The Rise of Adaptive Streaming Optimization

Online and Over-the-Top (OTT) video viewership is increasing at a tremendous rate. At the same time, the tolerance for poor quality of experience is shrinking to unperceivable levels. This combination of factors is going to drive significant optimization in adaptive streaming technology in the coming months and years.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen traditional UDP style streaming technologies fade away in exchange for http based adaptive streaming formats like MPEG DASH, HLS, HDS, and Smooth. This shift provides a number of benefits. By using short but aligned video segments of varying quality levels , adaptive video is able to leverage the strengths Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) already have in their caching and edge infrastructure to deliver smooth video over the Internet.

Let’s touch briefly on how this works. In adaptive streaming, performance is regulated through heuristics built into the video Adaptive Streamingplayer. The player reads a stream manifest, which tells it a bit about the audio and video, the available quality levels, and where to find the content. In fact, the video in an adaptive stream is technically not really a stream at all! It’s actually comprised of small chunks of downloadable video segments (2 to 10 seconds in length in most cases) available in several different bitrates. The player starts by downloading and playing back the lowest quality segments, and then analyzes how well it is keeping up. If it’s doing great, it starts requesting higher quality levels, taking a moment at each step to assess performance. This is why the videos you watch so often look fuzzy for the first few seconds. This fuzziness is basically your video player starting small until it is satisfied with how well it is performing. It does this until it reaches the highest quality stream it can handle. If the network encounters congestion, it starts going back down the quality stack. Basically, the player is analyzing its own performance throughout the viewing process, and making decisions on which quality level to download based on that analysis.

This process of negotiating quality based on playback heuristics generally does a good job managing performance, but there are limits to this method’s effectiveness. What happens when the viewers bandwidth, or their system’s ability to playback the content, is not the source of the problems?

To explore this topic, it might be best to look at scenarios that can negatively affect performance. One that I’m very familiar with from my work in the enterprise is related to network capacity. Many enterprises have closed internal networks architected with just enough headroom to support day-to-day business activities like email, document sharing, conference calls, and so on. Video, on the other hand, is a bandwidth hog that quickly drives a network to congestion (an IT executive I once worked with referred to video as the cholesterol of the network). When networks get congested, playback quality suffers for all. To solve for this problem, a handful of companies have come to the table with Software Defined Networking (SDN) solutions based on peer-to-peer delivery. Hive Technologies, Streamroot, and Kollective are a few of the companies leading with these types of approaches.

In the typical scenario of limited network capacity, performance problems are produced by network bottlenecks: areas of the network where there’s just Bottlenecktoo much data trying to traverse at the same time. These bottlenecks are usually the result of too many simultaneous viewers pulling streams from the server or CDN, and often occur during live webcasts where large audiences are all viewing at the same time. Even though all viewers are watching the same program, they must all go back to the source to obtain their own stream segments. Contrarily, in peer-2-peer scenarios, intelligence built into the delivery solution seamlessly sends viewers to other nearby viewers to obtain streams. This limits the number of viewers going all the way back to the source for streams, thereby eliminating the bottlenecks in the network.

But what if the problem isn’t the network, rather, it’s stemming from an issue with a particular CDN or CDN edge server? This is one of the challenges a company called DLVR is aiming to solve with a trademarked approach they call “Responsive Manifests“. By doing real time analysis on many different variables (device, network, location, video characteristics, CDN performance, etc.), the platform creates a unique manifest for each viewer in real time, optimized to provide each individual with the best performance possible. Remember, in traditional adaptive streaming, the player obtains the manifest (the blueprint for the stream), and uses it to determine how to playback the content. In this scenario, the manifest is being continually rewritten in response to delivery performance. Is a CDN edge server having a moment of trouble? No problem, just re-write the manifest to send the player to a different edge server (or a different CDN altogether) until the problems resolve.

Optimization isn’t only focused on quality of experience. There is plenty of attention centered on efficiency and cost of delivery as well. For example, Telestream recentlyTelestream ABR Optimize announced adaptive bit rate optimization capabilities in their Vantage media processing product. It aims to determine where quality improvements actually fail to be perceptible, and then just writes those video segments out of the manifest. For example, if a video is encoded at a top bandwidth of 8 megabits, but a particular scene is very simple and the 8 megabit chunks offer no perceivable benefit over the 1.5 megabit chunks, it will just rewrite the manifest to make the 1.5 megabit chunk the highest available quality for as long as that is the case. This means audiences won’t be downloading high bitrate chunks when the lower bitrate media can do the same job, thereby greatly reducing CDN data costs (click here to see a demo). Netflix, being one of the largest providers of OTT video, also continually pushes the boundaries in optimizing adaptive video delivery. From encoding optimization, to quality analysis, to using predictive analytics to detect problems, Netflix is amazingly transparent in their efforts and their tech blog should be on every streaming enthusiasts reading list.

In this post, I’ve aimed to provide just a few examples of solutions already in market focused on adaptive streaming optimization. Clearly, for every solution that has made it to market, there are countless more working their way through labs. This is not surprising because, as amazing as the technology is, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Search for “Adaptive Streaming Optimization’ and you’ll find no shortage of research papers exploring everything from improving adaptive streaming performance over wireless networks to improving the efficiency of player heuristics. It all points to the fact that the foundation of adaptive streaming is solid and here to stay, but the era of adaptive streaming optimization has only just begun.

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Streaming Large Events with Azure Media Services

In late April, Microsoft Production Studios leveraged Azure Media Services to webcast the Microsoft Build Keynotes. The following week, we used the same configuration for the delivery of the Microsoft Ignite keynotes. Combined, the events served live, HD quality streams to many hundreds of thousands of unique viewers. The webcast performed very well and was accessible on a broad range of platforms, devices and browsers. Recently, I shared a brief peek into how the team at Microsoft Production Studios delivered the events and some insights gained along the way.  Click here to read the article on the Production Studios Blog.

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Audience Participation in TV is About to Erupt

In the very near future, audience participation in television programming is going to skyrocket.  There are a handful of reasons as to why this is the case.  To unpack this, let’s take a quick look at the past and present of radio programming.

Barry Gray
Barry Gray – The Father of Talk Radio.

Talk radio is one of the most popular programming formats there is today, second only to country music.  Furthermore, a significant portion of talk radio is comprised of audience participation programming.  While there were early experiments with the audience participation format in the 30’s and 40’s, the genre didn’t really take off until the late 40’s and early 50’s.  This emergence corresponds to the timeframe shortly after WWII when most of America could finally claim to have a telephone in their home.  AT&T’s release of the model-500 telephone in 1949 spurred the rapid adoption of telephones in ordinary households, and by the mid-50’s, calling a radio program and participating “on-air” was no longer a challenging endeavor.

Television has not had the same benefit as radio when it comes to audience participation.  The equipment, connectivity, and skills required in a medium dependent on video made it impossible for television to enable the levels of audience interaction enjoyed by radio.  Now, due to the proliferation of broadband, the commoditization of video capture technology, and the massive global adoption of Skype, Phone Skypeaudience participation in television is finally going to have its day.

Conservative estimates suggest the Skype network now boasts over 600 million accounts.  There have been well over 3 billion skype clients downloaded to date.  In 2013, Skype usage reached over 50 million concurrent users and the number has been continuing to grow.  In 2014, Skype accounted for 40% of international calls.  By many measures, Skype communication (which includes video and audio) is becoming as common place as the telephone was in the second half of the 20th century.  It is now very easy for the typical audience member to place a video call with HD quality, and in many cases, they can do it from the smart phone they already carry in their pocket.

Talkshow HostAnd it’s not just getting easier for the audience.  Skype is beginning to integrate with broadcast equipment to make it very easy for content producers to include Skype feeds in their programs.  Skype TX is a version of Skype designed for broadcasters, and Microsoft has been integrating it with popular broadcast solutions provided by NewTek, Quicklink, and Riedel.  As a result, we are now starting to see Skype being used more regularly in television broadcasts.  Ellen, Oprah, and Jimmy Kimmel are a few programs that are deepening audience engagement in this manner and, at the 2014 Xgames on ESPN, Skype enabled fans to communicate directly with athletes.   I have no doubt we will see rapid adoption of audience participation in television as broadcasters continue to grow comfortable with the tool sets.

Finally, it’s also important to recognize the changing expectations of television audiences. The latest generation of media consumers have never known a time when media was anything less than a two way exchange.  Social Media has set the baseline that consumer relationships with programs and brands should be a two way street.  Additionally, second screen use while watching television is at an all time high.  Over 56% of Americans engage in a second digital activity while watching television, a behavior known as “screen-stacking.”  These second screens make it very easy to place Skype calls, and as more viewers get Internet connected consoles and smart televisions, it will become even easier to dial into shows from the comfort of one’s living room.  Very soon, programs like American Idol or America’s Got Talent just might include people auditioning from the comfort of their own homes.

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No More Focus on the Family

The concept of family is dead… well, at least when it comes to measuring the media viewing behaviors of households.  It served a useful purpose in the days when homes had a single television and IAB Studyfamilies gathered together during Primetime viewing hours,  but in this era of individualized programming and connected devices, there is no more value in family.   As this IAB survey shows, audiences are viewing media content on many different devices these days, not just traditional televisions. This means viewers are no longer confined to the “household” when watching media content.  Furthermore, a recent study by Conviva, a leading online media measurement and analytics company, shows that the number of homes consuming multiple content streams during primetime hours increased by 28% between 2012 and 2013.  In other words, when someone in the house is watching a show on television, it’s ever more likely that others

Conviva 2014 Viewer Experience Report
Conviva 2014 Viewer Experience Report

are watching programming of their own choosing on other devices within that same household. 

Of course, this presents challenges and opportunities relative to traditional broadcast measurement practices.  What becomes of the Neilson family when the family has died off and the walls of the household have crumbled?  It appears Nielson is looking to the same place everybody else looks when it’s time to celebrate individuality: Facebook.  The two companies recently announced a program  that will kick off this Fall to measure viewing behavior through your Facebook account.  Whether or not it’s appropriate to use a social network to measure unrelated consumer behavior is a conversation for another day, but both companies claim their methodologies prioritize anonymity and will only focus on measurement (at least out of the gate).  So, congratulations, you are no longer standing in the shadow of your family – you are an individual.  On the other hand, when it comes to viewing behavior and advertising dollars, you are not just an individual, you are now also a person of interest.

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Video in the Sales & Marketing Funnel

Sales and Marketing FunnelI’ll be the first to admit that the world doesn’t need another sales and marketing funnel, and I’m confident you’ll find nothing new or surprising about the one included here. In fact, some might argue that the funnel should now be a circle or a cloud or some such modernized shape. Having said that, a funnel works just fine in the context of this post because my focus is not on the funnel itself, but on video marketer behavior within its various stages.
Very often I see marketers and webcasters capturing and celebrating the same sets of metrics (views, shares, likes, completions) regardless of where that content lives in the funnel. In reality, the goals are unique in each stage and should, therefore, drive very different measurement and success criteria. Furthermore, one also shouldn’t overlook the fact that audiences have a different relationship with (and expectation of) marketers depending on where they sit in the funnel. In short, when it comes to designing experiences and success metrics, video marketing is not one-size-fits-all.
By way of example, I once managed a webcast that aimed to capture an audience via paid banner advertisements on popular websites throughout the course of the live broadcast. The first part of the strategy worked. The banners captured people’s attention and they clicked through to the webcast. Unfortunately, the business owner couldn’t justify delivering the webcast without capturing attendance through a short registration process. In the prospect or sales generating stage, a registration page is acceptable and expected (and usually provided ahead of time). However, in the awareness generating stage (where this event clearly resided given the need for banner advertisements), the registration component negated the entire campaign. Potential audiences were lured to the content, and then shown a locked door they could only open by providing information about themselves. They had yet to receive any value from the content, but they were already being stopped and asked to pay a cover charge consisting of their time and personal data.
The strategy was doomed to fail.  Instead of taking this route, they might have considered deploying the same demand generation strategy, while foregoing registration in exchange for other less demanding and more rewarding interactions. After all, they had already done the hard part of getting the audience to the front door… they just made the door too difficult to open.
In an attempt to help people break out of this one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to video usage, I created the simple table below. It aims to provide some ideas about how to think about the content experience and success metrics in the various stages of the funnel. It’s based on years of experience producing media content and witnessing audience behavior. Still, the last thing I want to do is replace the existing one-size-fits-all approach with a different one. There is variation in what people are trying to accomplish with media, even in similar stages of the funnel. Moreover, audiences and expectations can differ from industry to industry. This is a guide, hopefully a very helpful guide, but it’s not gospel.  If it helps provide a little clarity of purpose – it will have done it’s job.  As usual, I welcome and encourage feedback.Video in the Sales and Marketing FunnelUpdate: Since publishing this, I was tipped to a good resource for digging deeper into the “Barriers to Consumption” concept. The sales funnel slide and the Content Marketing Manifesto by kunocreative are great resources for diving deeper into that topic.

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Media Content Providers: The New ISP Watchdogs

ISP WatchDogAs video consumption on the Internet continues to surge, bandwidth bottlenecks become more prevalent as well. Even though video content providers like YouTube and Netflix have loads of bandwidth at the head end, they are almost powerless when it comes to controlling the throughput of the pipes that connect them to the end users… Almost.
One way major providers have sought to combat this problem is to make content caching servers (edges essentially) available for deployment directly within the networks of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Netflix offers their Open Connect solution to allow ISPs to source popular content from directly within their networks. YouTube deploys similar solutions, and also offers an open peering policy that essentially provides a low cost way for ISPs to plumb directly into YouTube’s content network.
While these are great options for improving video delivery, they are also voluntary options from the ISP perspective. Likewise, if the ISPs voluntarily agree to leverage one of these options, they might be cutting into a potential revenue stream – as demonstrated by the recent agreement between Netflix and Comcast. In this instance, Netflix set the dangerous precedent of paying Comcast for improved access to their mutual customers. This may incentivize ISPs to avoid voluntary delivery improvement configurations with major providers in favor of holding the end-users hostage for more lucrative terms. Basically, the ISPs have the option of billing their users for access to content from content providers while also charging the content providers for quality access to their subscribers. Not a bad deal. I should note, however, that the ISPs have an arguably valid point of view as well. Should they be expected to create special configurations in support of any emerging content provider at no additional cost? Regardless of which position one takes, the situation creates an interesting dilemma for the content providers, and content providers are beginning to tackle the problem through consumer education.
Netflix has had an ISP speed index for some time now. The index rates ISPs based on their ability to deliver quality media streams to customers. It’s Netflix’s way to celebrate those that perform well and publicly shame those that perform poorly. Ideally, a consumer looking to subscribe to the Internet for over-the-top (OTT) content would check the index before signing on the bottom line with their ISP. At a minimum, it allows consumers to see how their providers perform relative to others so that they can put pressure on their ISP to improve.
Now, YouTube is getting into this game with the launch of their new Video Quality Report. It seeks to teach users about how video delivery works, rate their ISP, and YouTube Speed Testcompare them to other local providers. Of the two, I feel YouTube does a better job of educating the average user as to how video moves through the Internet and why their ISP performance matters, but the intended outcomes are the same: informed consumers will drive better behavior by the ISPs they rely on.
Today, ISP advertising and marketing promotes bandwidth and speed capabilities very generically. With mounting pressure from content providers, market differentiation in this space may start to stem from these types of provider specific metrics. Overall bandwidth claims may start to have less meaning for consumers than the end-to-end performance ratings assigned by the content providers those consumers value most.

Update: Related InfoDan Rayburn (of recently posted an article about ISP specific messages being delivered by Netflix to alert viewers when the ISP’s bandwidth is congested.  Netflix recently announced that this practice is a test that will conclude on June 16th.

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4k Media: Arriving Fast and Slow

Browsing through the television or mobile devices sections of a big box store today might give you the impression that 4k has landed.  While it has in some respects, there are many more pieces to the 4k puzzle that are years away from being assembled into place. 

First of all, what is 4k?  Simply put, 4k, formally known as Ultra High Definition (UHD), is a screen resolution comprised of roughly 4000 horizontals pixels (4096×2160 for digital cinema and 3840×2160 for television).  It’s essentially 4 times the resolution of 1920×1080 HD, which represents the high end of HD resolutions.  Oddly enough, all of the frame rates that came before it were known by their vertical resolutions (480, 720, 1080).  The UHD generation is known by their horizontal resolutions, which can make it more challenging to keep straight.  In addition to the frame size, there are also improvements in color depth, gamut, and other areas that improve the viewing experience.UHD Resolution

In an age where more is better, 4k seems like it should explode onto the scene.  However, there are quite a few reasons we won’t see it take hold overnight.  First of all, it’s big, really big.   It’s essentially four times the size of content broadcasters are making and delivering today.   This means that most of the existing infrastructure in broadcast facilities will have to be upgraded or replaced.  Infrastructure that can be retained will have a reduced capacity by a factor of four.  Given that many broadcasters feel they just completed the transition from Standard Definition to High Definition, most will be unable to jump quickly into UHD.  Some will adopt it in stages, starting with cameras and edit systems, because there are many advantages to beginning to create a 4k asset library – but that content will be scaled down to HD resolutions for broadcast.

So traditional broadcasters may not jump into the fray right away, but what about Over the Top (OTT) providers like Netflix.  After all, Netflix is already delivering their hit original series, House of Cards, in 4k resolutions, right? While this is true, it’s likely the number of people capable of viewing the series in 4k numbers only in the hundreds as of this writing.  There are a few reasons for this.  First of all, as previously mentioned, the 4k footprint is big.  Using standard compression formats in use today (typically h.264 for video), the 4k resolutions of a video stream could be upwards of 25mbps or more, which can be 2 to 3 times the bitrate that is delivered at the high end today.  This would choke most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and ensure that very few viewers could tune into that resolution.  This doesn’t even take into account the delivery costs inherent in pushing all that data around.  For this reason, Netflix has wisely chosen to encode and deliver content using h.265, a more efficient compression spec that can decrease the required bandwidth by 30 to 50% compared to h.264.  Therefore, to watch House of Cards in 4k, you need a television with 4k resolution capable of decoding h.265 and running the Netflix application natively.  The problem is, there are few televisions on the market that are able to do this.

I should note, there are others trying to hack at this issue from different angles.  For example, Beamr is a technology that claims to filter media in a way that allows 4k content to be encoded in h.264 at bandwidths equivalent to content encoded in h.265 while maintaining the same perceived level of quality.  They claim to do this by filtering out information that is not able to be perceived by human vision during the encoding process.  It has promise, but this type of approach is still on the fringe and it remains to be seen if it will be implemented broadly or if the industry will skip stop gap measures such as this in favor of pushing forward h.265.  If solutions of this nature get adopted in the near term, it may help speed up 4k’s arrival.

One might also ask, what about my Xbox, PS4 or Roku device, can’t I view 4k on these devices?  Again, we run into an obstacle.  Currently, most shipping consoles and set top boxes have HDMI 1.4 ports – which are technically capable of delivering 4k resolutions, but don’t have the bandwidth to support high frame rates. To achieve the true promise of 4k, the console and the connected television and/or receiver will all need to support HDMI 2.0.  To my knowledge, it has not yet been announced if the existing game consoles and set top boxes will be firmware upgradable to HDMI 2.0.  On the other hand, televisions are starting to ship with HDMI 2.0 today.  There is a great CNET article by Geoffrey Morrison that captures a snapshot of where the major manufacturers sit with HDMI 2.0 support.  Regardless, Netflix is limiting their 4k content to UHD televisions with the built-in Netflix app for now.

So let’s assume we start adopting UHD televisions and the consoles and set-top boxes get upgraded to support HDMI 2.0 and h.265 decoding, or that the industry chooses to embrace a technology like Beamr’s to make encoding more efficient… now can we watch our 4k OTT content?  We’ll be much closer, but the fact remains that even at the bandwidths of more advanced h.265 encoding, 4k is a big data hog.  When adoption starts to reach a tipping point, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and ISPs will feel the congestion on their networks.

CDNs are already exploring ways to be more efficient in delivering content to homes.  According to Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai (one of the world’s largest CDNs), while speaking in CNET’s For the Record Podcast, the company has been exploring many techniques for tackling this problem including broader use of Multicast (where applicable), peer to peer and client assisted delivery and more.  In fact, the company already has a client product called NetSession that aims to create download efficiencies. Netflix has sought to improve the situation on their own behalf as well.  Today, Netflix offers ISPs a cache server product called “Open Connect” that essentially allows the ISPs to put a Netflix cache server inside their own network infrastructure.  This makes it so end users don’t have to source media content all the way back to Netflix, rather, they can get Neflix Speed Indexit from within the walls of the ISP, where bandwidth is less constrained.  Netflix even rates how well different ISPs do delivering media, likely in an effort to publicly shame ISPs into incorporating these cache servers to improve overall performance and lower the cost of Netflix content delivery.  While this approach is good for Netflix and for Netflix customers, it’s really not scalable to build unique caching methodologies for every content provider.  I believe CDNs, like Akamai, will start to build similar solutions into ISPs and potentially even incorporate technology into televisions, devices, and set top boxes to aid in end-to-end delivery.  By going this route, most or all content providers will be served, rather than just a few top players like Netflix.  Just as we see Dolby, DTS and other monikers on your electronics today, perhaps we will someday see references to delivery brands to provide consumers with confidence that they will spend less time in buffering states. Is it time for Akamai Inside?

In addition to all of the above mentioned obstacles that will hamper rapid 4k adoption, you also can’t overlook the industry’s temptation to take shortcuts in the interim.  One such shortcut will come in the form of Dolby Vision. With Dolby Vision, Dolby intends to enhance the richness of video in our media experiences in the same way it did with audio.  Dolby vision increases brightness levels by 40 times over conventional television, it expands the color depth, and enhances contrast in ways that create a dramatic perceptual difference in the image quality.  They are strong advocates of the notion that better pixels are better than more pixels.  In the short term, content creators and broadcasters may choose to make their content richer by leveraging Dolby Vision rather than trying to Visual Acuityjump straight into higher resolutions. Research in human visual acuity (above) suggests that this is a smart strategy because improved color volume and dynamic range is shown to have a higher impact on how we perceive the quality of the image relative to resolution improvements.  In fact, depending on the size of the display and the distance at which the viewer is sitting, the argument could be made that a jump in pixel count may make no perceptible difference for many viewers (Click here for a great resource on resolution, display size, and viewing distance.  Also the source of the graphic to the left).

All of this suggests that we are a few years away from 4k media consumption being the norm for a significant portion of media audiences, but it will eventually emerge.  Ironically, one of the areas we may see 4k most prevalent in the near term will be in the user generated space.  Tablets and phones are quickly beginning to support 4k photography and video recording.  That type of content is often created and viewed locally, bypassing many of the issues presented above.  When it’s not, it’s usually short in form and relevant only to small audiences, thereby making it a fairly light load on network resources. This means many people may find themselves viewing their home videos and YouTube channels in 4k while they wait for the broadcasters and delivery systems to catch up.

How long do you think it will take for mainstream adoption of 4k media consumption?  Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

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Is Spritzing the Future of Reading?

Technology makes almost anything we do subject to reinvention, and a company called Spritz is demonstrating this by reinventing something we’ve done the same way for centuries – how we read.   SpritzIn short, Spritz posits that our eye movement dramatically slows down the speed at which we read.  Spritz research suggests that approximately 20% of our time reading is spent processing the content, while the other 80% of that time is spent moving our eyes from word to word. Their technology removes the hefty tax incurred through eye movement by streaming words to the screen in a way that makes typical eye movement unnecessary.  Examples on their website had me reading 500 words per minute very comfortably.
More and more, our reading is done on screens, not on paper.  Spritz’s approach is reading designed from the ground up for the age we live in, and the Spritz technology reminds us that there is still ample opportunity to improve our efficiencies in many areas we take for granted.  Moreover, this approach helps overcome new problems that are just now emerging, like how to present information in an age of wearable technologies, where Spritz Watchscreen real estate is extremely limited.  Streaming words to your phone, watch, or eyewear may prove to be a very efficient way to present information in mobile scenarios.  It may even be a more comfortable way to deliver captions for online video – since it can feel awkward reading long strings or multiple rows of text within video experiences today.
Finally, What impact might this have for traditional advertising and marketing efforts?      Mobile environments are already an awful place for delivering typical web display banners, but nevertheless, display ads are dependent on the meandering eye of the end user.  They are designed to distract, and exploit the viewer’s drifting attention and wandering eyes, thereby being dependent on the very behavior that Spritz intends to eliminate.  On the other hand, it creates yet another opportunity to blipvertreinvent how we accomplish our marketing goals from the ground up.  I can’t help but think this brings us one step closer to Blipverts, first coined in the eighties television show, Max Headroom, where 30 second television commercials are compressed into 3 second streams of sounds and images.  In the series, Blipverts had a side effect of causing some viewers to explode… but I have a much more positive outlook for Spritz’s implementation.

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I’m Glad I Couldn’t Pley with Legos

Pley_LogoI love it when a new business comes along and disrupts and/or supplements the incumbents. When Netflix showed up on the scene and kicked Blockbuster to the curb, I was impressed by their valuable new spin on an old business model. Recently, though, I’ve been hearing about a new company called Pley, which is frequently being called the Netflix of Legos. Pley’s model is similar to the DVD rent-by-mail service invented by Netflix, except they are doing it with Lego toys. For a reasonable monthly rental fee, a customer can have a designated number of Lego playsets in their possession at any given time (quantity dependent on subscription plan). When a set is returned to Pley, the next set on the list is shipped out to the subscriber.

I think I would have loved this as a kid. Having said that, I also would have loved eating ice cream for dinner every night. Looking back from an adult perspective, I am grateful my parents had me eat balanced, healthy meals instead of ice cream, and I’m very grateful this Lego rental service didn’t exist.

Now is the time in this post when I must confess to you I don’t have kids. If you want a review of Pley’s offering, there are better sites then this one to use as a resource. You might try this review, or this one, or even this one. Instead, I’m coming from the perspective of an adult, who without knowing it at the time, derived a lot of benefit from a childhood spent alongside my giant Lego bag.

Growing up in a time without computers or cell phones, playing with Legos was the prominant way I spent idol indoor time. I typically asked for Lego sets for Birthdays and Christmas (this is when I usually got the bigger sets like the space stations, space ships, castles, and semi-trucks), and I was sometimes just the lucky benefactor of a set for no particular reason (these were usually the small sets like a moon rover or a race car). I’d get excited, tear open the box, follow the instructions step-by-step, and then spend the next day or two playing with and showing off my awesome creation. There is no doubt I would have excitedly done this every time a Pley Lego shipment showed up in the mail.

But I expect that this is where the value of the Pley service ends. In the Pley model, when you’re done building and playing, you put the pieces back in the mail and wait for the next set to arrive. Contrarily, in my youth, I deconstructed the model and deposited the pieces into the giant Lego bag (a bag I believe my Mom constructed by putting metal eyelets around the perimeter of a large circular sheet of denim and running twine through it to act as a draw string). Thus, the Legos were returned to my own personal “warehouse” to be used as raw materials for my next creation. Only the next creation was not like the ones that came before it. The next creation did not come with instructions and it was not limited to the pieces that came in a single set. The next creations were born from my own mind. They were ideas I had and wanted to try to build or they were things I saw in the real world or on television that I wanted to mimic.

Sometimes I started off just putting pieces together and then, hours later, I’d have an object sitting in front of me that didn’t exist in my mind or in the real world until that very moment. As more sets were added to the bag, the number of ways to architect things grew exponentially. I remember making the space battleship from Starblazers countless times and I lego_reporternever made it the same way twice. Early versions were a patchwork of colors with clunky features and an indent to serve as the ship’s “wave motion gun.” Later versions boasted a steel gray top side and a deep red underside, with smooth curves and rotating gun turrets that could aim up and down. In the time when I was fond of the television mini-series “V”, I molded clay around the yellow Lego people heads and sculpted them into little lizard faces. If I wanted things in the real world I couldn’t afford, I made them out of Legos. When I wanted to be a news reporter, I built a Lego camera, microphone and tape recorder (no, they didn’t actually work). When I started to earn an allowance, I built a Lego money vault (it had a working door and locking mechanism, but suffered the key security flaw of being easily deconstructed).

Let’s be clear, I’m not an architectural or creative genius. None of my Lego creations were brilliant works of art (as evidenced by the included photo). I was just a kid who liked playing with Legos. However, Legos helped me learn aspects of creativity and engineering.  They taught me to look at things differently, to take things that started in my mind and make them real, and to attempt to build things I saw else ware. My Legos contributed to building mind muscles I’ve been using ever since. Don’t get me wrong, building the model that comes in the set by following the included guide had value too. The process contributed to my ability to follow instructions and taught me that missing or skipping steps will fundamentally impact the final product (a lesson I’m still learning from Ikea). A growing body of research suggests this type of structured learning is very beneficial to early child development. But by the time I hung up my Lego bag for the last time, I had close to a decade’s worth of Legos collected inside of it – comprised of dozens of unique sets. To this day, I can remember many of the creations I conjured up using my hodgepodge of intermixed Lego sets, but I can remember very, very few of the actual models I built by following the included instructions.

If there is value in the work Pley is doing, it’s in the PleyWorld marketplace they are creating. My recommendation for them would be to dump the “Legos for Rent” concept and focus their efforts here instead. Admittedly, there is already competition in this space from others who focus on MOCs (short for “My Own Creation”), but I suspect there is a lot of room for improving and perfecting this niche and Pley has great momentum. I’d like to see them continue to grow the community and create tools that help people share their creativity with others. Enable others to build, modify and improve on those creations by making it very easy and interactive. Reduce the friction for sharing models and instructions (tools like this one are a great start, but this type of capability could be a web experience, integrated into Pley World). Above all, dump the rental model in exchange for selling the sets outright.  Buying, not renting, is how kids will continue to grow their Lego stash, and by extension, grow their minds. Pley has the opportunity to become the community and the marketplace for inspiration and creativity, even if they have to build it brick by brick and without any instructions to guide them.

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2014 Winter Olympics Show Broadcasters a Path to the Cloud

In mid-February, I had the opportunity to visit the iStreamPlanet facility in Las Vegas to experience the end-to-end streaming solution behind the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  It was an opportunity to see and discuss the major workflow components with the solution providers, which included iStreamPlanet’s Aventus, Microsoft Azure, Adobe Primetime, and Akamai.  This certainly isn’t the first time that the Olympics have been delivered online.  This isn’t even the first time it was delivered by the players noted above.  What makes this Olympics so unique is that it was the first time it was delivered end-to-end via the cloud.  According to data released on Microsoft TechNet, over the event’s 18 days, “Windows Azure provided information on the Games to more than 100 million fans and guests through and delivered more than 6,000 hours of high-definition streaming from Windows Azure Media Services, to 5 broadcasters across 22 countries in 4 continents. This included 204 live streaming channels, more than 100 TB of storage and around 500 billion storage transactions.”

Infographic: Sochi StreamingThe ingest and management of live streams delivered on behalf of NBC in the United States was handled by iStreamPlanet, whom I’ve worked with for many years delivering high profile Microsoft events including keynotes, conferences and product launches.  Along the way, we’ve had many “firsts” relative to breaking new ground on how content was delivered, how much bandwidth was pushed, how many viewers tuned in, which technologies were in play, and so on.  That said, the encoding was always done by high-end hardware systems sitting locally in racks, turning HD-SDI signals into bits, and then sending them out to a Content Delivery Network.  This is a common workflow today, and Master Control Centers are still predominantly signal based for many broadcasters.  Additionally, those that have converted their live encoding workflows to IP are still primarily doing the heavy lifting on-prem.   This is about to change.

It wasn’t all that long ago when cloud advocates were still hesitant to include real time video encoding of contribution quality cotent as a feature the cloud could bring to the table.  Those that did, often considered GPU accelerated instances or highly customized cloud implementations as a pre-requisite for achieving sufficient performance.  Contrary to this perspective, the Sochi Winter Olympics demonstrated that professional broadcast standards of quality and performance can be delivered via the cloud at massive scale…. and the benefits are enormous.

A Typical Master Control Center
A Traditional Master Control Center

One notable benefit of moving these workflows to the cloud comes in the form of cost savings relative to your infrastructure investment.  The expense of broadcast equipment (satellite dishes, receivers and decoders, signal based frame syncs and routers, power and cooling systems, monitoring systems, and so on) begins to disappear when following the model used for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Additionally, the bottlenecks that those systems impose also start to disappear when shifting to the cloud.  In Azure, new encoding and origin instances can be added and removed as demand dictates, which means your capacity is no longer limited by your annual capital budget. Likewise, since you’re only paying for what you need, when you need it, you can truly adapt your capacity to seasonality.  Even on-demand storage costs can be reduced dramatically by leveraging Dynamic Packaging in Azure Media Services.

I should note, I completely understand the reluctance many broadcasters will have to embracing workflows that can’t be seen and touched within the facility.  I often feel this way myself.  However, that’s where solutions like iStreamPlanet’s Aventus enter the equation.  Aventus is a real time ingest, stream management and publishing system that has been designed and deployed by a company that has lived and breathed live webcasting for over a decade.  They’ve seen and solved for most of the problems broadcasters will face, and they’ve built the solutions into a platform that sits in the cloud to exploit the benefits noted above.  Handling the many nuances associated with webcast delivery like captions, lost source signals, encryption, ad cues, pre-show/post show slates, redundancy, fault tolerance (and the list goes on), are key tenets of the platform.  Furthermore, during the Olympics broadcasts, iStreamPlanet was able to reliably monitor the health of the end-to-end workflow on dashboards (complete with feed status and thumbnails) that spanned just a few PC monitors.  Another key benefit of the solution is that default media encoding profiles developed by industry experts like Alex Zambelli are built directly into the platform (CEO, Mio Babic, lightheartedly refers to this as Zambelli Inside).  Certainly, there is no requirement to leverage a platform like Aventus in order to leverage the cloud, but it can go a long way toward applying the broadcaster’s mindset to an off-prem solution.

In summary, there will definitely be challenges that continue to present themselves moving forward.  There will be technical challenges, like the continually increasing horsepower and bandwidth needed to encode and deliver emerging resolutions and formats such as h.265/HEVC and 4k.  And, there will be budget management challenges as companies start to move from CAPEX to OPEX thinking and planning.  Still, it’s clear that the Sochi Winter Olympics provided a sneak peek down a path that broadcasters will ultimately be taking toward the cloud.

Additional Information:  Learn more about Microsoft’s involvement in the 2014 Winter Olymics.   Learn more about the webcasting technical solution via Alex Zembelli’s blog.   Learn more about how the Olympics streaming performed via iStreamplanet’s blog roll.

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