In the modern world, video is desired almost instantaneously. Whether news or entertainment consumers want to absorb the event immediately, often through the popular process of live video streaming.
Live Video Streaming in it’s various forms (often twinned with social media and mobile technology*) is fast becoming an effective way of transmitting visual information all over the world. Whether for a company AGM or a musical event, video streaming allows consumers a live in-the-moment immediate experience in a way that edited TV does not provide.
Groovy Gecko are experts in live video streaming. They have been helping people to stream video and audio on the internet since 1999. Whether live or on demand, self-served or fully managed, Groovy Gecko deliver streaming video into all kinds of devices through many different platforms from social media to corporate websites. I’m joined by Jake Ward, who is a streaming media specialist at Groovy Gecko.
Scott Ledbury: Let’s set the scene Jake, what would be some typical case uses for streaming live video?
Jake Ward: Well, lots of brands, lots of corporates stream video for a whole variety of reasons, not necessarily for the right reasons, I have to confess. But the main things that really deliver great audiences are threefold. One is doing something that’s connected with broadcast, so in the case of a TV program or in the case of an advert, following on from the main piece of content and delivering something extra over social media channels to really engage the audience.
For example, we’ve worked on Coronation Street Live, Eastenders Live and produced additional content for things like Facebook which are live and interactive afterwards. The second reason is having an announcement, having a product announcement that the brand’s audience really want to see now. If you look at a lot of webcasts that have been having over the past month or so, that’d be things like E3 where everyone is announcing new games.
People want to see the trailer for that game, see the announcement of the latest Xbox as soon as they possibly can before social media ruins it. But the most common use and the most effective use is about giving the audience an ability to interact with, engage with or see behind the scenes of a process they’d never be involved with. For a brand, that might be a brand ambassador, a famous racing driver you can have a Q and A with, it could be someone like their designer.
We talk about people in front of the camera as ‘talent’, sometimes the talent I work with I may have never heard of but to the core audience we’re trying to appeal to, they’re really important people. So to engage with them, get them to show you behind the scenes of what they do is a really engaging prospect.
Jake Ward of Groovy Gecko
SL: Talk us through the process from encoding right through to utilising content delivery networks (CDNs) and basically how does that video signal get to the end viewer?
JW: Quite often, we’re working with a production company, they give us a TX, their live output from their camera mix and then it’s fundamentally being split (for safety reasons) into two or more encoders and those encoders are encoding that stream into a suitable video format.
Maybe adding in other interactive elements, might have things like live polling on Facebook Live, so it might be showing a graphic that demonstrates that live poll. Those live streams once they’re complete are sent to what’s called a publishing point. That’s the point on a standard CDN, something like Akamai, it it’s going onto the client’s own page, or more commonly these days a publishing point on something like Periscope or Facebook live or YouTube.
That then is basically putting that video on a distribution network. That distribution network is generally made up of thousands of servers worldwide and that video is distributed amongst those servers globally very quickly so if I’m watching a webcast in Berlin, that’s actually being produced in London, it’s being sent to a server in London but it’s almost instantaneously appearing at that server in Berlin so that people are the shortest distance they can be from that server. That means that you don’t have buffering, you don’t have any of the things that drive people mad trying to watch Netflix on a busy evening.
SL: Essentially you’re sending a single video from a point, the location, but it’s not possible to do a peer-to-peer connection with thousands of viewers so that Content Delivery Network is taking the strain of all these people requesting this video data.
JW: Absolutely correct. There are very clever peer-to-peer things you can do in closed networks, we use a lot with corporates where they’re broadcasting internally. But if you’re doing a mass broadcast out you really are reliant on the strength of that CDN.
“Our record delivery to an audience on Facebook is 21.75 million people watching simultaneously.”
Of course, you can run a very simple low stream off a single server that a company may be hosting but as soon as that hits a certain limit everything’s going to start to fall apart. From a CDN point of view, we use people like Akamai, which delivers a considerable portion of streaming and the internet so if that goes down and fails to work we’ve all got much bigger problems.
Amazon cloud service is also one out there. Facebook and Twitter also have very robust CDNs, our record delivery to an audience on Facebook is 21.75 million people simultaneously. They can handle a fair few people on those networks.
“If Facebook finds something on a live stream that you don’t have the copyright for, it kills the stream in about 10 seconds!”
SL: What considerations and factors are you looking for when setting up a live stream at a location or venue?
JW: Actually the biggest one, and still the most problematic, is the internet connection out of venues. We do some webcasting in some crazy difficult places and sometimes that’s easier to be in sub-saharan Africa, five miles from the nearest town, than it is to find a studio in London with a decent internet connection. It’s quite bizarre, the internet connection is the primary thing, the major stumbling block across things like these.
Venues not understanding what’s required and trying to do things over WiFi connections which can drop out at any moment. We spend a lot of time, and part of the way we approach any job is to have one of engineers go in and test that they can get a signal out of a venue. Regardless of what the venue says about their own internet we will actually go test that it’s there, and it’s uncontended.
People say that they’ve got a 100mb pipe, but when they’ve got 1,000 people in the office they all use it and then it gets squeezed. That causes the most issues. The other issue, which is more of a content issue, is about copyright. A lot of live broadcasts we do across the social networks, YouTube has a monitoring system, Facebook has a monitoring system, they will check for copyright material.
If it isn’t clear, three strikes and you’re out on YouTube, if Facebook finds something on a live stream that you don’t have the copyright for it kills the stream in about ten seconds. That is completely automatic. It’s the incidental things, if you’re recording in a public location and one of the stands nearby in the exhibition halls plays a piece of copyrighted music, that your microphone picks up in the background and your stream goes off the air.
I’ve had situations in the past where the clients nailed this down, we’ve nailed this down, everything is copyrighted. But someone has driven past in a car playing a radio track, and I’ve got a strike on YouTube. Copyright is really a big issue at the moment, often not looked at by the brands and not cleared properly by the brands. It take time, Facebook takes five or six days to clear a music track for use on a stream. If you’re trying to do something really quickly, you may hit problems.
SL: There are always risks as we’ve touched on, things out of your control, how do you go about mitigating those risks? For example, building in redundancy, I know Groovy Gecko often has a primary and secondary stream running from the venue, talk us through that.
JW: For us, a lot of this is about management of risk, throw enough money at anything you can eliminate all risks but it’s about finding a balance for clients. I have several clients we put together an AGM, its an essential component of their corporate cult so that they don’t just have a primary and secondary stream, they have a tertiary stream, sometimes up to a paternity stream. It’s all about working where the areas of risk are. A primary and secondary stream are absolutely essential.
“For us, a lot of this is about management of risk. Throw enough money at anything and you can eliminate all risks – but it’s about finding a balance for clients.”
SL: In practical terms, does that mean that if the primary stream goes down, the secondary stream immediately kick in?
JW: What basically happens, certainly on a CDN is that you have the output you want to broadcast going into two different encoders then publishing hopefully through two different internet connections to two different places on the CDN. That means that if something on the CDN goes down and you’re publishing through London, and London has an outage. Your signal is still being sent via Bristol, via a different internet connection.
On CDNs that seamlessly falls over, the audience don’t know that they’re suddenly on a secondary stream, the stream just continues as it was. Facebook and other social platforms only have a primary stream in, so we’ve done a lot of work to create a secondary work flow to enable that. That will change over the next few months, for security purposes most of the social networks are looking at adding a primary and secondary stream which will have seamless cross over.
These AGMs that we do, if the streams go down, contractually they probably own several of our children! It’s that level of serious, because these things have to work. It really is not just looking at the technical solution, it’s looking at the areas of risk. I’ve done live streams for wildlife broadcasts, from fox dens for Channel 4. You have to sit down in a planning meeting from a content point of view and a technical point of view.
So we’re streaming 24/7, it’s 1530 and all the children have come home from school and are tuning in to these cute foxes. A vicious badger breaks in and starts killing the fox cubs live on air, where are we with that editorially? Do we have a back-up slide? Do we take it off air? Is it the tooth and claw of natural history? You have to look at all the unexpected things that could happen and about having the workflows to cope with that.
SL: 360 Video is hot right now, are the streaming processes and constraints any different?
JW: There are two differences really. The primary difference is that you’re dealing with 4K streams. 4K streams require a lot of bandwidth to get offsite, they also need a lot of bandwidth to consume. So it’s about making sure that those gracefully degrade for the average user, who is not in a city, doesn’t have a 15mb connection. But I think the other thing about them is the growth and the rate of acceleration, the way that kit is changing is really interesting.
We shot some R&D stuff with a Liverpool football club last year, the box we used to put the picture together, from the multi cam shoot stitcher box, was I think about three and a half foot square and about a foot and about a foot and a half thick. It’s a big bit of kit, and the camera is probably 40cm in diameter. Now we worked on the BAFTA red carpet TV awards about two weeks ago, we used a rig including the stitching box that took less space than a broadcast camera.
That ability to get the kit into places is going to really change the way we do stuff. From a creative point of view I also think it’s changing. Over the last year we’ve had lots of excitement over 360, with good reason, users seem to love it, their user acceptance level is quite low. Lots of production people think it doesn’t look good enough, lots of users say that it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen.
What’s happened is that we’ve gone from sticking a 360 camera in, to people considering how to create a decent piece of content based around those 360 cameras. I’m working in an event, in a couple of weeks time, it will be a hybrid experience. This event, at the end of each day, they play out a highlights package of what’s happened during the day. That goes on screens around the event and everyone watches it.
On Facebook live that will be a 2D/HD stream in a 360 environment; like watching it on a big TV. But when we cut to something, like a car going round the track which would be a normal multi-camera shoot for the people who are watching it on the screen, for the people watching on Facebook Live, it’ll be like they’re sitting in the car. So it’s this kind of hybrid experience where we begin to see how we can take normal, almost TV concepts and adapt them into 360 where it gives you a sense of being there, being engaged and making them more interactive.
SL: What has been one of the most challenging streaming set ups you’ve done, you touched on it earlier, webcasting from the centre of an African game reserve for a week?
JW: Yeah, that was a challenge and not really teatime viewing. As part of a Channel Four programme we were broadcasting a decomposing hippo for 8 days. It was about 65° in the sun, we even had to bury camera cables because they just overheated. We had solder melt in the equipment, it was that hot. That for us, goes back to the risk thing. Because we do a lot of very standard corporate stuff about the risk, we have a very solid base of technology that then when broadcasters and film promoters come to us with slightly crazy ideas we can use that solid foundation and twist it and turn it into something interesting and engaging.
That was very challenging, it got so hot there we had to shut the stream down for two hours a day and again we knew that was likely to happen so we had a slate that popped up to make the audience aware how long the stream was down for, because the kit couldn’t handle it. One we’ve done recently, we did a 360 Skydive and that was very problematic, trying to get the signal from a 360 rig as it falls through the sky was an interesting challenge.
But I think that given the technology, we’ve talked about bandwidth being a problem, but there are lots of great technologies out there now about being able to transmit signals from unusual places and they’re all very new and you have to learn their strengths and limitations. We’re finding that we can do some really interesting stuff with them. My favourite project of the year – and some of you may have seen this out there, on the Channel Four news break. There was a commercial break that cancer research took in February and for the whole commercial break we streamed live from inside somebody.
There was a cancer surgery being done (a colonoscopy), there was a surgeon cutting polyps out of a lovely gentleman’s bowel, who’d volunteered for this, done a lot of press around it, with a commentary of what was happening. We streamed that live on Facebook and then at the end we had two nurses take questions from people who’d either watched the stream or seen it on Channel Four. These nurses were asked a whole realm of questions. So in that case we had the operation in London, the nurses in Cardiff, we’ve got all the complexity of getting all the feeds in, but really you can from anywhere and do anything, it’s all about planning and risk management.
“There’s always that gradual increase in the way that these things become better over a matter of time, and the platforms incorporate that and bring it in.”
SL: Groovy Gecko is quite clearly pushing the boundaries with special projects. I know that you’re constantly testing and developing in your R&D lab, can you give me an insight into what goes on there?
JW: There’s some really interesting stuff coming on in that whole VR, 360 Video, Augmented Reality space. Apple and Facebook have both made big Augmented Reality announcements in the last few weeks and they’re looking at how you create hybrid solutions and experiences. Placing data on real world or live environments, I think there’s some really interesting stuff going on around how you use things like live subtitling, live interpretation, we’ve been doing R&D on that.
On social networks to expand your audience, very few of these big campaigns any more are relevant only to the UK, or even relevant only to Western Europe, they have a global audience. But actually it’s the simple tools used well that open up a whole new realm of creativity. Two of the tools we used currently on Facebook are live Q and A, being able to moderate comments as they come in and pass them through a speaker, and polling.
In polling, the audience are asked a question and they respond with a reaction to give an answer. Quite recently we did a live murder mystery, only using those two tools. This is a shot POV, you’re a security guard in an art gallery doing the rounds. The door locks behind you in the gallery and there’s a body. Unless you check in you have 45 minutes until the police come. Can the audience, help the security guard solve the murder mystery. This is free for all, we have the audience making key decisions by answering a poll but we’re also using the suggestions on the comments on the Facebook post to help the security guard.
I might suggest that the guard turns out the lights, and my name will appear alongside my suggestion and you’ll here the security guard not acknowledging me but acknowledging the suggestion. For augmenting things like drama and narrative, that’s a really interesting place to be. Simple tools, but as a creative technologist we hand them over to creatives, they come up with the idea, and we see if it’s possible. That worked incredibly well, that was for Alibi TV, that went global, it was a massive hit for them, it was in more newspapers than I could ever have dreamed of.
I think that evaluating that simple stuff that people are doing and work out how to put a unique twist on that. The big thing we’re also seeing is what the big agencies call ‘social activation’ that’s having a campaign that points towards a live event on Facebook or Twitter and drives the brand. We’ve done stuff with O2 on ‘Follow the Rabbit’. We’re doing a live game show with a well known game show host next week.
That’s where the live game show will be about the brand, they’ll have people from the audience come up and play the game show but they’ll also have people watching live who will hopefully be entertained by good entertainment format, also able to participate. They’ll be able to answer questions to win the same prize as people on stage. That’s quite a traditional TV format but allowing that instant interaction changes it into something completely different.
We get staggering numbers on Facebook Live, so from a brand point of view, when you’re talking about having hundreds of thousands and millions of people watching live, it kind of becomes a no-brainer for them, because they know if they make it engaging and they engage people with it, then it becomes something that people will watch.
SL: Finally, what’s around the corner for video streaming, we can also assume that the bandwidth and coding will get better but what do you see around the corner for this sector?
JW: I think things progress, pretty much like broadcast does to a certain degree as codecs get better and 4K becomes an easier format to handle, I think we’ll see more quality 4K content, YouTube itself will take 8K feeds now (in certain places in London). I think there will be a graduation progression of things becoming more engaging more interactive and 4K’s kind of key for things like 360 video. It’s great in HD and 2K but it really shines at 4K and above. There’s always that gradual increase in the way that these things become better over a matter of time and the platforms incorporate that and bring it in.
SL: Thank you very much Jake, it’s been brilliant to talk to you.
JW: Thanks very much.