The BBC didn't make a particularly big show of the project at LinuxWorld in London, but if the codec lives up to expectations, it could soon be challenging proprietary video technology.
The codec, called Dirac--after physicist Paul Dirac--is still in the early stages of testing. But developers say when it goes into beta in the fall of 2005, there's a good chance it will be as good, if not better, than anything else out there.
Lead developer Thomas Davies, who founded the project three years ago, has Microsoft's Windows Media Player in his sights.
Davies stressed that he is not seeking to create a product, but rather a tool that other developers can use to build their own software.
"It is an entirely general-purpose code," he said. The technologies used are suitable for everything, he said, from low-resolution mobile phone screens to high-definition television and even cinema. "You could use it for desktop video production, you could use it for streaming, or you could use it for movies--anyplace where you need compression."
Davies plans to release a new set of coding tools over the coming year.
By the time the beta launches, Davies wants the software to be able to decode standard definition pictures in real time. "By then we should have all the decoding tools, and it should be plugged into a number of different players."
To protect the software and the techniques used to develop it, the BBC has taken out its own defensive patents, Davies said, and it is releasing the software under the Mozilla license to ensure "that those patents are licensed for free, irrevocably, forever."
The terms of the license mean that Dirac could be used in open-source software or in proprietary software in such a way that a company that produces the software would not have to divulge its source code, according to Davies.
Dirac is just one of a number of open-source software tools being developed by the BBC. The broadcaster also is working on the material exchange format (MXF), which will be used for exchanging multimedia data. "We intend to wrap Dirac inside MXF with an audio stream plus synchronization data and metadata," Davies said.
Matt Loney of ZDNet UK reported from London.