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Live Production for Mobile Viewing

In this article Tim Siglin will help you navigate the challenges entailed in streaming live events to mobile devices and discuss how to make your projects successful in spite of them.

When it comes to live production and delivery, life used to be very simple: You'd output an NTSC signal, send it to an over-the-air (OTA) tower or satellite, and the end viewer would watch it on a television. There were complexities if the live signal needed to be viewed in NTSC plus either PAL or SECAM, but that was for the Class One engineer to handle.

A few years ago a new live production technique-streaming-appeared on the horizon with all its variations. Streaming had many flavors (well, about three in terms of codecs and players) but viewers still used a consistent device to play it back: the desktop computer.

The primary difference between the computer and the television was fairly simple: A television had a constant bandwidth, meaning live content would look as good as the set playing it could provide. But the desktop viewer faced the specter of fluctuating bandwidth that would render quality content highly unwatchable.

There were two forms of unwatchable streaming content: video that wouldn't play at all because it didn't meet minimum bandwidth requirements, and video that would play back at a lower quality. The latter was based on the concept that content creators would rather send out a high-quality and a low-quality stream in hopes of reaching an audience who might not otherwise be able to view content.

In the last two years, though, another viewing device has reached critical mass: the mobile handset, or smartphone. This device has even wider challenges in terms of bandwidth, varying screen sizes, and even varying ability to receive content via standard streaming protocols. In this article we'll explore the challenges entailed in streaming live events to mobile devices and how to make your projects successful in spite of them.

Why All the Fuss?

Mobile is the next live video delivery frontier. The overall market for mobile video delivery--especially smartphones--is growing rapidly, not just in the United States, but in almost every country in the world, besting even the growth (in actual numbers) of PC desktops and laptops.

Almost 430 million handsets sold worldwide in the first three months of 2011, a 19% increase from Q1 2010, but the smartphone sales in the same period shot up dramatically: smartphone shipments in the same three-month period grew 85% year over year, accounting for 101 million units per quarter according to Gartner.

To put those numbers into perspective, research firm IDC says that smartphone shipments in 2010 outpaced PC shipments for the first time, with PC growth only progressing at 3% for the fourth quarter of 2010, on shipments of 92 million units. Apple, which is doing well in the PC desktop and laptop arena, says that laptops now account for over 75% of its PC sales, meaning that mobile network connectivity growth is as high for laptops as it is for smartphone devices.

So what are some of the issues that are faced by producers who want to stream live content to mobile devices?

To illustrate potential mobile delivery dilemmas, we recently ran a series of tests mimicking the types of issues faced by content creators who are keen to stream live content to mobile devices. When I say "we," I mean Transitions, Inc., a consulting company I co-founded in 2003.

The report is titled The Right Fit? Video Playback Performance on Android Using Adobe Flash Player 10.2/10.3 and was commissioned by Adobe Systems. We looked at a number of handsets and a newer tablet, all based around the Android operating system (Android OS 2.3 to 3.1). The handsets included Motorola's smoking-hot Atrix phone, the venerable Droid 2, the Droid X, Samsung Galaxy S, and Google's flagship product, based on the Samsung Galaxy, known as the Nexus S.