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When Broadband Isn’t Broad Enough: Keeping the Videos Streaming Requires Technical Innovation

A technique called video optimization significantly improves the user experience for streaming video. 5/27/2015 4:15 PM Eastern

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest challenges for content owners and service providers is guaranteeing the viewing experience that consumers have come to expect.

The recent explosion in the consumption of video over the Internet has resulted in more content being produced and distributed at higher sizes and bitrates to keep pace with consumer demand, which, in turn, has translated to more viewer volume and network congestion. According to Cisco, by 2018, a whopping 84 percent of consumer Internet traffic worldwide will come from video.

This large jump makes it increasingly likely that consumers will experience buffering and other interruptions when accessing online content services like M-GO – the premium digital video on demand service created as a joint venture between DreamWorks Animation and Technicolor – or Netflix, during peak periods.

To complicate things further, consumers don’t necessarily understand – and definitely don’t care – about network topology, net neutrality or compression issues. The bottom line is: even on very congested networks, viewers expect the smoothest streaming experience, at all times, in all locations and across all devices.

Increasing network capacity and improving bandwidth would seem like the most straightforward solution. Unfortunately, however, waiting for network issues to instantaneously be resolved is not something content providers can afford. And by the number of customer service inquiries, together with access to instant feedback and demands via social media, today’s consumers are definitely not known for their patience.

Make It Possible, Today

There are various criteria to take into account when assessing viewing experience, with the three most essential ones being:

  • Start time – the time it takes from the moment you press play and until the video actually starts playing
  • Number of rebuffer events – those annoying pauses in the video, where you see the famous circular animation or loading bar and wait for the video to resume playback
  • Quality of video – the resolution of the video and overall smoothness, crispness, richness of colors, etc.

Ideally, improving all three measures would be great for consumers, even if challenging for content providers. Fortunately, a technique called video optimization – when applied correctly to the video streams – significantly improves the user experience according to the above measures.

Do It The Right Way

A successful optimization process will ensure an exceptional viewing experience. While there are various methods that claim to reduce video bitrate without compromising the video quality, only methods based on an actual perceptual image quality measure can successfully perform this task.

Basing the video optimization process on a perceptual quality measure enables determining the subjective quality level of input and output video streams and using this information to control the video encoding process. This enables reducing the bitrate of video streams significantly, while preserving their full resolution and quality. Such an optimization process reduces storage and bandwidth costs, facilitating the delivery of higher-quality video, even over bandwidth-constrained links.

Adaptive streaming enables the optimal video viewing experience across devices and network connections. When encoding for adaptive streaming, a single source file is encoded into many files with configurations customized for different playback environments and delivery bandwidths. Hence, the ideal optimization solution should be applied to existing MP4/H.264 files before adaptive bitrate packaging, while preserving the location of key frames among all layers so they stay synchronized.

In fact, by reducing the data rate differences between files in an adaptive group, some streams from that group can be eliminated since the next optimized layers deliver high visual quality at just a slightly higher data rate. Eliminating layers results in reduced storage and encoding costs while delivering the same (or even better) viewing experience to the consumer.

Is It Really That Simple?

The results of a perceptual video optimizer speak for themselves – content owners and studios that have implemented such an optimization solution confirmed improvement in all three criteria: faster start times, fewer rebuffer events and excellent video quality.

The question is how straightforward (or not) is such an implementation process – and how much effort is put into the optimization process to achieve such results.

There is no reason why the optimization process cannot fit seamlessly into existing workflows. Content creators need to simply verify that the video optimizer can be integrated into their existing workflow after the encoding stage, and before the packaging and DRM stage. As content creators also want the optimizer to preserve all attributes of input files, the DRM and packaging stage is performed on the optimized file exactly as it would have been performed on the regular encoded file.

May “The Force” Stream With You

Let’s consider the example of M-GO, which has now acquired the digital distribution rights to all six episodes of the Star Wars series. This means that even more consumers are streaming video over already-congested networks. Smart technological solutions such as video optimization can help improve user experience, lower operating costs, and make more efficient use of networks. 

Dror Gill is the CTO at Beamr. In his role, Dror orchestrates over the production and delivery of Beamr Video, a unique perceptual video optimizer, which reduces the bitrate of H.264 and HEVC streams by up to 50%, preserving their full resolution and quality.

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