Live Streaming in the Era of IP

by Jason Pruett

Live streaming. Once a term exclusive to the technology lexicon, it has quickly earned a place in everyday conversation. From the exponential growth of branded and independent content channels, to the explosion of esports and the emergence of social video, live streaming has evolved from a very niche application in the context of content production to a price-of-admission necessity for virtually every platform and provider with aspirations of multimedia supremacy.

Of course, the technology required for streaming live video online wasn’t always as simple, readily accessible, or affordable as it is today. It’s easy to take for granted that a process that can now be set in motion by a couple of thumb taps on the glass screen of a smartphone once required deep technical expertise, meticulously configured hardware, and bandwidth at a premium. For professional live video production, this was further compounded by the challenges of merging clashing technologies and mindsets. After all, it was not that long ago that the idea of incorporating computers, software, and networks into proven proprietary workflows was effectively taboo. That is, until fully integrated, computer-based solutions with a focus on live streaming proved their mettle and, perhaps more importantly, that the audiences were there to be had.

Indeed, integrated production systems that incorporated live streaming along with more traditional broadcast elements such as video switching, audio mixing, graphics, video playback, and more primed the market for this burgeoning content delivery model. Allowing professional broadcasters and aspiring producers to drop in a turnkey solution for streaming, while simultaneously offering the same tools and capabilities typically found studio or truck, these powerful products not only facilitated the process of getting video to worldwide audiences, but allowed for end-to-end production as well. This capacity to create programming equivalent to major broadcast networks in terms of content and quality, and make it available to audiences anywhere affordably, ultimately served to continue the democratization of video production and contributed to the development of a new content economy.

Today, with viewers increasingly shifting toward habits that take advantage of the choice, convenience, and cost savings of live streaming models, content creators and providers are rapidly encroaching upon a state of critical mass. With upload and download speeds accelerating, bigger and bolder video formats emerging, and new platforms gaining steam, the level of expectations is now arguably on par with the over-the-air, cable, and satellite delivery methods that preceded live streaming. Audiences who were once pleased to simply have access are becoming more discerning and demanding. Fortunately, the innovative minds who laid the framework for this model have maintained course, continuing to invest time, effort, and resources in developing new technologies to not only handle the evolving demands of viewers, but also push the envelope with live streaming. Naturally, this leads to the concept of IP-based video production and the ongoing industrial shift that holds numerous advantages for the live streaming market, most notably in terms of the expansion of creative freedom and a reduction in the overarching cost of production.

With IP allowing compatible systems and devices to operate in the same technological space that live streaming inherently occupies, broadcasters and producers can explore new ways to present content through online channels. Consider, for example, vertical and square video, popularized by social media. With conventional analog and digital video components purpose-built to adhere to rigid broadcast standards, including 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, producers are currently relegated to creating live content for mobile with smartphones—meaning the introduction of an additional discrete workflow. Such an endeavor would project to be a reasonable ask for major media outlets—ESPN and the NFL Network come to mind as name broadcast brands that have adopted the vertical video model for supplemental content projects. But, for a smaller production with a tight budget, emphasizing live mobile content – which is typically distinguished by the absence of the real-time production value offered by professional video solutions – would likely mean sacrificing the equity of their existing live streaming workflow and business model.

With IP solutions, however, productions are not necessarily subject to the same limitations. In the case of NDI®, a software-driven IP standard adopted en masse by the industry over the past three years, not only are enabled systems and software capable of accepting camera video directly from compatible mobile devices connected to the same network, but the signal processing is resolution independent. This means the incoming video is not required to conform to the same broadcast standards as experienced with conventional acquisition. Moreover, select supporting systems allow all accessible live signals to be further manipulated through software – flipped, rotated, etc. – and custom streaming profiles to be configured, making it relatively painless to for a standard production to accommodate the creation of vertical and square video.

This is only one example, but it is indicative of the distinct advantages that IP presents to both big-budget and cost-conscious producers who want to maintain a high level of production value as they seek to explore a new video reality that is primarily predicated on the use of handheld screens. When you further factor in that IP-enabled devices merely need to be in proximity to the local network, rather than connected point to point, and that productions can essentially rely on a single, universal infrastructure, the benefits are compounded. Space and logistical considerations can be minimized, installation and integration can be streamlined, and control rooms can be decentralized – if not done away with altogether.

In a sense, that’s the beauty of IP-based production, particularly where live streaming producers are concerned. They can work with the equipment of their preference and in their price range to achieve a high standard of production with an ultra-modern touch for the destinations they see fit, instead of being confined by the very tangible considerations, standards, and practices that conventional production demands.

Ultimately, this tectonic shift has very real implications for all planes of production. At no point have producers and broadcasters been privy to a model as disruptive or conditions as favorable to facilitating their efforts or achieving success. But, at a fundamental level, it is very much a natural extension of the desktop video technologies that sparked a revolution decades ago, and the pioneering solutions that followed as the Internet and interconnected devices emerged to define media for a new generation.

Live streaming was once a novel idea that came with promise. With IP, it will realize that promise on its way to prominence.

Jason Pruett is the Product Marketing Manager for NewTek, the leader in IP video technology and the developer of NDI®, a royalty free standard enabling compatible systems, devices, and applications to share video, audio, and data over Ethernet networks. Currently integrated into hundreds of free and commercially available video products and accessible by millions of users, NDI® is recognized as the most prolific IP-based workflow standard in the industry.

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