Live Smooth Streaming Beta, Inlet's encoder, and the 2010 Winter Olympics

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Live Smooth Streaming

Lots is going on at MIX, so as not to overwhelm with too many posts, I’ll try to triple-dip on this one.

First, as part of Scott Guthrie’s keynote yesterday (now with transcript), we announced that live streaming is coming for Smooth Streaming. The key advantages of Smooth Streaming are as applicable to live video as on-demand. And for high volume live events where scalability concerns can force users into “waiting rooms” or a lower tier of service, the offered scalability may be even more important yet. In particular, my personal take on the killer aspects of live streaming are:

Seamless adaptive bandwidth switching

With on-demand content, particular shorter duration, you can let users with slow connections buffer a while and then play.  But live is live; if you’re offering just a 1000 Kbps stream, a user isn’t going to get a decent experience if the the bandwidth available to the player drops to 800 Kbps for more than a couple of seconds. And even someone with a 5 Mbps connection may see that shared between multiple users and computers, and may have multiple bandwidth-consuming apps running at the same time; it’s a lot to ask that the bandwidth NEVER drops below 1000 Kbps for the duration of a long event. Thus, the managed code heuristics module running inside the Silverlight client can continuously measure available CPU speed, bandwidth, and even window size, and then give the user the best content they can use at that moment. And it can seamlessly switch without any pause in the video or “buffering” message to a lower stream if needed or a higher stream if usable.

My hope is that this can break live streaming out of the lowest common denominators used to maximize availability. With Smooth Streaming we can offer fallback rates down to the minimum experience appropriate for the content, and as high a rate as the content justifies, with each user getting the best experience they can get at the moment. I hope this can make consumer HD streaming a reality for a lot of viewers.

SmoothHD.com is a great demo of the seamless stream switching for on-demand; the live experience will be essentially identical.

Leveraging scalability of the web via proxy caching

In Alex Zambelli’s formulation, Smooth Streaming “adapts video to the web, instead of trying to adapt the web to video.” The content is delivered in a series of small files each containing a few seconds of video and audio. And each copy of each chunk has the same URL, so proxy caches handle this automatically. So all the CDNs (like our launch partner Akamai) with great web delivery technology are able to immediately leverage their huge network of proxy edge servers with Smooth Streaming. Moreso, all the ISPs and organizations with proxy servers (and that’s most of them) can have multiple people watching the same content with only a single copy of each chunk having to be sent to the proxy. So those horror stories about a company’s internet connection being brought to its knees by everyone watching the Olympics or March Madness at the same time? We think we’ve done a lot to make that much less of a problem, since the more popular the content, the more scalability it gets through the proxy caching. Hopefully this can make the waiting room a thing of the past.

There’s plenty of additional tuning the CDNs and others can do to further improve caching for Smooth Streaming specifically, but it gets a huge boost automatically by leveraging the existing infrastructure of the web.

Live PVR

Since on-demand Smooth Streaming is delivered as a bunch of small chunks, and live Smooth Streaming is delivered as a bunch of small chunks, we’ve eliminated the hard line between a live broadcast and the on-demand version of it that used to need to be published several hours later. Instead, what’s live is just the latest chunk that’s available, but every chunk is still there (and likely still in the proxy cache). So that means you can pause, rewind, skip to the beginning, skip back to live, all during the live stream. Think of it as a PVR in the cloud.

And it’s already in beta

Better yet, we’ve already got a public beta of it for download! It requires IIS 7.0, running on either Windows Server 2008 or Vista SP1 (you can play with it without installing 2008).

It can be installed via our cool new Web Platform Installer as well as traditional .msi files.

The package also includes a "simulated live encoder" which loops out the bits from a local file to the server just like an encoder would do. This enables server and player development, testing, and configuration without having to actually run a live encoder 24/7.

We also have a new IIS Media Services portal with information about all the IIS media delivery technologies. There’s a nice overview about the platform as well.

Inlet’s Live Smooth Streaming encoder

As part of the announcement, Inlet also announced they’ll be the first to market with 3rd party Smooth Streaming encoding, support on-demand in Armada and (in a live demo!) Live in Spinnaker. We’ve got lots of Windows Media and Silverlight customers using Spinnakers with great satisfaction already, so adding Live Smooth is going to be a great upgrade.

Inlet’s John Bishop is presenting along with IIS’s John Bocharov at MIX as I type this in fact. There should be more details about their encoders, and the on-demand version of the session should be available by tomorrow. Here’s the details for finding it in the archives easier.

Delivering Media with Internet Information Services 7 (IIS) Media Services and Microsoft Silverlight MIX09-T56F

By: John Bishop, John Bocharov Tags: Media | Servers

See how to deliver media with the best user experience in a cost-effective, scalable, and highly manageable way. Learn how to expand your reach and improve quality using Smooth Streaming, how to save on bandwidth, and how to maintain control when using Progressive Download. Understand how IIS Media Services and WMS light up the media ecosystem from encoding to playback.

Others have noted we’re racing along at un-Microsoft speeds with Silverlight and Smooth Streaming. It’s only six months since we shipped Silverlight 2 and we’re already at Silverlight 3 beta. And Smooth Streaming wasn’t even announced then and we’ve already got on-demand and live servers in beta. But hey, this is the internet, and that’s how fast we have to go.

And of course this is only possible with the great foundations of technologies like Windows Media, .NET, IIS, and Windows. And at least as important, with the great partners like Inlet we’ve been working with for years. We’re all really excited about what’s possible here, and pushing to get it out there so people can use it quickly. We’ve known what video on the web could become for more than a decade now, and it feels like we’ve finally entered that last lap toward the finish line.

And a great event to be focusing on would be…

Live Smooth Streaming for the 2010 Winter Olympics

It seems like I’m only just now catching up on my sleep from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, but the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are less than 11 months away (staring.

And yesterday, as part of Scott’s keynote, Perkins Miller (senior vice president, Digital Media, for NBC Universal Sports and Olympics) announced we’ll be doing Vancouver with Silverlight and Smooth Streaming.  And building on the Bejing experience with 720p HD and much deeper interactivity and information. His whole comments are great, including some interesting numbers about Beijing viewership and NBCU’s vision for the 2010 experience .  I’ll just close out this already long post quoting his section from the transcript:

PERKINS MILLER: Thank you, Scott.

Hello, everybody! I was here about one year ago at this time, in fact, as we were preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. How many people here watched some of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, those phenomenal athletes? (Applause.) I mean, it was just incredible. I mean, it was the single largest viewed audience that we had on television in history. It was also the single largest digital event in history. And we did that in partnership with Scott's team here, with the Silverlight group.

It was phenomenal. We did more than 50 million unique visitors, more than 1.3 billion page views. We streamed more than 70 million clips in the 17-day period of time. We served up 10 million hours of video.

And critically we served up 5,000 individual clips for consumers each and every day of the second week of the Olympics.

And what that really showed us is that the long tail really works. People in their desk, in their houses wanted to go watch rowing, wanted to go watch beach volleyball, wanted to watch all these sports at their time, at their leisure, and we enabled them to do it. It was an absolutely phenomenal partnership.

It really worked out well for us on the commercial side supporting all our interests. We were able to show for people who went to NBCOlympics.com and watched video and consumed content there, when they went back to watching their television, they watched twice as much television. Think about that, twice as much television for people who went and used a digital platform. It really brought to life the fact that we need to deliver as a media company a full 360-degree experience to our customers.

In addition, the people who watched video online during the time, if they were in the office or at their house, those folks who went and used the enhanced experience – you're seeing some of the examples here on the screen – these people who watched the enhanced experience like picture-in-picture, being able to watch four live feeds simultaneously, they watched three times as much video as those people who just chose to watch a single stream or a less enhanced experience.

What that told us is if we deliver a higher-quality experience, if we deliver something that's going to engage the audience, they will watch more. They will be more engaged by our product, and they will ultimately serve as a better audience to our product. So, it was really a tremendous experience.

Now, who knows, how many people can tell me where the next Olympics are? Anybody? OK, I didn't hear anything. Oh, come on, Vancouver, 2010. It's the winter Olympics. It was kind of a trick question; there are summer and winter games. So, the next Olympics are in Vancouver, Canada. They're roughly a year from now.

And I'm here to announce for the first time a renewal of our partnership with Silverlight. They will be providing the enhanced online video coverage for NBC's coverage of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. (Cheers, applause.)

And I am truly honored to be out here today because Scott's team has just done a phenomenal job coming up with what we think is going to be the ultimate product for a video event online. We're going to be streaming the Olympics fully in HD. This is going to be an adaptive, Smooth Streaming event, full 720p.

So, when you walk out of your house in the morning, and you go to your office, and you've left your beautiful 52-inch HD television at home, and you sit down at your desk and you want to grab some video from the Olympics that day, it's going to mirror that experience. We're going to be able to deliver you that continuous, high quality experience that you expect now as a consumer.

In addition, we're going to be able to bring you the DVR experience that you expect. So, just as Scott was illustrating earlier, you'll be able to pause the live stream, you'll be able to rewind the live stream, you'll even be able to go slow motion. So, for those of you who have been following the World Cup skiing this winter, there's a woman by the name of Lindsey Vonn who absolutely lit the world on fire. She won the World Cup overall. She is skiing phenomenally well. And if you want to see her fly off a 150-foot jump in the Vancouver Olympics – 50 meters for those from Canada – you'll be able to watch here in slow-mo online land those jumps and go through to the finish line.

We'll also be able to deliver to you full metadata overlays. What this means is that we'll be able to take the live results, the athlete biographies, the country information, all the information that gives you the kind of context for when the Olympics is, and deliver it to you as part of the enhanced Olympics experience. So, if you don't know who Lindsey Vonn is, you'll be able to find out who she is.

In addition, we've found that when you're watching the Olympics, and when you're trying to be engaged in this event, it's all-consuming. People want to know what's happening, when it's happening, and they want to consume the content where they are, whenever they are. This means that live video alerts are going to be critical. And for these games we'll deliver you not only live video alerts, we'll be able to give you real time feeds of those alerts. So, if you signed up to get the most popular clip of that moment, we'll deliver that to you. And again it will come through, depending on your platform, as a full HD experience.

Finally, because we need to commercialize this, for those of you that know the sports business, we do need to find ways to bring our partners to the table. We have the ability this time to do live ad insertion with our live streams. This functionality is going to be critical to give you as a consumer a fairly seamless experience, still be able to enjoy the live event, but allow our commercial partners access in order to find a way to associate with this great event that we'll be putting on together.

So, I can't tell you how excited I am. I'm thrilled to be here, I'm thrilled to be working with Scott's team. We have 331 days to go to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and I hope you all watch, and thanks very much. (Applause.)

In closing, I’d like to add my own (Applause) as well. Great stuff.

Although it’s only 329 days now. Back to work…

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