• Type: Whitepaper
  • Topics: Video; Networked Av Systems; Digital Signage; Av Industry;
  • Date: March 2015

By Tim Kridel, Special to AVIXA

More than 70 percent of consumers who have broadband use it to stream video, according to a new CEA-NATPE study. Among millennials, it’s 84 percent. Meanwhile, 19 percent of American households have broadband fast enough to support 4K, says Akamai’s latest State of the Internet Report.

Those trends bear watching by AV pros because they’re rippling out of homes and into offices, classrooms and stadiums. Consumer experiences often set workplace expectations, from accessing content on demand to viewing it on a device of choice.

Increasingly, the device is a tablet or smartphone, according to AV vendors and integrators that design streaming solutions for customers. Gone are the days when streaming systems comprised computer displays and LCD screens as primary endpoints. Today’s streaming projects require fresh consideration, from needs assessment to deployment.

The mobile trend poses several challenges, such as issues of content creation. For example, a stream that consists of a presenter headshot alongside PowerPoint slides might be fine on a desktop PC or conference-room display, but it’s a recipe for eye strain when viewed on a handheld device.

Another challenge is the myriad operating systems, display sizes and resolutions and mobile networks that people use, all of which affect their streaming experience. If that fragmentation weren’t enough, integrators and vendors also have to keep up with all of the periodic updates and other changes from Apple, Google, Samsung and other mobile companies.

And hey, throw “smart TVs” into the equation. TV apps present yet another way to deliver streaming content, but fragmentation in that market makes streaming a challenge. “They’ll change their SDKs every month and won’t tell you,” says Sean Everett, Product Manager at Piksel, which develop online video platforms. “They’ll just push something out. To stay up to date on that is almost a full-time job for one person — and that’s for just one model.”

All of this is why the first conversation in a streaming project — during the needs analysis stage — must include a discussion the types of devices an organization’s employees or customers will be using.   

Streaming Growth is Everywhere

Demand for streamlining systems keeps growing. Such growth isn’t limited to a handful of verticals, either, although some are spending more than others.

“We are seeing this across the board, but higher education and enterprise are at the top,” says Adam Kaiser, Director of Acquisition Marketing at media management vendor Centro and former Assistant Vice President of Corporate Marketing at collaboration systems integrator IVCi. “The reasons for higher ed are pretty straightforward, as limited classroom size makes it harder for all to participate in a session. Additionally, colleges are looking at new revenue streams to offer their content to remote users.”

Athletic departments are also big streaming users, says Bob Caniglia, Blackmagic Design Senior Regional Manager for Eastern North America. “For example, Harvard University is streaming tennis and squash matches to the Ivy League Digital Network.”

Professional sports are also more involved with streaming. “The Columbus Crew Soccer Club uses our cameras and switchers to stream content to the team’s website and YouTube,” Caniglia  says. “For these teams, it’s all about creating, maintaining and strengthening their connections with their fans by providing the game time experience to those who can’t actually attend.”

On the corporate side, Kaiser says enterprises are using streaming more for executive roadshows and addresses. Gone are the days of CEOs touring their field officers and presenting new company initiatives. Streaming such information saves time and money and downed and boosts productivity—both for workers and executive.

Time to Consider 4K?

In addition to mobile experiences driving streaming applications, AV professionals need to pay attention to another consumer trend: Ultra high-resolution displays. Prices for 4K displays and other hardware are steadily declining, while the selection of 4K content is slowly increasing. Those trends are prompting some enterprises, houses of worship and other organizations to consider upgrading their streaming capabilities to 4K to meet expectations.

“The initial questions we hear about it are usually related to cost, efficiency and compatibility with existing systems,” Caniglia says. “But our customers are finding that while some new equipment is usually required, 4K streaming can be very affordable, and that there are already faster connectivity standards and scalable products that can handle SD, HD and 4K content all in the same device. By investing in products like these, customers can future-proof their operations and be ready to stream in 4K when the time is right.”

Future-proofing includes choosing new codecs that make the most of available bandwidth, such as High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC)/H.265. “HEVC is going to allow people to get higher resolutions, including 4K and 8K, without having to use much more bandwidth than they do today with HD,” says Eduardo Martinez, Director of Technology StreamGuys, which provides streaming media services.

HEVC also is a good fit for delivering HD streams over wireless links that have limited bandwidth, are expensive or both.  “Even though many of our markets are asking about HEVC, it’s the military that is adopting it in earnest,” says Peter Maag, Chief Marketing Officer at Haivision. “It’s not for the dream of providing a 4K experience; it’s for the efficient use of their very valuable bandwidth — 1.5 Mbps satellite pipes.”

Caught in the Net

As streaming AV applications continue to expand and customers’ expectation rise, AV professionals — if they aren’t already — need to be well versed in IT networks. Network delays can make for an awful streaming experience. For example, in digital signage applications for sports arenas, where distributed screens also carry with live game feeds, IP networking can cause multi-second delays that make for endless instant replay.

Minimizing the delays the impact streaming can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Take streaming over WiFi, for instance. Not all clients have the staff or savvy to determine whether their wireless LAN (WLAN) has the coverage and capacity necessary to shoulder the additional workload of streaming. That presents an opportunity for integrators to offer WiFi engineering as an additional service.

“For integrators who really understand the network, there’s huge opportunity there,” Maag says. “But not many do. The integrator has to work very closely with WiFi providers to make sure the network is designed and capable of supporting the video experience they’re trying to achieve.”

It’s also important to understand whether a client expects to see spikes in streamed content. If so, the WLAN and the infrastructure behind it have to be able to scale gracefully.

“A big issue can be network bandwidth, specifically in offices virtually attending CEO road shows,” says IVCi’s Kaiser. “Having 100 people in an office all viewing a stream can really hurt the network. In many cases, nodes or other delivery methods can be set up on a per-location basis to mitigate that issue.”

Brush Up on MPEG

When streaming to a mass audience, content-delivery networks (CDNs) also affect the ever-important viewing experience. And changes in CDN platforms mean AV pros need to embrace new technologies.

“If you go over a CDN, you’re going to incur substantial latency,” Maag says. “Most CDNs have moved from Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) architectures to chunked, HTTP Live Streaming-based architectures. Chunking takes time.”

Many CDNs have begun supporting MPEG Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (MPEG-DASH), which configures the stream based on each endpoint’s capabilities and requirements to ensure a good user experience. “Probably that’s where the world is going,” says Piksel’s Everett. “[CDN giant] Akamai is stopping support for RTMP at the end of this year, so folks who do streaming and want to deliver at scale are going to be forced to update.”

As Internet-based streaming migrates to MPEG-DASH, AV professionals should have an easier time troubleshooting systems and improving user experiences.

“If it’s MPEG transport, then I can probably find a tool that either can see the packet or structure, or can be configured to see into that structure,” says Phil Hippensteel, a consultant. “Then I can see what’s going on. If it’s a proprietary protocol, I don’t have a clue what’s happening below the IP level. That’s important for figuring out why a streaming system is taking 50 percent more bandwidth than someone said it would, or why is it so sensitive to [Quality of Service] settings, or a thousand other questions an IT person running a network might have.”

For all the new stream technology and heightened expectations, some things won’t change. If the original stream is flawed, no amount of AV engineering can make it perfect. All the investment and effort put into a streaming system could be wasted in a situation of “garbage in, garbage out.”

The audio portion of a stream is a prime example.

“The better quality you feed into a codec allows the codec to do its job better,” says Shell Haffner, Director of Product Management at Biamp Systems. “It has to squeeze down information into a small pipe to go over the Internet, for example. Installed mics, installed speakers and DSP systems to eliminate noise will make the end experience that much better.”