With apologies to the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” it seems that every time we overcome one challenge in the streaming space, we are faced with another. Welcome to ‘Whac-A-Mole’, streaming style. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what makes the video space so exciting. Every day is different, with a new opportunity, and sometimes a mole popping its head out around the next corner.
This was the theme at Streaming Media West, which just wrapped up in Huntington Beach, California yesterday. This week’s discussion about the updates and changes with the MPEG-DASH specification were not unlike the advances we discussed five years ago with the growth of Flash and the improvement of its toolset as a video delivery method. Today’s talk of Virtual Reality (VR) and its future applications are also not unlike the 3D streaming applications that were being hyped three years ago.
Always be hacking
No knock on 3D - an example of one past technology that came and went. Today, VR is a new example where we are accustomed to ‘always be hacking’ and looking at new technology that comes along and may have a new application or impact on streaming delivery. It is in our nature to assess these technologies and deploy them accordingly. To that end, one key takeaway from this year’s show was the notion of constantly poking and prodding at your video workflow in search of improvement, efficiency or otherwise - always be hacking. Jeff Tapper, an engineering leader from Viacom (with brands like Comedy Central, MTV, VH1 among many others) offered up the idea of continuously hacking your workflows as an evolving process of betterment.
Jeff was a panelist at the session I moderated this week where we discussed the present challenges in delivering content to a multi-device world. To be honest, this is a topic that could be visited at each and every Streaming Media show, as the challenge is evergreen. Still, the session had some great takeaways and perspective from a variety of company brands and experiences.
Build versus buy. This is the age old challenge with most technologies - do I hire a staff and build tools myself, or leverage products and platforms engineered by specialists was one area where opinions and actual mileage may vary? Ben Miller, VP of Digital Products at Sinclair, told the audience that when they can leverage enterprise grade products for video delivery that they prefer to go that route while still having staff to ‘glue together’ products where they need to bolt to others. Tapper said that Viacom also likes to leverage tools where they can, but traditionally likes to engineer on its own when it comes to players. Kirby Gaines, SVP of Corporate Development at Float Left, a company in the business of building apps and experiences for media & entertainment brands, is a big believer in established platforms and products, given the ease they bring to integrating the backend tools required to bring an app and experience to life.
Impending death of Flash and plans. As support for Flash winds down this year, panelists were asked about what their organizations were doing about the end of video support (and ads) in Flash. Tapper said it pains him how happy he is that Flash is dying as a longtime Flash developer. He said this is a unique opportunity for mass change, as it is difficult to get everyone to upgrade to new versions and this is forcing everyone to upgrade their technology, which is a nice unintended consequence. An additional challenge for the Viacom Nickelodeon brand is that they offer a lot of Flash based games and porting to HTML5 is hard. Miller also noted that traditionally Flash has been great for immersive experiences, like those that promote new movies, but the time has come for more standards-based technology like HTML5 and that this forcing function has been developing for a long time. He says their challenge is to work backwards from data and user experience (UX). Despite this event’s disruptive nature at the surface, Miller thinks this is a blessing in disguise. He says Sinclair already has technology in the works that will detect when Flash elements are missing and will then switch out the video player. Finally, Miller predicted that within 12 months we won’t see much Flash at all and that advertising will pivot away too.
Are we DASHing in?. The panelists were asked to update the audience on where they are with the MPEG-DASH specification and where they are using or planning to use it. Miller told the audience that they are an HLS everywhere shop because that’s where the addressable audience is. Beyond the delivery format and protocol, he says there’s a massive ecosystem, but that the advertising space makes things hard. They have challenges moving between the VPAID and VAST ad specifications and, because HLS is a manifest- driven technology, it enables them do things to get better experience across devices. Miller told the audience that Sinclair is launching an initiative called Shift Left to move as much ad workflow as possible to a server-side approach so they don’t have to rely on client-side technology because it doesn’t scale and is unmanageable. Lastly, Miller said he’s learned that you need adoption because there must be an audience for what you build. Tapper said it still takes a while to ‘turn the ship’ and make such a large change, but that MPEG-DASH is still something that Viacom continues to monitor.
Back to the future
I’ve heard many longtime industry stalwarts say that this show and many others are like digital family reunions, and they are right. It is always refreshing to see familiar faces who you know and maybe have even been ‘in the trenches’ with to help play this ongoing game of Whac-A-Mole and continue the process of tackling new challenges. They are excellent opportunities to learn about the state of the industry and learn more from colleagues, partners and some of the biggest media brands around. I don’t know about you, but any chance I can get to learn more and broaden the constantly changing knowledge base is always welcome and has become part of my DNA and that of this innovative company I call home.