Online video nee streaming has come a long way from its salad days as postage-sized embedded video players (later Flash) on the front of your My Yahoo! Page. Comparing that to what we we are delivering today is unfair, akin to comparing an iPhone to a rotary telephone. Today’s 4K and HD online video experiences with adaptive bitrate delivery are generally fantastic but, faithful readers, we can always improve the experience.
Here’s the ‘why’. Online video is, for some viewers, their primary choice for television. For others, it is a sidecar to their traditional in-home channel lineup delivered by their service provider. But that last part is key. Online video is held to the same standard as the ‘traditional’ television: instant-on, channel change and I see picture, never fails television that has been around for the past fifty plus years. That’s a tall standard. While today’s online video experiences are compelling, I believe we can move the proverbial needle on the viewing experience today.
Building blocks: The Schoolhouse Rock of online video
So let’s explore and understand what functional components should be focused on to optimize today’s video experiences. This may not be as clever as Conjunction Junction, but these vectors of innovation are the ‘needle movers’ i just mentioned. Focus on these, and transformative impact for your video offerings will follow.
How quickly does your video load? Can you measure it in milliseconds where, if you look away for even a moment, the video is playing? It should be. Player performance and time to first frame of video are absolutely critical in delivering outstanding video experiences and retaining viewers. Today’s industry leading video players use highly optimized HTML5 code with tiny cores that load only what is absolutely needed at runtime. Just as important in today’s video forward world are media source extensions (MSE) that enable low level optimizations for optimal handling and delivery of formats like HLS.
Do you have a viable and functional monetization strategy? Put simply - are you making money from your video (if that’s your intention)? Any effective ad workflow today must at its core have a seamless integration of player and delivery. Place too many ads and the best video experiences become broken. If your pre-roll ad takes more than five seconds to load, the best player technology on the planet won’t help you retain your audience. Server Side Ad Insertion (SSAI) represents a fundamental shift in how online video ads are delivered and provides an experience that closely mimics television broadcast in its efficiency, scale and responsiveness. Even better, given the nature of the individualization of online video, more highly targeted and geographically specific ads can be delivered to audiences everywhere. This is what advertisers want. At the same time, this is not just a technology hurdle. Those who buy and traffic in advertisements must take the user experience impact into account when establishing rules of monetization. Delaying playback by even a few seconds in order to secure a higher CPM will ultimately decrease revenue by driving audience away. The industry needs to establish best practices in this area and greatly reduce ad call response times and more effectively measure the impact on audience.
Do you have a good grasp on what your viewers are experiencing when they consume your content? Is the quality optimal? Are they experiencing slow loading streams? Did their viewing experience suddenly stop? Understanding start times, rebuffering, errors, bit rate and rendition switches are critical to delivering a fantastic video experience. Just as important to understanding that data is how you use it. Leveraging that data and using it to add intelligence to your player and video delivery systems is paramount. Using machine learning to crunch this data and create ‘magical’ optimization of your streams to improve the viewing experience while reducing costs in some cases is next level optimization in 2017.
Finally - visual quality is vital to the experience. All we seem to hear about lately is 4K. I believe being crafty and creative with today’s H.264 tools is what the late Steve Jobs would call ‘practically magical’. You’re saying, ‘Matt Smith, you sir, are crazy - 4K is where all the cool kids are.’ Sure, 4K is fun to talk about. When you see properly processed 4K content, it will make your eyes recall the first time you saw HD content. Trust me - I am a fan. I own two 4K televisions at home and think what Netflix and Amazon are offering in 4K on those televisions looks pretty sweet. But we still have many miles to go on this trip, good campers. There’s still a ‘lot of meat left on the bone’ of H.264 to my mind. Well-crafted HD video experiences today can be so visually impactful that most viewers cannot tell the difference in optimized HD and 4K side by side. And when you compare the investment and operational cost of standing up 4K online video when compared to some of the optimization options available today with H.264, the choice is clear. I feel too many have sent the AVC ship sailing in favor of a sexy buzzworthy topic (4K) without taking measure of the cost and hurdles that lie before the adoption curve. Specifically, before we can offer viable 4K video to mass audiences, there must be hardware decoding support for HEVC in the mass market. That means your iPhone, Android phone, iPad, Roku and other devices you watch content on must have this supported in the silicon chips they run on. As Mom and Dad told us from the front seat on that summertime childhood road trip, we’re not there yet.
So faithful readers, hopefully this helps inform and shape your agenda for video innovation as 2017 kicks into real gear. At Brightcove, helping media companies dramatically improve user experience is a core component of our Manifesto for Media. One of the reasons I am so passionate about this industry is its inevitable state of change and improvement. Every year, it seems we raise the bar further than we thought we could and achieve things we didn’t think attainable. So here’s to radical change in 2017. Keep your seatbelts fastened and hands inside the vehicle at all times.