Google+ Hangouts are going HD. Chee Chew, vice president of engineering, says on his Google+ page that the company is currently in the process of rolling out a Hangouts update that will deliver video chats in 720p. The update, for now, will only apply to Hangouts video on the desktop and not mobile apps, Google tells The Verge. A small subset of users have already received the HD jump, but all Hangouts users should see the higher quality desktop video in the next few weeks.

Initially, the update will only affect Hangouts On Air, which are publicly broadcasted. But by the time the update reaches all users, it will include private video chats as well, Google says. In addition to providing higher quality video, the other reason for the switch to HD is to set the stage for a transition to web-native code that no longer requires a plugin. Right now, to fully take advantage of all the video and text chatting features Hangouts has to offer, users have to install a Chrome extension. This, Chew told GigaOm in an interview, is largely due to Hangouts use of the popular H.264 video codec. The HD update will move Hangouts video over to VP8, an open source codec Google and others have been working on since 2010.

A step toward plugin-free Hangouts

In the interview, Chew says that VP8 will be able to deliver HD video to up to 10 people at a time, which is something H.264 couldn't handle. VP8 will also take up less bandwidth than H.264, allowing Hangouts to deliver better looking video at lower bit rates. And VP8 will also allow Google to begin transitioning Hangouts over to WebRTC, an emerging set of video and audio standards that it and Mozilla are advocating. Such a move would enable Google to eventually dump H.264, and its associated royalties, altogether. VP8 has had a bumpy road on its way to becoming a widely accepted standard, however. Google had to settle with MPEG LA on licensing and Nokia has claimed it infringes some of its patents.

While the move to VP8 will take weeks, the switch to WebRTC will take months, GigaOm explains. Until Hangouts is fully running on WebRTC, the plugins will remain and H.264 and VP8 will run along side each other. Users, however, shouldn't notice anything other than sharper looking chats. "It will be cleaner, better video," Chew says in the report.