This spring, when millions around the world settle down to watch the premiere of season 7 of Game of Thrones, they’ll be able to thank Waterloo-based start-up SSIMWAVE for providing them with the very best quality viewing experience.

Thanks to widespread access to the Internet, cheaper data, plans and faster technology, and an ever widening number of social platforms, our appetite for video consumption has literally exploded over the last decade. Networking giant Cisco predicts that by 2019, 80% of all Internet traffic will be comprised of video, while video consumption on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook increased a startling 94% from 2013 to 2014.

With video becoming the dominant medium for communication and entertainment, the bar has also been raised with respect to quality.

“Just like the Internet and telephone evolved over time to improve users’ quality of experience, the quality of the video viewing experience is also becoming increasingly important as the industry matures,” explains Abdul Rehman, CEO of SSIMWAVE. “When video exploded in popularity, early players like YouTube and others focused on just on the production of content. It was all about getting video out there and into people’s lives, and to start making money. Little thought was given to how people perceive that video. That’s now changing.”

It’s not that quality was completely an afterthought. Understanding a human’s visual perception of video-based content is actually a very complex engineering problem to solve, explains Rehman. “Understanding in real time how humans perceive video on various devices has so many parameters. Video may be freezing. There may be artefacts interfering with the image. There may be brightness and colour variations. In addition, today’s video networks are not fundamentally designed to deliver video. By nature, video is very bursty. It is not a continuous stream of data. So video gets stuck, and subsequently can’t deliver high resolution and high quality.”

Quality of experience is a problem that Rehman’s co-founder Dr. Zhou Wang, a University of Waterloo professor and researcher, has spent his entire academic career investigating, seeking to better understand the issues surrounding human perception of video. Dr. Wang’s SSIM (Structural SIMilarity) index family of algorithms, invented in 2004, is a standard for objectively measuring image quality, allowing broadcasters and content providers to deliver products and services with the best possible perceptual quality to hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. An academic paper on the topic, also published in 2004, has become one of the most cited in academia.

Abdul Rehman, who joined Dr. Wang’s research team in 2009 as a PhD student, now is leading the effort to commercialize the technology, supported by University of Waterloo’s Waterloo Commercialization Office (WatCo). “They saw the potential in us, and gave us the encouragement, resources and support to succeed. They said to us, don’t just go work for Google. Build a business success story,” said Rehman. In 2012 the company moved into the Waterloo Accelerator Centre to further mature its team and business model. “Research is one thing, commercialization is a whole other level,” admits Rehman.

The opportunity for SSIMWAVE is significant indeed.

“Broadcasters and content producers have become acutely aware of the challenge. They are taking the problem very seriously and are now actively looking for ways to better control video quality while reducing their costs,” says Rehman. “Video providers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars and not realizing the payback. It’s impacting their top line and bottom line and they are willing to invest in answers.”

In 2015, Dr. Wang received an Engineering Emmy from the Los Angeles-based Television Academy of Arts and Sciences for the SSIM perceptual video quality measure. This recognition firmly established SSIMWAVE’s video quality measurement with key industry players, and led the President of the American Society of Cinematographers to say that SSIMWAVE’s measurement standard represents a “generational breakthrough in the video industry.”

SSIMWAVE now has major broadcasters and content providers from across the global cable and satellite industry lining up at their door. The company is actively negotiating several enterprise-wide deployments of its suite of products, including the SSIMPLUS Analyzer, the SSIMPLUS LiveMonitor, the SSIMPLUS Optimizer and the SSIMPLUS Streamer.

And while the company is theoretically still in start-up mode, the significant momentum SSIMWAVE is now experiencing has Abdul Rehman thinking big. Very big.

“Just as Dolby became the established standard for home theater, broadcast, and cinema surround sound, we have a similar vision to become a gold standard for quality of experience in our respective part of the industry. We want to be the Dolby for video.”

Originally Published in R&T Park’s Watch Magazine