Over the last several weeks, as the world tuned in to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, more than 20,000 broadcasters aimed to reach a global audience of 4 billion viewers with more than 4,000 hours of coverage. According to Sam Blackman, CEO and Co-founder of Portland Oregon-based Elemental Technologies, this year the Olympics were going over-the-top (OTT) and his company served up Olympic streams on a global scale with some of the biggest names in broadcast and media entertainment, including, the BBC in the UK, Terra in Latin America, Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium and Eurosport. The company is also supports customers in the US and Japan. Elemental estimated that its multi-screen video processing deployments in 70 countries helped its broadcast customers reach upwards of a billion viewers worldwide.
Elemental Technologies provides hardware and software solutions for adaptive multi-screen video processing. Elemental Live is a linear encoder that takes live streams in and creates multi-screen outputs for live distribution, and Elemental Server is a file-based server that creates multi-screen outputs for live distribution. Blackman says that many of its customers use these solutions for large-scale sports video streaming. See my 2010 interview with Blackman from Streaming Media East, where he also demonstrated Elemental Live and Elemental Server (Larry Kless' Weblog: Elemental Delivers GPU-Accelerated Video Streaming Solutions)
I spoke with Blackman earlier this year at the Over-the-Top Conference, OTTCON 2012, where he discussed, The Olympics Go OTT: Lessons Learned from the last 12 months in sports video streaming. Blackman says that total available TV audience for the Olympics grew from 3.9B in 2004 to 4.7B in 2008, and that it's by far the biggest global sports event. Not only has the number of viewers grown, so has the number hours of professionally-produced live video content. This year a record number of viewers all around the globe watched live and video on-demand (VOD) content on TV, PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other connected devices.
“When we began the intense evaluation process for streaming of the Olympic Games more than a year ago, Elemental had little idea of just how broadly we’d be adopted on a global scale,” says Blackman.
The first key learning was around the divergence of output end-points. With its customer TF1, France's top TV channel and a leading media group in Europe, Elemental had to stream a very large event to multiple devices in Apple HLS and Flash, and set-top boxes in separate outputs for five ISPs across France, all with different packaging requirements.
"The key take-away from this sporting event," say Blackman, "was that to deliver effectively to this divergence of multi-screen devices, you absolutely have to have a software-based solution. Because only software is flexible enough to adapt to the rapidly changing multi-screen world."
The second key lesson was learned working with a company called deltatre, that powered all the highlight reels from recent the Rugby World Cup games. In this case, Elemental was taking highlights that DeltaTRE was creating and very quickly making as many as 20 multi-screen outputs for all its different highlights.
"The key here is that speed is critical," Blackman points out. "Fans want to see highlihgts of big plays as soon as possible, and having a highlight read for VOD, video on-demand consumption in two minutes, as opposed to 30 minutes is a huge difference in terms of how effectively DeltaTRE's customers were able to monetize that VOD asset. So speed of processing is very critical."
The third lesson was learned working on a project with Brazilian-based Terra Networks which had the streaming rights for the 2011 Pan American games and was streaming to 17 different countries across Latin America. Terra was one of Elemental's early international deployments, and Elemental learned a lot about international deployments and requirements that are different internationally than domestically. In this case, multi-channel audio support was required and Elemental had to create many different audio channels and have them associated with a single video file, so that regardless of what of language is being put on top of that content, the end user could view the video and hear the audio in their own language.
The second key learning in working with Terra was around sub-titling and captioning of content, which are very different based on geography. Sub-titling and captioning requirements have changed dramatically over the past few years, and transitioning and translating between one captioning format and another is becoming more and more difficult.
"So being able to successfully translate captions across different end devices, screens and geographies is absolutely critical", stresses Blackman. "Having a solution that really has been through the wringer, in terms of international deployments is absolutely critical."
The fourth key lesson was from Stanford University that deployed real-time wifi replay system where, if you are attending a Stanford football or basketball game, you can actually pull up a replay on either your iPad or mobile device, either a close call or great play. By leveraging Elemental Live which created an archive file in real-time, Stanford was able to make these on-demand highlights available instantaneously. So with in under a minute of the play occurring, fans could pull up that video clip on their mobile device.
"What this is a sign of," Blackman notes, "is a trend, that to make sure that venues and stadiums remain exciting events to attend when they're competing against really big screen televisions and fancy audio systems in living rooms. People are still going to want to go to the stadium because they get to watch the action live but they also get this personalized video replay system in their hands on their device. So as the fourth learning, and this is going to be important in more and more sporting venues moving forward."
The final learning was from Eurosport, the Paris-based equivilent of ESPN for Europe, that is using Elemental for both live and VOD to 11 different countries.
"Here the key is that Eurosport is creating streams for devices as disparate as iOS devices (iPads, iPhones), Roku boxes, Apple TV, Flash Player on the PC and Android devices and then, Silverlight for Xbox 360 and other Microsoft applications," states Blackman. "They are creating 29 different outputs simultaneously, and having to manage the network requirements of all those outputs."
Blackman says that there's hope with MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP), an emerging video standard that they've been developing with several other companies in the space, that it will help reduce the number of outputs from 28 down to just a few different adaptive bit rate (ABR) outputs with standardized packaging. If that happens, it holds the promise that ‘collapses the world’ into a single video standard and the proliferation of formats will start to get reduced.
Elemental recently raised $13 million is a series C funding round, with an eye on global expansion, and the 2012 Olympic Games is Elemental’s largest live deployment to date. See this this recent press release for on Elemental's multiscreen delivery of the Summer Games: Elemental Unveils Plans to Stream the 2012 Olympic Games with Leading Broadcasters Worldwide | Elemental Technologies.
Elemental Technologies is the leading supplier of video solutions for multiscreen content delivery. Founded in 2006 and headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company pioneered the use of graphics processors to power adaptive video streaming over IP networks. Providing unmatched solutions for top media and entertainment companies worldwide, including Comcast, Disney and HBO, Elemental helps content programmers and service providers bring video to any screen, anytime – all at once. The company has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. To learn more, please visit www.elementaltechnologies.com and follow @elementaltech on Twitter.