort of tool that more egotistical types and marketing lizards call “AI,” although it’s about as intelligent as a stapler. ®


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