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Progress Towards Giving the Gift of Streaming: Help Me Stream’s 2023 Research Highlights

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Editor’s note: While many in the StreamingMedia.com audience might recognize Help Me Stream Research Foundation as our partner in research surveys, the 501c3 non-profit’s day-to-day mission has a much bigger goal: introduce “the gift of streaming” to over 1.6 billion globally that don’t have access to Internet connectivity. We’ve highlighted their conversion of first-world “tech junk” before, and today’s article provides an overview of their research in 2023.

As 2023 comes to a close, we’re excited to share with you some of the research we’ve done over the past year—from working with StreamingMedia.com on its State of Streaming surveys to lab research geared towards giving “the gift of streaming” to those in parts of the world that don’t yet have internet connectivity—as well as share a bit about Help Me Stream Research Foundation’s 2024 goals. 

We’ll cover technical validation and research projects, internships/mentoring, streaming system prototypes and surveys. Also, if you’ll briefly indulge us in this holiday season, we’ll share specific needs to help us help the industry, with the goal of moving towards a future where streaming is as prevalent elsewhere as it currently in major markets, such as the US and Europe.

While the last several years have been spent researching and designing potential streaming solutions, we see 2024 as a growth and implementation year. As our founding Executive Director, Tim Siglin, noted in the conversations around the Greening of Streaming article he co-wrote almost four years ago with Dom Robinson, Help Me Stream’s growth can’t come at the expense of remaining true to an underlying premise: reuse of existing gear—with significant life left in it—is almost always better than recycling or trashing that gear merely for the sake of progress.

Since this is a fairly long recap, readers who don’t have time to read about all the cool projects could drop down to the last two sections of this article, Streaming Media survey opportunities and Help Me Stream’s immediate needs. Some of the needs center on specific volunteer roles, while other needs are monetary as a way to accelerate specific research projects—something we’ve never asked of the industry as Help Me Stream has self-funded initial research projects over the past few years—as well as a continuing request for the types of old technology we research to generate new solutions.

For needs requiring funds to accelerate research, testing and implementation, our status as a non-profit entity means that monetary donations in the United States are tax deductible, whether given directly or through our PayPal Giving Fund link. But we want to emphasize that, in this initial request for industry financial support, we’re not asking for funds that would cover salaries. Our belief is that, with the exception of travel/insurance costs and internship support, any requested funds should be used directly in designing, prototyping, testing and deploying these unique streaming solutions rather than funding salaries.

Validating Industry Claims

We noticed a few years ago, as our industry continued to grow in both scale and global impact, that some claims in the streaming marketplace seemed implausible. While the industry has gone through two waves of this before, both times just before a market correction, the difference between the claims then and those now is that the industry previously was small enough that it could do a good job at self-policing unsubstantiated claims. That policing included strong investigative critiques by tech journalists, including a few that wrote for Streaming Media magazine, with the intent of protecting potential customers from unsubstantiated claims.

We noticed with this more recent round of claims, however, that they were either being left unchallenged without proper industry validation, or simply parroted by sites that publish barely-modified press releases, or presented without a methodology to validate the claims.

After voicing this concern for several years, Help Me Stream found itself in the unique position to be able to provide independent, third-party validation of some fascinating claims, drawing on the expertise of many of the streaming industry’s pioneering engineers and systems architects to build methodologies that are both replicable and verifiable.

We’re happy to report that several forward-looking companies in the industry have embraced the independent validation opportunity, and while some have chosen to use our external testing as internal confirmation of their own testing, others have chosen to publish the results to the wider industry. Here’s an example of a validation that was done for Wowza’s live-streaming at scale some time ago.

While we have not traditionally charged a fee for this technical validation, our increasingly growing research workload drove the decision to ask organizations to consider a donation to help offset the cost of independently validating claims. That’s led to two companies stepping up to a monthly lab sponsorship, one for each of the first two months of 2024, which will help offset some of the validations testing during that month. We’ll promote each month’s lab sponsor in several unique ways throughout the month they sponsor the Help Me Stream lab, starting in January 2024, and we’d welcome conversations around additional lab sponsorship for March through December 2024 via our donations@hmsrf.org email.

Internships and Mentorships

Digging into old tech to generate new streaming solutions certainly requires an open mind, as well as a bit of industry experience, but it also helps to have a fresh set of eyes. We often find that fresh set of eyes in the form of interns, several of which have helped push the research into demonstrable benefits for the overall streaming industry.

In both 2022 and 2023, we’ve been fortunate enough to have some very bright students assist in our initial lab research, interns that are as comfortable around robotics teams and math competitions as they are around a set of calipers, a multimeter and a 3D printer. We also strive to pair them with retired engineers, who can help answer key questions around electrical, material and technical infrastructure challenges.

One very cool project this year’s interns have tackled is an original design for housing computing modules in hot-swappable drive bays as a way to both increase power efficiency and compute capabilities in older servers .

We’d started on the basic premise of a solar server last year, self-funding research in power- and carbon-reduction strategies to power servers directly from solar panels, bypassing the typical hitting enough power-reduction milestones in July to begin considering the reintroduction of value-added components to the stripped-down test servers.

In our research, we found out that newer (circa 2018) compute modules—complete with an SSD, RAM, CPU, some form of GPU, networking and heat dissipation—only require about the same amount of power as an enterprise-grade hard drive. Given the physical real estate that’s been dedicated to housing a dozen spinning hard drives in our circa 2012 two-rack-unit (2RU) retrofitted solar servers, the premise we set about testing with assistance from the interns was whether we could quadruple compute power in each server.

Turns out we can increase the compute capabilities at about 10x per server, on average, using groupings of these newer compute modules, without adding more than 180 watts to the overall configuration—an increase that could easily be handled by one or two additional solar panels—if we could only find a way to easily swap the modules in and out as the elements take their toll in an outdoor testing environment.

The solution we’ve settled on allows the compute modules to dock the same way that a hard drive docks, including a standard hot-swap module. From basic measurements with calipers to initial software models to inaugural 3D prints and plenty of dremeling, repeated in about six iterations, the team of interns produced a holder that precisely fits in the hot-swap bays—and then immediately modified it to be able to handle more recent compute modules that come equipped with larger heat sinks.

In a bit of playful experimentation around late October 2023, a mentor from the local maker lab printed a version from glow-in-the-dark filament. The light emanation so intrigued both the researchers and interns that we immediately implemented that property for both our Halloween show-and-tell as well as for several future solar server versions that might require supplemental server lighting shortly after nightfall.

Outdoor Lab Testing

Since many of the research projects are geared towards use in harsh environments, the next step is setting up a multi-month outdoor test environment where we can see the impact of the elements on components and systems—from cameras and networking gear to the smartphones, tablets and laptop parts we use to build our prototypes.

outdoor lab testing

Whether it’s the classroom-in-a-box streaming project for educational use in emerging markets, the solar server project, or other projects we’re designing, we realized the critical importance of running tests in harsh environments for 4-6 months. This newly designed outdoor testing environment is a key milestone to verify that our media acquisition and delivery designs won’t stop working mere weeks after they’re donated to NGO partners and deployed in the field. After all, the cost of servicing a freely donated streaming solution could far outstrip the NGO’s financial budget for technology repair, adding a financial burden where it’s not intended.

Research projects, Survey Style

The year was full of industry research in the form of surveys on a variety of topics, many of which are hosted here at StreamingMedia.com.

Besides the twice-annual flagship State of Streaming surveys, including this year’s 2023 Spring and 2023 Autumn editions, we also assisted in research surveys and presentations on topics as varied as live-streaming technologies and the use of video in higher education.

StreamingMedia.com also has on-demand videos of the corresponding keynotes and webinars, such as the State of Streaming survey findings presented at Streaming Media events in May and November.

We’ve also pursued smaller, bespoke research projects for companies in the industry that focused on the size of emerging data centers—with the intent of lowering latencies by placing smaller data centers near less-populous communities—as well as business models for streaming that balance capital expenditures and operational expenses. We also conducted direct research into sustainability best practices, both on behalf of Greening of Streaming and other organizations who share the goal of offsetting carbon through better reuse of existing equipment.  The resulting responses to these surveys benefit the overall streaming industry while also providing Help Me Stream insight into best practices for the streaming solutions we’re currently assembling from old-tech donations.

Interested in surveys around a topic not listed here, such as advertising delivery or sustainability or even monetization approaches? Let us know at projects@hmsrf.org or contact the StreamingMedia.com team.

Conclusion and Needs

With the knowledge we’ve gained doing both research surveys and technical validations, as well as old-school research into unique ways to turn tech junk into useable new streaming solutions, Help Me Stream Research Foundation feels it has successfully used the past three years to plot a sustainable path to reuse first-world technologies to give “the gift of streaming” to the 1.5 billion people across the globe that currently don’t have access to connectivity or streaming in any form.

But this also leads us to a signifiant inflection point: How do we proceed?

While we’ve reached the point on a few projects where it’s the ideal time to scale up, we also are well aware that self-funding isn’t a feasible approach. So for the first time we’re asking the industry for support.

There are several ways to help. Besides the ones mentioned above, from lab sponsorships and claim validation testing, there are four other key areas:

  1. Volunteer services. Any streaming industry professional that wants to help drive forward the mission of giving “the gift of streaming” alongside Help Me Stream is more than welcome to contact us at projects@hmsrf.org with availability and a list of particular skills they’d like to contribute. And it’s not just engineers and tech-minded volunteers that we need: Since several research projects are at a presentable stage, volunteers with marketing, public relations and social media skills are also needed to help spread the word. We’re also in need of skilled expertise in front-end design for a database engine we’ve been working on for both survey and inventory management use cases.
  2. Purchase or donation of specific testing gear. We’ll use this gear in both the traditional indoor lab and unique outdoor testing environment. By explaining our mission to vendors, we’ve also been able to establish good relationships with those specializing in refurbished older technology—needed to upfit donated gear that sometimes has broken components—at even lower prices than they advertise to the general public. Feel free to email donationlist@hmsrf.org and we’ll provide an up-to-date list of specific gear.
  3. Funds to aid in the scaling up of prototype assembly and durability testing for at least three iterations of each project. These can be made directly through the PayPal Giving Fund link or directly to Help Me Stream Research Foundation.
  4. Warehousing rental. Numerous companies have offered truckloads of donated gear, but we’ve not had the funds to transfer and warehouse these donations. As such, we’ve had to turn down multiple offers of donated gear, much of which could also be reused in rural environments even in first-world countries (a challenge a group of us also believe the streaming industry should address, given the massive digital divide affecting rural communities across North America and Europe that’s been growing as small communities seek to reconnect to the online world after the death of dial up).

As we end 2023 and enter 2024, the team at Help Me Stream Research Foundation would once again like to thank each and every streaming media professional that has supported our journey so far. Without your volunteering and equipment donations we’d never have been able to even reach the starting line in this moonshot idea of giving “the gift of streaming” to those who lack access to the technologies we so often take for granted.

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