Video acquisition and streaming: A stream for every budget
Streaming is a way of life, and as a result has become part of our professional lives too. Steve Montgomery investigates the challenges of broadcasting content in the right quality for the application.
Video streaming of live performances and events, once the sole domain of broadcasters, is now widely undertaken throughout all walks of life, from vloggers on YouTube to video conferencing in offices through to full-blown UHD broadcast transmission by national broadcasters. All share a common need – to convert visual images from cameras to digital video streams that can be transmitted across a network link between creator and content consumers.
Whilst major broadcast organisations and multi-billion dollar corporations can afford the highest quality video processing equipment available on the market; and can justifiably commit vast resources in order to create quality product that matches their brand image, others are bound by stricter, far lower, budget constraints.
There is an enormous range of requirements. At the top-end the demand is for high-end professional systems that deliver the very best picture quality; enabling mass-market broadcast and live transmission of major global sporting and entertainment spectacles and worldwide news events. Very high production budgets allow the use of the best equipment that is operated by professional people with deep understanding of video production and distribution. They are well placed to purchase equipment that produce outstanding results.
Lower down the scale are the prosumer applications; for use in offices and smaller venues, special interest groups and enthusiasts delivering essential images. These applications call for lower cost equipment that is operated by multi-skilled IT staff and non-technical volunteers. In many cases video is not the primary focus and a slightly lower level of quality is acceptable. The video’s emotional or functional element standing in for the reduced level of quality.
Further down are the non-professional applications, with consumer’s videoing their activities on smartphones and impromptu DIY marketing productions for company websites. Many of these are created by non-technical people but the results can, and need to be, of reasonable quality.
Across the board, there is a demand for low-cost video encoders that are capable of capturing and compressing video streams to suit a wide range of applications and formats. Throughout the range of applications, the viewer is becoming more discerning and expects good video images; that are watchable and free from judder and artefacts. There is therefore a need and a desire for high quality video streaming. “Customers are becoming more critical and demanding,” says Peter Maag chief marketing officer at Haivision: “Gone are the days when people didn’t expect great video quality from internal or enterprise video streams. With the prevalence of high quality OTT services, people are now accustomed to watching excellent video at home and will no longer tolerate poor quality video at work.”
But do cheaper devices perform to that level of expectation, and are they simple enough to use for the majority of content providers to achieve an adequate level of quality? Maag believes they can be: “In general, low-cost products are usually good enough for many applications. However it depends on the overall goals of the specific video application. The split between pro and budget products is not clear-cut as many budget products claim to be professional quality and aren’t quite. Lesser versions will often have poor picture quality, and reduced ability to deal with limited bandwidth.” However careful selection of systems is important. It can be false economy to select budget models, as Maag points out: “The cost savings associated with some products can be negated by the extra time needed to configure and set up live streams.”
Video streams do need to be of good quality. However it is not always necessary to distribute the highest level of quality everywhere. Customer-facing areas such as reception areas or foyers will want to show images in the best quality to impress potential clients etc. whereas desktop displays to each employee won’t need a 4K or UHD level of resolution.
Budget systems can often be suitable for the particular project in hand, or the use to which they are put. “The situation changes as we move from the world of TV with in excess of 500 channels and options for a thousand different shows on Netflix that can be broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people, to the world in which millions of events are simultaneously streamed to just a few people who really care,” says Todd Erdley, CEO, Videon. “Cheaper solutions will be applicable to 90% of the events as these events will be a school play, a destination wedding, a family reunion, all forms of high school and lower sporting events, and on and on and on.”
There is a clear split in the market between pro and budget products Erdley believes: “There is a gap emerging at the top end of professional events where the components necessary to produce a video stream can be upwards of $10,000. By comparison, many events have budgets well below $5,000. Along with the split in budgets comes a split in technical understanding of the production team. For budget applications without dedicated staff to manage acquisition and streaming cost and simplicity is absolutely critical.”
The more powerful, and expensive systems include extensive flexibility and ability to adjust all necessary parameters of the camera and the video streaming process. “These devices can fine tune white balance, colour temperature, bit rates, i frames, key frames, and many other parameters,” says Erdley. “In cheaper systems fewer tweaks are available. But with such a wide range of available devices the most appropriate one can be matched to the needs of the venue, the level of event, the expertise of the production team and the intended audience.”
Maag agrees: “Again it always depends on the application and what it is trying to achieve. If the message conveyed by the video is of high value than there is no reason to cut corners on quality and reliability. Security, reliability, and video quality are all important to our customers.” Cloud-based network distribution is becoming more common and this is an area that the company is addressing: “We are also working closely with Microsoft to enable organisation to use our broadcast-quality video encoders and the SRT open source protocol to stream video from any location onto Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 and stream video portals.”
The popularity of social media platforms that include video streaming is impacting the market in positive and negative ways. Though some outlets might be free to use, they still require good quality video streams to create maximum impact. Strong interactivity between the target viewer and the production point creates an engagement that streaming platforms cannot. Erdley: “Online platform developers need to create a level of differentiation and to do this they require additional production features that aren’t available on free streaming services. My opinion is low latency live streaming of video will be embraced by online video platform developers to create an entirely new engagement opportunity that offers differentiation to YouTube and Facebook.”
The performance of encoder equipment at the lower end of the market is sufficient for many corporate and professional applications but needs to be set up correctly. “New, smaller, lighter and more efficient equipment is appearing on the market all the time and these devices are well-suited to AV installations in offices and other environments,” points out Nevil Bounds, key account director for Feltech. “As an integrator we pay very close attention to the installation and configuration process to ensure that these devices operate to the best of their ability. In general, once they are running their reliability and performance means that they meet the objectives well. We also ensure that we have a good working relationship with the IT department in every location because many of these devices stream over the in-house IP network it is essential that IT engineers understand what we are doing and are happy to cooperate – opening ports, allocating bandwidth, IP addresses and so on.”
As with many industries, the range of user requirements is vast and the solutions presented by manufacturers is equally vast. The sheer size of market demand is driving the design and supply of high-quality image processing products at a reasonable cost whilst still allowing very high specification products to be created and delivered to the most demanding users with the largest budgets. Ever-improving performance-to-price ratios will further enhance the capability of devices across the range and deliver even greater benefits; particularly at the lower end of the scale.