Hot Button Discussion
The Live Stream Rises
By Michael Goldman
It wasn’t that long ago—early 2016—that a novelty online live video stream traveling through Twitter’s Periscope platform lured approximately 20,000 people to their computers to watch pedestrians splash around in a giant puddle somewhere in England. That was just a bit of good fun, yet although live video streaming has been around for a while, mainly as a niche or supplemental broadcasting alternative, milestones within the medium have been piling up in recent years. As such, it is starting to become apparent that the live-streaming phenomenon may well have the potential to fundamentally change the entire broadcasting industry over time.
For example, in 2012, Google’s YouTube Live instituted “an entirely new system” for offering people live streams direct from the 2012 London Olympics that transitioned that platform from one “that was essentially pass-through, fan-out to a system that was doing full transcoding for ABR [Adaptive Bitrate], and supported a wide range of features, such as DVR, dynamic ad insertion, and high levels of internal redundancy,” explains Nils Krahnstoever, senior engineering manager for YouTube Live. “The Red Bull Stratos Jump [by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner in 2012] was another crucial moment because we realized that viewership could scale to eight-million viewers at the same time. And the embrace of gaming with the launch of YouTube Gaming in 2015 was another pivotal moment. We added support for lower latency streaming with [YouTube Gaming], and have since added many gaming-centric features, such as 1440p, 2160p, and 60 fps support. The launch of YouTube Mobile Live in 2016 was another milestone because it presented additional scaling and latency challenges.”
In 2016, of course, rival Facebook rebranded its already vibrant live streaming program into the Facebook Live application, which many pundits are saying has invigorated the way that various industries can leverage social media using live video streams. Then, election night in November, reports suggest that almost seven million people utilized BuzzFeed’s live streamed election coverage over Twitter.
Krahnstoever explains that recent live streaming technological leaps like those being made by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and others, and by a broad range of hardware and software manufacturers that cater to content creators who use those platforms, have unleashed unprecedented innovation in the live streaming world.
“On the creator side, one of the biggest drivers of the growth of live streaming, in general, are readily available encoding and streaming solutions,” Krahnstoever says. “PC’s have become powerful enough to encode and live stream a game easily; consumer hardware encoders have become affordable and available; graphic cards support encoding and live streaming without any impact to game performance, and phones and game consoles now support all hardware or software encoding and can stream to many live streaming services. YouTube offers open API’s, for instance, with which vendors can easily integrate. Increased broadband bandwidth has also allowed more users to live stream at higher qualities.”
These realities mean, according to industry watchers, that the artistic value and business usefulness of live streaming are expanding exponentially. They suggest that live streaming is now in the process of achieving critical mass, having value for potentially every kind of industry, in addition to traditional entertainment, news, and sports broadcasting applications.
“We have customers at virtually every level of video production, ranging from education to houses of worship all the way up to large-scale corporate streaming of live events. We also have some professional, traditional broadcasters looking to get content out on social media or OTT distribution channels, or onto just standard website streaming,” points out Will Waters, director of product marketing for integrated video production systems company, NewTek.
That company now strategically builds IP-based functionality into turnkey video production products. Starting with the debut of its multi-camera TriCaster video production system in 2005, and more recently, its partnership with streaming solutions vendor Wowza in developing a realtime video encoding and live-streaming engine called MediaDS, NewTek has been adding streaming encoders and other related functionality into its products for years. As a result, production tools for live video streaming are now a major part of the company’s business.
NewTek isn’t the only manufacturer exploring this space. Waters emphasizes that more developments like this from various companies will no doubt be on display this month at NAB 2017, where live streaming will be a major theme. Quite simply, he suggests, there is a high demand for live streaming product today, and so, the technology to make that product more readily available is proliferating.
“The Internet’s growth and ability to transmit information without the barriers that were traditionally there in the past has created new spaces and new ways for content creators to get their stories out, and has also changed the way viewers are watching content, and their habits,” Waters says. “Therefore, because we do a lot of professional video manufacturing in software, we have been able to combine software encoding into all our products, to allow the ability for niche content creation so that content producers can broaden their content offerings, and then get the eyeballs, which is what they ultimately need. Streaming allows them to connect directly with their viewers wherever they happen to be—that’s the trend.”
In other words, he emphasizes, the maturation of live streaming is a result not only of general technological innovation, but also from the freedom now being offered to content producers—if they want to stream live, there is now a model and method for doing so, regardless of the size of their network or budget, or the audience they are targeting. These are important factors, he says, because not every business entity that needs to stream live video to an audience has the budget or logistical ability to outsource the task to third-party vendors, nor should they have to with today’s wider range of options.
“If you are a corporation and want to do internal streaming, one of the things you need to figure out is, do I build up a streaming server? What particular pieces and parts do I need? How many viewers are there? You could go to a service like UStream, for instance, but if you already have a network within your corporation, and are sending out a stream to a service provider, then have to pull that stream back in, that is a lot of bandwidth to pay for to go in and out of your organization,” he says. “Or, you can utilize your network to do that distribution, and that is where the kinds of tools [companies like NewTek] are building become necessary. They can sit inside your firewall and deliver to all your employees and scale as needed, giving you total control over the stream and delivery. If you are a school or educational district, you might need to put the content out, but not for a high revenue reason. Now we have the ability to give them an alternative way to get that live content streaming to [targeted viewers].”
This trend is evolving so rapidly that the ease of building a live stream by various means has ballooned just in recent months. In March, for example, Twitter announced a new API that permits content producers to plug cameras and other external devices directly into Periscope Live. That is just one example of the action happening across the landscape.
But there is another key factor in this paradigm shift—the fact that it is essentially “putting the viewer in control in a way they have never been before in broadcasting,” Waters adds. “[Viewers] want the content, they can select what interests them, they don’t want to wait for a particular linear schedule, and they usually don’t want to pay much for it.” Now that this genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, he and many others suggest the trend will only continue proliferating to the point where the nature of broadcasting itself—the how, where, and when viewers are offered, receive, access, and watch live content—will likely never be the same.
Specialized live entertainment or learning experiences can be streamed direct to viewers “in an entirely new, more intimate, and spontaneous way,” says Kurt Wilms, product lead at YouTube Live. YouTube Live, for example, recently served as the portal for fans of the band Linkin Park to watch the group rehearse live, and for artist Cantinho dos Arteiros to teach anyone interested how to draw cartoon characters. Similarly, some users of NewTek’s technology with targeted audiences include a company that live-streams 10-12 hours of minor league tennis and another small sports production company that streams remote broadcasts of events like swim meets, which eventually grew successful enough to be purchased by broadcast network Raycom.
Those applications utilize NewTek’s NDI Network Device Interface, which essentially is a software-based, royalty-free standard that permits productions to ingest content from multiple sources seamlessly without relying on video routers. “The idea is to utilize the IP network to be able to move video in the live production arena,” Waters says, clarifying that the focus revolves around the notion of realtime content creation on the front end using off-shelf, consumer networking gear. “We view it as an assistive technology to [the developing SMPTE 2110 set of standards for specifying IP streams for use in live production, based on VSF Technical Recommendations TR-03 and TR-04 for moving video around a network. After all, not everyone is going to have a 10 gigabyte Ethernet network available in all the facilities in which they move video around,” he adds.
In any case, the industry’s drive to permit both the front end, live content creation, and the back end, live streaming, to be more ubiquitous and easier to utilize, as platforms like YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Periscope, and others are now illustrating, is succeeding at an incredible pace. Krahnstoever suggests that since the notion is that anyone, in theory, could now be a live broadcaster with these platforms and tools available, there is no sense in limiting formats or standards for ingesting video on the front end. However, on the back end, powerful tools are needed for transforming those signals for steady and seamless distribution down the pipe.
“We support resolutions from 144p to 2160p at 30 fps and 60 fps,” Krahnstoever says. “We produce H.264 video, of course, but for some select streams, we also produce VP9 output. On the ingestion side, we accept H.264 [AAC, MP3], VP8, and VP9 [OPUS audio] ingestions.
“Our platform transcodes all streams sent to us from users, and we produce output streams at all the standard YouTube output resolutions [144p, 240p, 360p, 480p, 720p, 1080p, 1440p, 2160p], up to the resolution of what the user sent. We transmux the stream to M2TS for HLS on iOS and MP4 for DASH streaming on Web and Android and, as mentioned, we now also produce VP9 outputs for high-resolution streams. The fact that we transcode all incoming streams ensures a high degree of compatibility with user devices. We even transcode the highest resolution output streams. This allows us to produce high-quality live streams and video on demand from the high bit rate source, while still being able to deliver the highest source resolution output at bit rates that work for most viewers.”
Industry watchers say a host of exciting developments are going on that will only improve and increase options for how live streams are ingested and then delivered to consumers. Some of these approaches include interactive components for the recipient of the stream, whereby the viewer can potentially make changes to the stream’s impact on them and have different experiences depending on what selections he or she makes.
NewTek’s Waters says such applications are similar to “going to a live event in person, like a football game, and depending on where you sit in the stadium, you could end up having a different experience. You can bring that out now through the video with the future of live streaming.”
But what about image quality—an issue of crucial importance traditionally for any broadcaster? With all of the image display advancements currently roiling the industry—from high dynamic range to greater frame rates to wider color gamut and higher resolution generally—are live stream viewers expecting that same level of image quality as they might experience in a cinema or home theater situation?
As noted, 4K resolution, higher frame rates, and other image enhancements are already available, encodable, and transmittable, depending on a viewer’s bandwidth and viewing device. “We’re always working hard to push the boundaries of online video,” Wilms adds. “That’s what the 360-degree, 4K live streaming presentation, for free, at scale, was about.”
But that is not to say plenty of challenges do not still exist. Indeed, despite the medium’s breakout success in the last couple of years, it is, after all, a nascent medium. “From a technical perspective, the largest problem to the success of a live stream remains the ingestion bandwidth and the overall stability and quality of the live stream,” Krahnstoever states. “Users need to make sure their encoders can keep up with the resolution and frame rates, that they have sufficient bandwidth, and careful testing is essential.”
But at the end of the day, live streaming may end up being a different kind of broadcast experience for another important reason—image clarity may not be the most crucial factor to viewers who are, after all, tuning in for some communal connection to experience something immediately.
“For live streaming, being first, being fast when we talk about getting into an environment and driving the subject you came there for—the user is coming for the conversation in a sense,” Waters suggests. “It may sound esoteric to say this, but what the streaming world allows for is a sense of community. Streams are happening ‘right now,’ and I’m joining to be an observer of some sort. If you look at what is taking place in the streaming world, we can see certain streams are taking root and building names for themselves or somehow including a community aspect to them. That said, quality is of course always important and will continue to be more important because in this environment where [everyone is doing it], you will have to do something to raise yourself above the noise. At the end of the day, like [traditional broadcasting], there is competition for viewers, before you lose them as they become distracted by other things. So you have to keep quality as high as you can. The difference is, you don’t have to break the bank to have the largest number of whatever features a vendor might provide.”
NAB and the Future of Cinema
SMPTE will have a prominent presence once again at the NAB 2017 show this month in Las Vegas. The two organizations will jointly produce a significant event during the show—“The Future of Cinema Conference: the Intersection of Technology Art & Commerce in Cinema,” 22-23 April. The conference will include expert presentations on a broad range of topics related to the future of cinema, and feature a keynote address by Robert Legato, ASC. Legato earned an Academy Award this year for his work supervising visual effects on Jungle Book and has long been on the cutting edge of new cinematic techniques. He will give a talk titled “Jungle Book, Photorealism, and the Bright Future of Realism” on the second day of the conference, and will discuss the blurring of lines in modern cinema between real-world photography, visual effects, and other disciplines. Meanwhile, here is a Creative Planet Network preview of this year’s NAB show and some of the technology and trends you might expect to encounter. And you can register for the Future of Cinema Conference here.
Broadcast Engineering Fused with IT
Speaking of NAB, during the convention, a subtle, but significant ongoing shift in the broadcasting world will be acknowledged, at least to those who attend what was formally called the Broadcast Engineering Conference (BEC). As a recent TV Technology column points out, that conference has been renamed this year to reflect the reality that IT technology and techniques have essentially become fused into the world of broadcast engineering. The conference, beginning in 2017, will be known as the “Broadcast Engineering and Information Technology Conference” (BEITC), and it will feature a host of IT-themed topics along the way. As quoted in the TV Technology article, Lynn D. Claudy, senior VP of technology for NAB, says the name change just reflects “what has been happening to the job description of the broadcast engineer for the past several years.”