With OTT video streaming now the most popular technology to deliver video content to viewers, certain challenges remain. And for some World Cup 2022 viewers, extended latency, compared to traditional video-delivery distribution technologies (DTH, DTT, IPTV), was probably the most significant.
Over the past few years, Ateme and THEO Technologies have been collaborating to tackle this issue. Together, they are working to provide lower latency for OTT streaming on any device, including connected TVs.
The Problems with Latency
OTT video streaming is a remarkable technology. It’s available on any screen on the market in a fixed or mobile environment. These include mobile phone, tablet, computer, gaming console, set-top box, and connected TV. In addition, it allows video delivery through any standard internet connection, relying on the http protocol. And, it has the ability to adapt to the bandwidth available on the network.
However, this flexibility comes at a cost. The video segmentation and packaging required to enable OTT streaming and the player buffering mechanisms generate significant latency. Typically, it takes from 40 seconds to one minute from encoder input to reach the viewer’s screen. This is at least 35 seconds more than traditional broadcast networks. It’s even worse when compared to real-time social media messaging during the game.
Viewers Demand a Real-Time High Quality of Experience
Viewers expect their video experience to be natively multi-screen so they can watch content anywhere. They also want high video quality and an immersive audio experience. But they would like all this with a latency at least on par with broadcast and as close as possible to real time.
Viewers aren’t concerned about the distribution technology (OTT or broadcast) used to deliver video. However, they do care about their own user experience, which can be badly damaged by higher latency. Their main concern is the “spoiler effect” they will suffer when watching a game. There’s nothing worse than hearing the neighbors cheer a goal with nothing yet happening on your own screen.
Therefore, when communicating with friends about the game on social media, having latency as close as possible to real time is critical.
What are Service Providers’ Main Concerns?
As previously mentioned, higher latency generates this spoiler effect, which damages viewers’ quality of experience.
Some service providers also distribute their content over multiple types of networks — for instance, satellite and OTT. And they need to make sure latency is aligned for both.
The lower the latency, the better it is. But it also has to scale to millions of viewers. And while doing so, there should be as low a rebuffering effect as possible, also not conducive to viewers’ QoE. The final concern is that content delivery must still offer the benefits of traditional OTT streaming:
- Protect content with certified DRM, with the possibility of using different keys on different profiles.
- Share media content between HLS and DASH when streaming content to minimize bandwidth.
- Propose multiple audio tracks and subtitling for all streaming protocols.
- Make content available in maximum resolution (up to 4K). This includes the latest video codecs (H.264, H.265, and soon H.266) and HDR as well as Next Generation Audio (NGA) codecs.
How Can Ateme and THEO Help Lower Latency?
Lowering latency definitely improves the viewer’s experience by preventing this spoiler effect from happening. For OTT platforms, this provides a strong differentiator. And getting closer to real time can help them attract new customers.
Over the past 10 years, THEO has been heavily involved in optimizing low-latency video playback with THEOplayer. This is a premium video player for leading media & entertainment companies. Back in 2016, THEO was already working on a video player for Periscope’s LHLS protocol. At this time, they went live with customers using LL-DASH in 2018. Later in 2020, THEOplayer was the first commercial video player to support the Apple spec for LL-HLS streaming. THEOplayer provides premium low-latency video playback through:
- Cross-platform low latency support. This ensures that low latency is available on a very wide range of devices, including smartphones, tablets, web browsers, set-top boxes, gaming consoles, and smart TVs — even some legacy models.
- Optimized ABR algorithms for low-latency streams across these devices. This results in the best viewer quality of experience, even when there are varying network conditions.
- Compatibility with encoding/packaging vendors. This is possible thanks to THEO’s internal testing tool with 100+ connected devices, used to test lab-streams and customer streams continuously.
- Optimized ad insertion in combination with DRM for low-latency live streaming. This ensures smooth transitions when going from clear to protected content.
Ateme has been a key contributor to OTT streaming for over 10 years. In fact, in 2018, Anevia (acquired by Ateme in 2020) was among the first to propose a solution for low-latency streaming.
The initial solution was about creating the ability for ABR low-latency encoding and packaging in DASH only (i.e., mainly compatible with Android devices). This was followed in 2020 by an equivalent solution in HLS (for Apple devices).
Today, Ateme offers a full solution for low-latency streaming including:
- Live transcoding in multiple bitrates based on the TITAN range of encoders and transcoders. The highest profiles can be in UHD with a resolution of up to 4K, including support for multiple video codecs, HDR formats, and NGA technologies.
- Low-latency DASH (LL-DASH) and low-latency HLS (LL-HLS) Just-In-Time Packaging based on the NEA solution. Packaging features include support for the latest video and audio codecs (and mixed ladder) as well as DRM encryption technologies. The newest features also include byte-range technology support for HLS as well as CMAF ingest capabilities (benefits described below).
- Highly scalable and flexible CDN solutions based on the NEA CDN solution for efficient video distribution with multi-CDN balancing capabilities. This includes key features for low latency such as Chunk Transfer Encoding and HTTP/2 support.
This solution is field-proven and was used by multiple Ateme customers to distribute World Cup 2022 content to millions of users.
THEO Technologies and Ateme’s Joint Mission to Improve Customer Satisfaction
Combining the Ateme video-delivery platform made up of TITAN transcoders + NEA packaging and CDN solutions with THEOplayer is an easy way to have a fully pre-integrated solution lowering end-to-end latency to below five seconds (on-par with, or even lower than, broadcast) and making it available on any type of device.
TITAN can encode a video in multiple profiles, up to 4K, in less than two seconds. NEA can package this channel in LL-DASH and LL-HLS in less than one second. And THEOplayer will need a maximum of two seconds of buffering before displaying content on the viewer’s screen (the CDN has a low impact, typically below 200ms).
For smooth integration, a validation process has been put in place to ensure that the latest Ateme and THEO software releases are fully compatible.
THEOplayer also ensures that low latency is available on a very wide range of devices — on all types of smartphones and tablets (iOS/Android), as well as on various web browsers, set-top boxes, and gaming consoles. It also enables low latency on connected TVs or smart TVs — even some of the legacy models — thanks to extended compatibility with a wide range of models and their embedded OSes (Tizen, WebOS, AndroidTV, FireTV, Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, Vizio, HiSense, etc.).
This last category is particularly important. In a technologically fragmented environment, it is often a challenge for OTT platforms to ensure the availability of the latest features, including lower latency. It is also critical for the viewing experience as more and more viewers enjoy watching premium OTT content on larger screens. This reflects today’s standard solution, already in production.
What Are We Working on Now?
Ateme and THEO are currently working on improvements and new features including:
- Halving CDN traffic to achieve lower latency while improving network efficiency. To achieve this, we are currently validating a complete end-to-end low-latency workflow including chunk sharing between LL-DASH and LL-HLS thanks to CMAF media format, byte-range technology for HLS, IMSC1 subtitles, and CBCS encryption.
- Driving latency down to a two-second range while still relying on standard LL-DASH and LL-HLS by further optimizing the different stages generating latency (encoding, packaging, buffering).
- Combining low latency and Dynamic Ad Insertion (DAI), to create better monetization opportunities during coveted live events. Technically, this has an impact on packaging and manifest manipulation (Ateme) as well as on ad-tracking (aka beaconing) for consumption statistics on the player side (THEO).
Collaborating to Lower Latency
For the past few years, Ateme and THEO have been collaborating with a strong focus on low latency. This was a pain point our common customers were eager to resolve. During this time, we are pleased to have achieved broadcast-level latency and plan to continue this fruitful collaboration. We will be working on combining our innovation team efforts and aim to reduce latency even further to two seconds, while improving network efficiency and increasing monetization opportunities with personalized ads. We will also continue to focus on the user experience in order to define what are likely to become the standards of OTT streaming in the coming year.