Streaming Media Matures: The Search for Solutions Drives Developments

A technology's true value is ultimately measured not by the splash it makes upon introduction, but by the actual impact it has on the habits and history of its users. Streaming media—audio, video, and animation served real-time to the client—may look like the coolest thing since the introduction of the Web browser, but it's still too early to say whether it will someday be viewed as a milestone on the level of email or the World Wide Web itself. As with all maturing technologies, now that it has made its way into the mainstream, it's novelty alone no longer suffices to make it noteworthy. Streaming has to prove itself based on what it actually contributes, or it will quickly become yesterday's news.

"The preoccupation with streaming media is now shifting," says James Dias, vice president for strategic solutions and alliances at Sonic Foundry in Madison, Wisconsin, which makes content creation and encoding solutions for audio, video, and multimedia. "As a group, the industry is now turning its attention from technology to applications—communication tools and capabilities that can improve productivity and the information experience." Streaming media is growing up, and facing the issue of supporting itself in the real world.

Companies involved in streaming express little doubt about the medium's potential to deliver the benefits Dias describes. Sharon Wong, director of marketing at media storage maker Isilon Systems in Seattle, says streaming media solutions within an organization "deliver tighter and more frequent cross-company communication, more personal and effective customer communication, empowerment of employees to 'speak' to the entire organization, elearning opportunities, and unmatched knowledge-sharing." In all, she says, "Streaming media makes a message more powerful, clear, and effective."

A similar endorsement is voiced by Matthew Gale, who handles strategic product marketing for Web and interactive solutions at Discreet, the San Francisco maker of content creation solutions for video, animation, and 3D. He describes streaming media as "another way to communicate experiences, knowledge, ideas, messages, and stories. This medium allows companies to deliver compelling multimedia information across vast distances—in real time or near real time—to implementers, influencers, and decision-makers. Companies can richly communicate custom messages to all the key stakeholders while improving workforce knowledge and productivity."

As evidence of streamed multimedia's efficiency, Gale cites "classic research" published by Wiman and Mierhenry in 1969. "The study found that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they hear and see."

Streaming media also introduces the element of motion to otherwise static communication. "It's often easier to convey concepts as moving visuals rather than as still images, and streaming video provides corporations with a means of distributing these moving visuals," says Mike Nann, technical marketing manager for Leitch Technology in Toronto, a company that makes video tools for professional post-production and streaming.

At the same time, streaming media can actually reduce another form of motion: the costly travel of employees from place to place. "The most obvious benefit that many businesses are reaping from streaming media," Nann says, "is the ability to reduce travel. Whether it's used for training, presentations for meetings, or intra-company communications, streaming media can save not only significant direct costs in travel, but also significant travel time, an often-overlooked productivity hindrance. This goes to both efficiency and profitability."

Still a Tough Sell?
Given these and other potential benefits, it might seem as if streaming capabilities are indispensable to today's enterprise. But streaming was just finding its place when the business downturn took hold, and in most organizations, it hadn't yet made the transition from add-on to essential. With layoffs and cost-cutting the rule of the day, investment in new initiatives—even those that promise long-term cost savings—can be a tough sell. Thus, the underlying issues that have slowed realization of streaming's potential are themselves being addressed more slowly. Nonetheless, work continues on many fronts.

"There have not been any breakthroughs," Dias says. "The technology has largely made incremental gains. The primary limitation in most Fortune 1000 situations is still the PC configuration. There are significant numbers of desktops that are not multimedia-enabled—no speakers or sound card. We expect that this situation will be largely remedied as the technology is refreshed in the next two years with OS upgrades."

Dias adds that overall the networking landscape has improved quite dramatically for enterprise applications. "Many organizations have available bandwidth both on the LAN and on the WAN, and have implemented structured and switched topologies to manage traffic and congestion."

Not all observers, however, take such a sanguine view, particularly with regard to video, the most demanding of streamed media. "Corporations are frequently discovering that the infrastructure of their corporate network is insufficient or ill-suited to the distribution of streaming video," Nann says, "hence, requiring network overhauls by their IT departments to handle it. This is a problem even within single locations, and may be even worse over WANs. I've heard of companies that needed to have everyone log out of their email software just to free up enough network resources to do a streaming media presentation."

Nann believes that newer codecs (compression/decompression algorithms) and formats on the horizon will help alleviate the problem by delivering high-quality video with lower bandwidth requirements. Steffen Frech, a developer at San Francisco's Pilot Video, where corporate video production projects include online streaming presentations, shares this view.

"The delivery of most streaming video," Frech says, "is based on the three major media players: QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media. Each player has its advantages and disadvantages, but the codecs are constantly being improved to further compress video streams while maintaining a high level of visual quality. Real just announced their new Real Video 9, which appears promising. And Sorenson 3 improved the compression of video for QuickTime."

Infrastructure Bottlenecks
While competition between codec vendors has led to impressive progress in a few short years, compression is only one area of development in the effort to address the bandwidth issue. "The bottlenecks to wide-scale streaming deployment,"says Eric Kraieski, vice president of marketing at Vividon in Sudbury, Massachusetts, "have more to do with the ability for the Internet infrastructure to efficiently scale to meet increased streaming consumption while assuring the highest QoS and interoperability."

Kraieski explains that in a distributed network, each remote location will be limited in the total number of concurrent users based on LAN and WAN bandwidth capacity. "Even a 100Mbps Ethernet LAN could easily support hundreds of simultaneous streaming videos at 300Kbps each," he says. "But a WAN cannot, and adding more capacity becomes cost-prohibitive in a WAN environment."

Kraieski says that the simple way to alleviate this bottleneck is by installing streaming edge servers within each enterprise location. "Using this technology, eachunique stream is only pulled over the WAN once and is then replicated locally as necessary to support all employees or students. So last-mile WAN bottlenecks are eliminated." Vividon's own SDA line is a remotely manageable streaming cache delivery system designed for just such applications.

Paul Summers, CEO of VitalStream in Irvine, California, agrees with Kraieski that in a typical corporate environment, there is throughput available on the LAN, but a bottleneck on the Internet connection. Summers, however, endorses a different response to this imbalance. "At some point, it makes a lot of sense for the corporate user to pick a content delivery network that can add a secure point of presence [POP] inside their own network. This is a new concept, but for broadband access it makes a lot of sense," he says. "You can let local users securely connect across your own bandwidth, and remote users can connect via an Internet-based stream on a separate network."

This type of service is one of many that VitalStream offers to facilitate IP-delivered media for corporate clients. "The biggest advancements are at the service companies that have built solutions around the core technologies," Summers says. He points to MediaConsole, the company's own Web-based application that enables customers to remotely control and digitally broadcast their streaming content. "We offer customers the ability to concentrate on the creation and marketing of content, while relying on us for the electronic distribution functions."

In addition to distribution issues, Wong says it's important to consider the storage device from which streamed media begins its trip to the end-user. "Many storage solutions today were built 5, 10, even 15 years ago," she says, "when rich content was insignificant. Rich media is not being treated any differently from text, email, or other non-rich files. A successful streaming implementation must address rich content storage."

With that in mind, Isilon Systems has developed what Wong calls "the industry's first network storage solution that is optimized to handle content-driven applications, such as streaming media." According to Wong, the company's key technological differentiation is in "building data distribution and redundancy directly into our distributed file system. The technology was developed from the ground up to address large, read-intensive files that require extremely high throughput and scalability."

A complementary strategy is to reduce the demand on storage systems by minimizing the number of large media files that are stored. "If access is occasional," says David Heppe, vice president of marketing and business development at Telestream in Nevada City, California, "media can be transcoded into streaming media formats on-demand, so that the streaming servers are not being populated with multiple versions of the original content."

Telestream's supports this capability in its FlipFactory automated multiformat transcoders. "FlipFactory On-Demand can be used to store one high-resolution master and create streaming files on-demand, as requested by users," Heppe says. "Or FlipFactory Publish can be used to automatically generate multiple streaming formats and bit-rates and then automatically deliver the output files to streaming servers."

Thinking Outside The Box
Another approach to improving streaming performance is to rethink how to get the biggest bang from video at the smallest bit-rate. That may mean shrinking the box within which video is displayed while using synchronized multimedia to fill in spatial and informational gaps. Real, Apple, and Microsoft have each developed integrated multimedia capabilities for their players, though a lot of Web developers have yet to take advantage of the opportunities.

One source for effective demonstrations of these possibilities is the Pilot Video Web site ( Showcases.html). "We keep every streaming multimedia presentation as small as possible," Frech says, "by synchronizing media, such as high resolution graphics, so they exist outside the video streams." In a RealPlayer-based example, for instance, video, dynamic text, and a slideshow are combined to create a multimedia presentation that is streamed in real time. A QuickTime demo, meanwhile, uses interactive hot spots in the video to control navigation through sections of the presentation.

While Pilot's approach uses the existing player base, New York City's Sorceron is taking a different tack that requires its own viewer software. "One of the most important technical advances in overcoming the shortcomings of bandwidth- and hardware-intensive technology is modular media," explains the company's COO, Thom Kozik. "Sorceron has developed an entire authoring platform—Cauldron 1.0—around this concept, which is highly beneficial for an enterprise environment. By creating object-based content—where an object can be any media type, such as text, audio, video, HTML, 2D/3D graphics—only the changing pixels in a frame need be streamed rather than every pixel of every frame. This results in much higher-quality playback and much lower demand on network bandwidth."

Of course, both intra-frame compression and object-based streaming are concepts utilized by formats other than Sorceron's, including MPEG-4. While Sorceron says that, "unlike promised MPEG-4 only applications, Cauldron is available today," companies such as Envivio have recently made ISO-compliant MPEG-4 support a reality in the market. Envivio's EnvivioTV MPEG-4 multimedia viewer, for instance, is now available as a plug-in for QuickTime and RealNetworks streaming PC clients, such as the RealOne Player. EnvivioTV is ISMA 1.0-compliant and also decodes object-based "scenes" (advanced 2D profile) programmed in MPEG-4's BIFS scene-description language. Envivio's production environment for EnvivioTV content is Envivio Broadcast Studio.

One of the most appealing aspects of MPEG-4 is its emphasis on standardization and interoperability, which is clearly lacking in today's market. "The ultimate solution for the future," Frech says, "would be a single media player that could support any type of streaming video. Such a player should be a standard for each browser on every operating platform, and it certainly would speed the growth of video on the Internet."

Working on Workflow
While some companies are focussing on the issue of bandwidth and how to make the most of it, others are looking at how the processes involved in the preparation of streaming multimedia can be re-engineered to present fewer obstacles to utilization. Dias, for instance, believes that the adoption of streaming so far has been hampered primarily by a lack of attention by vendors to business process and workflow.

"Businesses want tools that work into their processes," Dias says, "but most new media/Web tools and technologies to date were largely developed for entertainment and consumer applications. That requires business to adopt new practices or substantially modify ones in place. Even worse, in many cases, whole new cost centers—staff, tools, practices—need to be created to take advantage of streaming capabilities. The breakthroughs will come when streaming technologies and rich media content fit better with the existing communications practices of organizations."

Sonic Foundry's own response to this challenge is MediaSite Live, which allows presenters (as distinct from production specialists) to capture presentations as they are created, and to stream them live and/or archive them for later use. "This emphasis on capturing the presentation as it occurs," Dias says, "eliminates the cost and complexity of creating online rich media, making it much more routinely accessible to non-technical personnel in a company, and driving a much better ROI on equipment, infrastructure, and services."

Calling for a higher level of production expertise are systems designed to more tightly integrate the creation of streaming media with the existing workflow within corporate communications departments. Nann, for instance, cites Leitch's dpsVelocity, a real-time non-linear editing system that adds tools for live Web casting andthe creation of streaming files. "dpsVelocity," he says, "enables users to create professional content for video, DVD, and the Internet—including live Web casting—in one efficient interface, making it easy to 'multipurpose' content. The system can be used for non-streaming-related purposes—creating training or promotional videos andDVDs—when it's not needed for streaming media. That helps maximize return on investment."

The more seamlessly streaming media preparation can be integrated into existing structures for business communication, the less of a leap it will be for corporations and institutions to get on board. And as steps such as compression and file conversion become more automated and transparent, the focus can shift back from bit-rates and file formats to the actual content to be communicated. "More attention needs to be paid to the content creation process," Dias says, "instead of the contentmanagement and/or delivery process. Without good content, the rest of it amounts to little more than nothing."