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Contribution and Distribution: The Past, Present and Future of Live Streaming

No longer is a vast broadcast infrastructure required to reach an audience; video can be sent internationally for a trivial cost and with global reach.

Perhaps counterintuitively, there is a level at which live streaming is not news. After all, we had the technological ability to create an electronic image and transmit it long distances quite some time before we had the ability to store that electronic image. Photochemical film notwithstanding, there was a gap of more than 20 years between the demonstration of electronic picture transmission in the 1920s and the development of video recording in the 1950s. The majority of early television was live. It would be tempting, then, to think of modern live streaming as nothing more than a new technology to do an old job.

To some extent, that is an accurate assessment. The internet is widely used both for contribution, where news crews send material to a television station for broadcast, and for distribution, where viewers receive conventional television via an online device. It’s even become possible to wander the streets of a modern city and send live pictures back to the newsroom via a cellphone uplink using practically pocket-sized cameras such as JVC’s GY-HM890U.

From a live online broadcast of The Young Turks

What’s different about live streaming as we’re discussing it here is defined best by an unfortunate weasel word: democratization. No longer is a vast broadcast infrastructure required to reach an audience; video can be sent internationally for a trivial cost and with global reach.

It first became vaguely feasible to deliver video like this in the mid-1990s, when the consumer-targeted internet services of the time were often able to provide 56 kilobits per second of data to the home. Emphasis here is on the word “vaguely.” In 1995 RealNetworks released the RealAudio compression algorithm, which made it possible to stream live audio over common home internet connections; two years later, RealNetworks followed up with RealVideo (and their IPO). RealVideo, which persisted until the early 2010s in at least one application, was based on the H.263 algorithm that had been developed for videoconferencing.

Even the most reliable 56 Kb/s internet connections could support only modest picture quality. Resolution was generally much poorer than broadcast television, to the point of being unacceptable for viewing by consumers. Microsoft nevertheless jumped aboard with its NetShow framework in 1996, which demonstrated a willingness to develop something that might, in the fever dreams of the wildest thinkers, eventually advance to a level on par with broadcast television. However, like so many things—like Yahoo, for instance, which turned out not to be the world’s search engine—the pioneers of the technology would not, in the end, find themselves preeminent.

Sinclair Broadcast Group uses JVC GY-HM890 cameras to deliver live local news.

Services such as the Twitch network, which is associated primarily with video game streaming, and YouTube’s live streaming feature eventually grew around technologies such as the H.264 codec. It’s much more capable in terms of picture quality per unit data consumed, and much more flexible than H.263. This de facto standardization has turned out to be important because low-power, low-cost, high-portability devices such as tablets and cellphones have been able to implement custom electronics to decode and display video efficiently. Internet video terminals are now a mere bullet point on the feature list of a pocket-sized telephony device—a device that was in no sense developed specifically to enable internet video but that has nonetheless allowed an audience to grow quickly.

What’s also crucial, and also conspicuously not developed specifically to enable streaming, is the explosion of internet bandwidth. The performance of the data link to a cellphone now massively outperforms mid-1990s home internet services by around two orders of magnitude—56 Kb/s versus 5000 Kb/s, even on a bad day—and the industrial-level infrastructure has grown similarly. The impact of this statistic on video in general, including non-live streaming from companies such as Netflix and Amazon, has been so significant that there’s concern about capacity and about how well internet video in general is paying for itself in terms of the bandwidth used. As far as the network is concerned, though, it’s increasingly irrelevant whether the pictures are delivered to a desktop computer or a cellphone.

Screengrab from “Me at the Zoo,” the first video ever uploaded to YouTube (posted by jawed on April 23, 2005)

Combined, these factors have eliminated many of the barriers to entering the broadcast market. The principal result in terms of content is a sort of extreme specialism, where comparatively obscure hobbies and events can form the core, or even the overwhelming majority, of a channel or stream’s output. Live streams exist for an untold number of niche interests. One may provide a continuous security-camera style view of nurseries for abandoned animals, while another might show hours of uninterrupted gameplay of a popular (or even unpopular) video game, with commentary from the player. Still others might demonstrate hobby or engineering techniques at a level of detail to confound anyone not keenly interested in the subject. At the time of writing, NASA TV was the most popular feed on Ustream; fourth on the list was the static camera in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Open Sea exhibit. Bubbly wallpaper, almost.

The cost of a live stream is low enough that they can be created in service of a vanishingly small audience. The Open Sea camera, for example, has amassed 6.4 million views in total, but only 14 concurrent viewers. One almost invariant feature of live streaming is that the viewer count is absolutely known, at least to the streamer and often to the audience, and it is common for it to measure in the tens. The economics can be somewhat opaque, but when everyone involved is pursuing a hobby, there’s not much to lose, and the technical approach, production technique and presentation can be very rough.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium also broadcasts live video on Ustream.

Streams such as these jostle for position alongside slickly produced offerings that are either simply internet-streamed clones of the output of a conventional television station or are produced in much the same way as broadcast television. News organization The Young Turks, which claims to have been the first to broadcast news via the internet, is much more in the latter camp, producing both live-streamed and on-demand content in much the same way any broadcast organization would produce current affairs programming. At this point, perhaps live streaming is reconverging with conventional broadcast, with the only difference being the technology.

Live streaming is perhaps at its most interesting with a smaller audience. The potential for real-time feedback, usually via a text chat feature, facilitates a degree of interaction that is genuinely and completely novel. Viewers of a hobby stream can ask for additional explanation of a technique; those watching an opinion piece can shout encouragement or derision, often in the colorful language of near-anonymous internet discourse, as they choose. This level of interactivity stumbles somewhat when the video exceeds a certain threshold of popularity. The 2016 election coverage from The Young Turks prompted a blur of text as tens of thousands of viewers attempted to comment at once.

That problem aside, the interactive features can provoke a degree of audience engagement that is unknown to producers of conventional television. This engagement has made games publishers extremely keen to have their releases streamed in the pursuit of grassroots support for a new title. There have been rights issues inasmuch as musical scores may have been licensed for use in a game but not in a television program, with questions raised over whether programming that consists entirely of an unbroken view of a video game is genuinely journalistic for the purposes of copyright law.

From a Twitch live stream of an Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim playthrough on Dec. 13 by LadyDevann

Either way, it is possible to make a living as a self-employed live streamer, albeit probably in concert with on-demand activity and a significant social media effort. The boundaries between live and on-demand video are blurred by platforms such as YouTube, which does both, and by Twitch, which optionally allows users to view recordings of past streams, so the people involved may draw little distinction between the two. This is global television broadcasting as a hobby industry run from the back bedroom. Again, what’s less transformative is the application of the same technologies by extant, upscale broadcasters: that’s often just an attempt to put the content in front of more eyes, or to reduce distribution costs.

Whatever the content, live streaming services such as those we’ve discussed, as well as Twitter-connected Periscope and Facebook Live, are putting a lot of eyes in front of a lot of video. Technically, the future is reasonably easy to predict. More bandwidth will make pictures better; the push for IP-based production facilities at the high end has parallels with yearned-for fiber to the home (FTTH) internet service, which will make essentially broadcast-quality images possible. This isn’t just about sharpness, either. Sports broadcasting, of which video game content is arguably a part, often benefits from higher frame rates (often 60 fps) for a better view of fast action, and the promising future of high dynamic range pictures will demand more again.

From a live Periscope broadcast

Should streamers begin using VR technology to address a VR-equipped audience, as is entirely feasible, demands multiply again. Not only does 3D double the data rate, VR needs to be at high frame rates (say 90, compared to the standard 30) and resolutions (4K beckons), which could multiply the data rate by 24 times over a conventional fixed HD image. It’s happening already; YouTube announced HDR early in 2016 and has been showing pannable VR demos for some time. It’s only a matter of time before someone combines them and wants to stream the result.

To some extent, the slack can be taken up by improvements in computer horsepower, making it possible to use more sophisticated compression algorithms—which really do provide something for nothing in terms of picture quality per unit bandwidth. Ultimately, however, the success of live streaming is about that laser-targeted content. One streamer, dedicated to playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim several hours per day, feels that the audience is using his content as a sort of soma against reality. The real world, he says, has “good graphics, but the gameplay sucks.”