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SMW 17: BlueFrame's Chris Knowlton Talks Cost-Effective End-to-End Streaming for DII College Sports
Streaming Media's Tim Siglin interviews BlueFrame Technology Partner & Chief Strategy Officer Chris Knowlton at Streaming Media West 2017.
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Tim Siglin: Hi. Tim Siglin, Contributing Editor for Streaming Media and Magazine and, Media Strategy Principal at ReelSolver Incorporated. And now, we've got Chris Knowlton. Chris is with BlueFrame. Chris introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about BlueFrame.

Chris Knowlton: My name is Chris Knowlton. As Tim said, I'm with a company called BlueFrame Technology. It's a small company that does end-to-end streaming solutions for primarily Division II and III college sports.

So making it really easy from a production tool perspective, a cloud services perspective, and customized players, including OTT and mobile apps for a customer to come to us and get sort of one-stop shopping at really reasonable prices, to build that sort of digital brand experience that their larger brethren in the Division I might get from ESPN or Fox.

Tim Siglin: Sure. And, it's primarily soft cloud and, on-premise software, is that how it works?

Chris Knowlton: So, there's a piece of software called Production Truck that can sit on a MacBook Pro, or a Windows machine and take care of all the switching graphics, and search, and social media highlights, and all the encoding. And then, send that off to our cloud service, which is called vCloud, which does transcoding, content management, broadcast delivery syndication across multiple platforms. If you wanna go to Facebook, and YouTube, or your own apps and sites. And then we also have the player. So we have an HTML5 player, OTT players that we'll customize and submit to the app stores for you, and mobile apps for IOS and Android that will also take care of that.

Tim Siglin: I had the mental picture of a production truck sitting on top of a Mac. But, essentially it's a featherlight production truck.

Chris Knowlton: The idea that it has with instant replays switching, graphics insertion, and all the graphics included for all the sports in a college. And, as I mentioned, the social media capabilities. It has all these features that people usually expect on having on multiple consoles in a production truck. This is sort of like the lightweight version of it. Especially if you have remote games and things, and you don't wanna pack up a bunch of hardware, you just take your MacBook Pro and a few cameras in a small pelican case, and you go down to the softball field or the baseball field and you're set up to go.

Tim Siglin: So, is the instant replay happening on the local device? In other words, you're not pushing it up in the cloud, trans-coding it--

Chris Knowlton: That's a great question. So the instant replay happens on Production Truck, on that laptop. And the way we've set it up, it can do up to four camera angles of instant replay. And so, if something really interesting happens, you can go back and instantly view it from the four different angles and see, did the guy actually put his foot outside the line, or did he make that touchdown?

Tim Siglin: So you’re really giving them a high-quality user experience in terms of what the end-user could potentially.

Chris Knowlton: Right. So the producer gets to choose the instant replay. In some cases, we've even had referees come back and say hey, can we see that too 'cause we're not sure, and we think you caught it better than we did. But then on the players’ side, we also have the ability ... An instant replay button and live DVR. So, at home you can also You can actually scrub back yourself and see that play again. So you really get the best of both worlds.

Tim Siglin: So you said you can do up to four cameras. You're doing this on a standard laptop, a Windows or Mac.

Chris Knowlton: Yeah.

Tim Siglin: Is it holding the last 30 seconds of each of those four cameras?

Chris Knowlton: It's configurable up to 30 seconds per shot, per camera angle. Depending on what hardware you have, we'll recommend different amounts. But, most of our customers are usually using an eight-second window, because, that's typically good enough to figure out ... To see the whole play.

Tim Siglin: And is it also recording on that local machine, each of those cameras discretely so that you've got a local backup of the recording or--

Chris Knowlton: Today we're recording the program output. So what we recommend for folks who wanna think in terms of redundancy, and fail-safe should the live stream go down for any reason, so they have a recorded version that they can put online later, is that they record on the camera on an SD card, they record the program output, which, includes the instant replays and all the graphics on the laptop. And then we also archive it up in the cloud.

Tim Siglin: All right. So the raw footage from each isolated camera will be recorded at the camera.

Chris Knowlton: Correct.

Tim Siglin: The program stream itself would be recorded that has all the downstream and that kind of thing. And then, your copy that's also in the cloud. So ultimately, you could ditch the one on your machine once you're done with the actual event. But having it there, as you say is a safety just in case.

Chris Knowlton: Yeah, exactly. If you lost your network connection in the middle, you still have a full copy with all the graphics and instant replays. And some of our customers have made use of the fact that we have things like NDI output too as well. And you can push the stream right out to something like an NDI backup machine externally, if you don't wanna do it on your local machine.

Tim Siglin: Awesome. So, you've been with the company now for how long? About six months?

Chris Knowlton: Yeah, a little over six months now.

Tim Siglin: And you guys did a press release here just recently where you said you have 210 new customers. That's a pretty impressive number. Are those service customers that sign up for a month at a time, or people who a year contract, a multi-year contract?

Chris Knowlton: That's a great question. So a few of them are folks who just signed up to use Production Truck. Like the Western Athletic Conference is a Division I conference. They just signed up to use production truck software in nine of their 13 schools.

Tim Siglin: And why are they using it if they're a DI?

Chris Knowlton: Because, they currently do not have football. So they don't have big budget sports networks coming in. They cover all the other athletics though, and they needed a way to broadcast. Some of the schools already have some pretty sophisticated production setups and didn't need new software. But the others, they wanted a consistent look and feel across all the schools and giving them this software was an inexpensive way to get a really great experience, and a consistent branding experience across all the schools.

Tim Siglin: So the 210 might include as you say, a couple of conferences that would have nine to ten--

Chris Knowlton: But, in this case it's probably less than two dozen of those are just Production Truck only. The rest are actually have signed up for the service, the full service end-to-end. And so, now we have something like 76 DII schools, and about 10 different division two conferences onboard. We just recently acquired a company called CityLink TV. In addition to doing local sports for high schools and things like that, they also happen to be doing live streaming for radio stations, houses of worship, city municipalities, city council meetings, things like that. So although we've focused primarily on sports, we've added to the number of folks who discovered us outside the sports vertical, and have more folks now using BlueFrame for these other vertical use cases as well. Aso we brought on a few folks from City Link TV, in addition to our primary sports customers.

Tim Siglin: And are most of those customers month-to-month? Do they have to sign an annual agreement?

Chris Knowlton: In our first year, as you might expect, a lot of folks signed up for a one-year contract or month-to-month. Most of our customers now--like the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) that just signed up, they signed a five-year deal, because they were so happy with the first year. And most of our customers are now signing up for either three- or five-year terms.

Tim Siglin: And will they get updates to Production Truck as those come out?

Chris Knowlton: By buying that as just an annual service essentially, they get all the updates to Production Truck, they get updates to their apps. So we keep everything nice and fresh for them.

Tim Siglin: So, this is a transition for you. You're back in a small company. How do you feel six months on?

Chris Knowlton: I feel really good about it. One of the things that I have enjoyed is, in a small company like Wowza when I started there was the fact that you go in and you get to wear multiple hats. You get to do a little marketing, a little biz dev, a little evangelism, some product development, some product management. I get to do all of that again. And for me, that's pretty exciting, because as Wowza grew, there were more and more people, and we were taking what had been sort of multiple jobs and assigning them a little bit more discretely. So my role is getting a little bit narrow, it was getting deeper, but narrower.

At the same time, I kind of wanted to get my hands back into some of the business side, and a little bit more of the marketing, and more of the product development strategy. And so, BlueFrame gives me the chance to take the experience I've had at Wowza and Microsoft, and apply it to this sort of young company with a bunch of entrepreneurial folks on it and bring to them some of that experience from the streaming world that I've built over the last 17 years.

Tim Siglin: Nice. And then really quickly, talk about the panel that we were both in. You were the moderator, I was a panelist on First Mile. What are some of the things to cover if somebody wants to go watch that session on

Chris Knowlton: That’s a great question. So, we just did this panel called the Handling First Mile Challenges. And that was all about the fact that when you get out to a remote venue, you really don't know unless you've done a good site survey. You don't know what you're gonna get, and you don't know what the network connectivity is gonna be. You may go to, in our case, a college football stadium. And you may go out the day before and test, and you have a great 10 megabits per second uplink. And then you get there day of, and 5,000 people are in the stadium with their cellphones on, or, on the WiFi, and suddenly you don't have a clear signal. And your signal's dropping, and you don't wanna deal with issues like that. So we were talking in the panel about different solutions for handling that, how you can add on bonded cellular solutions that may not only spend multiple cellular networks, but also your WiFi, and maybe even house ethernet to make sure that no matter what happens across all those networks, you have enough through put across them all together, in aggregate, and coming out the other side as a single stream that you can get that signal out. Or, you can use satellite. Especially if you're in a remote area where you don't even have cell towers around. Satellite may be a great way to go. And then the third thing that we talked about was using reliable streaming protocols, and secure reliable transport (SRT), and Forward Error correction. Some of these other technologies that are typically UDP-based, that provide much better reliability over lossy networks and poor networks, and bandwidth constrained networks than typical HTTP.

Tim Siglin: Yeah, and I think it's interesting given what you're doing with the company you're in now first mile, especially for DII, DII, high school, that kind of thing. First mile is a huge issue that people have to think about.

Chris Knowlton: It is. And so that's one of the reasons we signed on early to the SRT alliance. Because a lot of our customers say, we're a small school, we don't have internet run throughout the campus. Certainly not out to the baseball field complex two miles off campus. And we don't yet have an extended WiFi network. How can we handle this? And we say well look, whatever connection you have, we will improve your chances of getting that signal out by ... As I mentioned, there's an SRT example that shows that you can get up to seven and a half times the through put just in the test on a DSL line using SRT rather than RTMP. And if we can do that, if somebody has a 2Mbps output, we can say “Hey, guess what? We'll be able to make better use of that full bandwidth length for you Than you could with varying conditions normally using RTMP.”

Tim Siglin: Good. Awesome, Chris, as always. Thank you, appreciate your time.

Chris Knowlton: Sure. Thanks for having me.