Streaming technology is increasingly relevant in how we use the internet, entertain ourselves, and even relate to one another in and out of the workplace! If you were scratching your head over the workings of virtual events and video calls during stay-at-home orders (or are just looking for a refresher on streaming technology fundamentals) this post is for you! We’re going to lay out what you need to know about streaming and streaming technology, take a look at its rapid evolution over recent years, and break down some noteworthy tools, equipment, and use cases.
- Defining Streaming Technology
- How Does Streaming Work?
- What Slows Down Streaming?
- How to Stream Faster & Better
- Streaming Technology Platforms & Software
- Conclusion: What the Future Holds for Streaming Technology
Defining Streaming Technology
Streaming technology is, in short, the hardware and software that makes it possible to broadcast and watch videos or listen to audio over the internet, live or on-demand.
Streaming is the transfer of video, audio, and data so that it’s received in real-time. We’ll go into detail below, but this can provide either a live stream (like a virtual event or video call) or on-demand video (like a movie streaming service). Streaming is still a technology that is evolving and being optimized, however, even now it has grown significantly in power and capability than when it was invented just a few decades ago.
How Does Streaming Work?
Streaming technology enables video streaming: data is transmitted by a server application, and received and played back in client applications without needing to be permanently stored on a user’s device. The receiving applications buffer data and can play video and/or audio as soon as enough data has been transferred. And in most modern streaming, this is very fast, close enough to instantaneous to function as live communication.
Rather than get into an extensive technical description of how streaming technology works and its history over the past few decades, we’ll keep things in “layman’s terms” and set out some major points for understanding streaming.
Key Differences Between Streaming & Other Video Viewing
Streaming technology is based on digital media. Whereas earlier video technologies relied on things like signals and radio waves and “media” might refer to physical components like film or analog tape, streaming is entirely a process of microchips, internet connections, and data packets. (OK, technically WiFi uses radio, but let’s not get too philosophical.)
Streaming is a digital format that doesn’t require storage space on the part of the viewer, as opposed to earlier types of video (or “motion pictures,” if you will) which needed to be stored on film, video, disc, or drive/solid-state. Obviously, the data needs to be hosted somewhere to be played but the person watching doesn’t need to be concerned with keeping data or any physical media.
Furthermore, when you stream you are watching the content at the same time the data is being delivered. The data is being buffered as you watch and vanishes out into the ether once you’re done and close the window. This is also why it’s a preferred format for entertainment services; there is no issue with storage space for subscribers, and if you want to rewatch at a later date, you’ll also want to stay subscribed to the service.
Along the same lines if you download a video, (via direct download, torrent, or other means) you are copying the data in its entirety for later playback. You have to wait for the data to arrive in its entirety, you won’t be watching the video at the same time that it downloads.
Main Types of Streaming & Streaming Protocols
Types of video streaming and the related streaming technology will vary by use case–and most often the “type of streaming” is best classified by the kind of streaming protocol it runs on.
For a decade or two, there was a brisk competition among streaming players, protocols, and formats. Some streaming technologies were open-source, others proprietary “walled gardens” meant to promote the use of particular companies’ copyrighted products. As the smoke was clearing (coincidentally around 2020) it seemed like HLS streaming and MPEG-DASH had climbed to the top of the heap with just a few other legacy streaming protocols finding a niche in workflows. Then everything took off and we’re streaming more than ever!
We have a deep-dive article on streaming protocols elsewhere on the blog if you want the nitty-gritty detail, but for a quick run-down:
HLS is the HTTP Live Streaming protocol, which was invented and deployed by Apple to work with the HTML5 streaming player. It’s one of the most prominent protocols in streaming today and is used to deliver media from a content delivery network to a user-facing player.
HLS is also frequently used in conjunction with RTMP ingest. While HLS protocol can be used on its own to ingest media to an online video platform, HLS encoders have not become popular (yet).
RTMP: Real-Time Messaging Protocol
RTMP, was created for delivering content to Adobe’s Flash Player. But now that Flash Player has reached the end of its operating life, RTMP is no longer used for video player functions. However, it’s still highly relevant to today’s broadcasters as an ingest tool, as we mentioned above. RTMP provides the benefit of low-latency streaming and affordable RTMP encoders, which were already in wide use. When RTMP is used for ingest, it transfers video from an encoder to an online video platform or directly to the content delivery network.
RTSP: Real-Time Streaming Protocol
RTSP, is sometimes called the “remote control” of video streaming protocols. It’s sometimes confused with RTMP, but, while both are legacy streaming protocols they are not the same. RTSP was developed to carry user commands to the video player, such as Play, Pause, Rewind, and other action. It also enables viewers to access video content before it’s completely downloaded, facilitating close-to-instant playback. RTSP is highly useful in the realm of streaming technology for live streaming, as well as with “internet of things” devices like IP cameras.
“DASH” stands for Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP, and MPEG because it was developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group, who also established the MPEG video format. Sometimes referred to simply as DASH, this protocol was developed as an open-source alternative to HLS that supports adaptive bitrate streaming. Adaptive bitrate is an example of another streaming technology: it allows viewers to watch a stream in the quality that best suits their internet speed. The stream will adapt to different hardware! This means that slower internet connections won’t experience crippling lag and buffering times.
This brings us to the problem of slow streaming…
What Slows Down Streaming?
So, we mentioned buffering as a component of the streaming process: enough data has to transfer from the video hosting service to the player for the video to play. Normally this happens so quickly you scarcely notice, but sometimes streams slow down, leading to spinning progress wheels and frustration.
As the linked article discusses, the main culprit in these situations is usually low bandwidth. In short, there has to be a “wide” enough pipe (via your internet connection) for your video data to travel through, and there needs to be little enough traffic to let it go through freely. Check out the linked article for a more in-depth discussion of issues that can slow down your streams (both incoming and outgoing) and some tips on how to address them.
How to Stream Faster & Better
Streaming is just like other types of web content and can be subject to the same types of performance degradation and delay. In other words, make sure your bandwidth needs are met both through your equipment capability and ISP level. Additionally hosting location can be a relevant factor since the streamed content is stored elsewhere or being transmitted live. In the case of a live stream, adequate and appropriate use of equipment and streaming protocols is a must. In the case of hosted content, distributed content delivery networks (used to good effect by commercial streaming entertainment services) can store content in locations around the world that are much closer to users. For example, a viewer in New York could experience a substantial delay streaming content hosted in Japan, but if the hosting was in Baltimore, the experience would likely be smoother.
If you’re a broadcaster, the choice of the content delivery network (CDN) and the capabilities of your video platform are going to make a significant difference. Kaltura’s platform for instance embraces adaptive bitrate streaming technology and incorporates a lightweight video player and a native app that can work with any mobile device.
Streaming Technology Platforms & Software
Required streaming technology to deliver high-quality video also include the following. Bear in mind that these will be part of the total package:
Hosting Platforms: We mentioned these above, this is the tool that brings all of your streaming technology together and streamlines broadcasting. A good online video platform can help even new broadcasters to output quality, professional-looking video streams! Whatever platform you opt to go with, make sure that it can provide clean streaming to a variety of devices with minimum delays or interruptions.
Audio-Video Capture Devices: Cameras, microphones, capture cards for on-screen content … at the risk of stating the obvious, you need devices to record content to stream. These can range from tools aimed at amateur broadcasters to professional event streaming camcorders.
Encoding Hardware and Software: Encoding is a necessary part of the streaming process that we’ve treated in-depth before. In short, you need to convert RAW video from a camera or other capture device to digital videos that can travel over the internet. Encoders, whether hardware or software-based, can make that happen for you. Luckily, we also have a guide to streaming encoders right here.
Conclusion: What the Future Holds for Streaming Technology
In some cases, the more things change, the more they stay the same. One of Kaltura’s recent studies on streaming has suggested televisions remain one of the most popular streaming devices –in other words, people still like TV, and still prefer watching on bigger screens when possible. However, there are still some innovations for the future that are on the way in 2022. WebRTC protocol, for example, is a streaming project founded by Google that has ultra-low latency streaming capability. Right now it’s mainly used for conferencing but its use could expand. Immersive Video Streaming could pair with the emerging VR field; it’s still developing but 360-degree video streams accessible to typical video players as well as streams customized to virtual reality headsets could finally realize the dream of “feeling like you’re there” in virtual events and virtual experiences. And of course, as technology and streaming infrastructure continue to improve, ultra-HD is on the immediate horizon. 4K HD streaming is already happening (so long as your hardware and bandwidth can support the technology) and 5K and 6K streaming seem to be on the way!
In other words, the needs for and uses of streaming video seem to show no sign of slowing down, and streaming technology will continue to be a concern and important attention investment for the immediate future!
Get the very best in streaming technology for your business… with Kaltura Video Portal!