Filename extension .ogv, .ogg
Internet media type video/ogg
Developed by
Initial release June 1, 2004 (2004-06-01)[1]
Latest release Theora I / 5 August 2009[2]
Type of format Video compression format
Contained by Ogg, Matroska
Extended from VP3
Standard(s) Specification
Initial release November 3, 2008 (2008-11-03) (1.0)
Stable release 1.1.1 / October 1, 2009; 2 years ago (2009-10-01)[3]
Preview release 1.2.0 Alpha 1 / September 24, 2010; 13 months ago (2010-09-24)[4]
Development status Active
Written in C
Operating system Unix-like (incl GNU/Linux, Mac OS X), Windows
Type Video codec, reference implementation
License 3-clause BSD

Theora is a free lossy video compression format.[5] It is developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation and distributed without licensing fees alongside their other free and open media projects, including the Vorbis audio format and the Ogg container.

libtheora is a reference implementation of the Theora video compression format being developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation.[6][7]

Theora is derived from the proprietary VP3 codec, released into the public domain by On2 Technologies. It is broadly comparable in design and bitrate efficiency to MPEG-4 Part 2, early versions of Windows Media Video, and RealVideo while lacking some of the features present in some of these other codecs. It is comparable in open standards philosophy to the BBC's Dirac codec.

Theora is named after Theora Jones, Edison Carter's Controller on the Max Headroom television program.[8]


Technical details

Theora is a variable-bitrate, DCT-based video compression scheme. Like most common video codecs, Theora also uses chroma subsampling, block-based motion compensation and an 8-by-8 DCT block. Pixels are grouped into various structures, namely super blocks, blocks and macroblocks. Theora supports intra-coded frames and forward-predictive frames, but not bi-predictive frames which are found in H.264 and VC-1. Theora also does not support interlacing, or bit-depths larger than 8 bits per component.[2]

Theora video streams can be stored in any suitable container format. Most commonly it is found in the Ogg container with Vorbis or FLAC audio streams which provides a completely open, royalty-free multimedia format. It can also be used with the Matroska container.[9]

The Theora video-compression format is essentially compatible with the VP3 video-compression format, consisting of a backward-compatible superset.[10][11] Theora is a superset of VP3, and VP3 streams (with some minor syntactic modifications) can be converted into Theora streams without recompression (but not vice versa).[11] VP3 video compression can be decoded using Theora implementations, but Theora video compression usually cannot be decoded using old VP3 implementations.



The predecessor On2 TrueMotion VP3 was originally a proprietary and patented video codec developed by On2 Technologies. VP3.1 was introduced in May 2000 followed three months later by the VP3.2 release,[12][13][14][15] which is the basis for Theora. In August 2001, On2 Technologies announced that they would be releasing an open source version of their VP3.2 video compression algorithm.[16][17][18] In September 2001 they published the source code and open source license for VP3.2 video compression algorithm at[19][20][21][22][23][24] The VP3.2 Public License 0.1 granted the right to modify the source code only if the resulting larger work continued to support playback of VP3.2 data.[19][20][25]

Move to free software

In March 2002, On2 altered licensing terms required to download the source code for VP3 to LGPL.[26] In June 2002 On2 donated VP3 to the Xiph.Org Foundation under a BSD-like open source license.[27][28][29][30] On2 also made an irrevocable, royalty-free license grant for any patent claims it might have over the software and any derivatives,[2] allowing anyone to use any VP3-derived codec for any purpose.[10][31] In August 2002, On2 entered into an agreement with the Xiph.Org Foundation to make VP3 the basis of a new, free video codec, called Theora.[32] On2 declared Theora to be the successor in VP3's lineage. On October 3, 2002 On2 and Xiph announced the completion and availability of the initial alpha code release of Theora (libtheora).[33][34] The libtheora reference implementation reached its alpha 2 milestone on June 9, 2003[35] and alpha 3 on March 20, 2004.[36]

There is no formal specification for the VP3 bitstream format beyond the VP3 source code published by On2 Technologies. In 2003, Mike Melanson created an incomplete description of the VP3 bitstream format and decoding process at a higher level than source code, with some help from On2 and Xiph.Org Foundation. The Theora specification adopted some portions of this VP3 description.[2][37]

Theora I specification

Example of a Theora video used on Wikipedia, showing a Polikarpov I-15 biplane at an aerobatic display.

The Theora I bitstream format was frozen in June 2004 after the libtheora 1.0alpha3 release.[1] Videos encoded with any version of the libtheora since the alpha3 will be compatible with any future player.[1][38] This is also true for videos encoded with any implementation of the Theora I specification since the format freeze. The Theora I Specification was completely published in 2004.[39] Any later changes in the specification are minor updates.

The Theora reference implementation libtheora spent several years in alpha and beta status.[38] The last alpha version was libtheora 1.0alpha7 released on June 20, 2006. It was followed by libtheora 1.0 beta1 on September 22, 2007. The last beta version was libtheora 1.0 beta3 released on April 16, 2008.[38] The first stable release of libtheora as version 1.0 was made in November 2008.[40][41] Work then focused on improving the codec performance in the "Thusnelda" branch, which was released as version 1.1 in September 2009 as the second stable libtheora release.[38][42] This release brought some technical improvements and new features, e.g. the new rate control module and the new two-pass rate control.

The codename for the next version of Theora reference implementation (libtheora) is Ptalarbvorm.[43]

Theora is well established as a video format in open source applications, and is the format used for Wikipedia's video content. However, the proposed adoption of Theora as part of the baseline video support in HTML5 resulted in controversy.[44]


Encoding performance

Evaluations of the VP3[45] and early Theora encoders[46] [47] [48] found their subjective visual quality was inferior to contemporary video codecs. More recently however, Xiph developers have compared the 1.1 Theora encoder to YouTube's H.264 and H.263+ encoders, in response to concerns raised in 2009 about Theora's inferior performance by Chris DiBona, a Google employee.[49] They found the results from Theora to be nearly the same as YouTube's H.264 output, and much better than the H.263+ output.[50][51]

The performance characteristics of the Theora 1.0 reference implementation are dominated mostly by implementation problems inherited from the original VP3 code base.[52] Work leading up to the 1.1 stable release was focused on improving on or eliminating these. A May 2009 review of this work shows a considerable improvement in quality, both subjectively and as measured by PSNR, just by improving the forward DCT and quantisation matrices.[53] A flaw in the version of FFmpeg used in the test initially led to incorrect reports of Theora PSNR surpassing that of H.264. Although not achieving this goal, the improvement in the measured PSNR and the perceived quality is considerable. In any case, the differences in quality, bitrate and file size between a YouTube H.264 video and a transcoded Ogg video file are negligible.[54] Further work on adaptive quantization, as well as overall detailed subjective tuning of the codec, is still to come.

Playback performance

There is an open source VHDL code base for a hardware Theora decoder in development.[55] It began as a 2006 Google Summer of Code project, and it has been developed on both the Nios II and LEON processors.[56] However there are currently no Theora decoder chips in production, and portable media players, smartphones and similar devices with limited computing power rely on such chips to provide efficient playback. However since decoding Theora is less CPU intensive than decoding H.264, the need for hardware acceleration may be somewhat obviated.[citation needed]


Native browser playback

As originally recommended by HTML 5, these browsers support Theora when embedded by the video element:

Browser plugins

Supporting media frameworks

Supporting applications

  • FFmpeg (own implementation)
  • Helix Player
  • Miro Media Player (formerly known as Democracy Player)
  • MPlayer and front-ends
  • Songbird, Totem, Moovida and all GStreamer-based players
  • VLC (native support)
  • xine and all libxine-based players like Kaffeine
  • Dragon player and all Phonon-based players


There are several third-party programs that support encoding through libtheora:

Name Description Operating Systems Supported
Unix-like Mac OS X Windows
A Firefox browser extension implementation of ffmpeg2theora Yes Yes Yes
A command-line program that transcodes video by decoding with FFmpeg and reencoding with libtheora to encode it Yes Yes Yes
Can transcode to single-pass Theora 1.0 and optionally stream it Yes Yes Yes
Transcodes supported media to Vorbis, Theora, or Dirac Yes  ? Yes
"Video DJing" software that can encode to and stream Theora Yes Yes  ?
The video editor supplied with KDE Yes  ?  ?
The video editor supplied with GNOME Yes  ?  ?
Video editing software for Linux. Can edit, encode and stream theora. Yes Yes  ?
A GTK+ and GStreamer based DVD backup utility Yes  ?  ?
Can output to Theora only with the Matroska container Yes Yes Yes
Records the screen to Ogg Theora with optional Vorbis audio Yes  ?  ?

The libtheora library contains the reference implementation of the Theora specification for encoding and decoding. libtheora is still under development by the Xiph.Org Foundation. The library is released under the terms of a BSD-style license.

Also, several media frameworks have support for Theora.

  • The open-source ffdshow audio/video decoder is capable of encoding Theora videos using its Video for Windows (VFW) multi-codec interface within popular AVI editing programs.[71][72][73] It supports both encoding and decoding Theora video streams and uses Theora's alpha 4 libraries. However, many of the more refined features of Theora aren't available to the user in ffdshow's interface.
  • The GStreamer framework has support for parsing raw Theora streams, encoding and decoding raw Theora streams to/from YUV video[74][75]


Name Description Operating Systems Supported
Unix-like Mac OS X Windows
Video editing software for Linux. Can edit, encode and stream theora. Yes Yes  ?
The KDE video editor. Yes  ?  ?
Yes  ?  ?
The GNOME video editor. Yes  ?  ?
CVS versions of the Cinelerra non-linear video editing system support Theora, as of August 2005. Yes Yes  ?
oggz-tools by
Command line programs to examine and edit Ogg files. Yes  ? Yes
Ogg Video Tools by yornstreamnik
Tools to resize, cut, split, join, and others[76] Yes Yes Yes
AVS Video Editor
 ?  ? Yes


The following streaming media servers are capable of streaming Theora video:

Name Description Operating Systems Supported
Unix-like Mac OS X Windows
Yes Yes Yes
Yes  ? Yes
Peer-to-peer streaming. Written in Java Yes  ? Yes
Can stream ogg/theora/vorbis in realtime to a file or fifo. Yes Yes  ?
Streaming media server. Yes  ?  ?

[1] Theora Streaming Studio is a complete client to connect to an Icecast server.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Giles, Ralph (1 June 2004). "Theora I bitstream freeze". theora-dev mailing list. Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d Xiph.Org Foundation (5 August 2009). "Theora Specification" (PDF). Xiph.Org Foundation. Retrieved 25 September 2009 
  3. ^ "Theora 1.1.1 release". Xiph.Org Foundation. Retrieved 6 October 2009. 
  4. ^ "libtheora 1.2.0alpha1 release". Xiph.Org Foundation. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Xiph.Org Foundation. "libtheora Documentation 1.1.0". Xiph.Org Foundation. Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  7. ^ ohloh. "libtheora". ohloh. Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
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External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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