Los Altos, Calif.-based i4Vu, now in the early stages of lining up trial engagements with potential customers, took an important step toward making its case to cable operators this week with participation in the CableLabs Summer Conference innovation showcase. “We’ve made a lot of progress on a number of fronts since we showed our technology during the Cable Show in Boston,” says Scott Steele, vice president of marketing and product development at i4Vu. “What we’re showing at CableLabs is a more fully featured set of capabilities.”
As explained by Steele and other company officials, their goal has been to create a platform that gives operators and OTT distributors the tools they need to make the connected-device experience more compelling to end users. For example, by making fast-channel change possible between a primary video and a cluster of secondary videos brought together onscreen by the distributor or the end user, the company enables packaging coherency across the vast range of viewing options with a speed of user access that mimics the pay TV experience.
In this application, the simplest way to envision the technology is to think of a user interface on which a primary video is playing and several thumbnails of other videos are arrayed around the periphery. These are not static thumbnails but streaming videos showing alternative viewing options which the user can select, moving any one of them to the primary viewing position and the primary video to the secondary tier instantly without interrupting the flow or waiting for the selected video to buffer. Users can activate trick-play capabilities on any selected video in order to view missed segments
Any video the distributor has access to, whether stored as an on-demand file or available through a live feed, can be made available through the iV4u server for assembly into a cluster of primary and secondary videos, Steele says. Distributors can perform the clustering themselves for a wide range of use cases, such as promoting less viewed alternative channels when a channel from a given content supplier is chosen; creating mini-package purchase options with sports or other channels where viewers can keep track of what’s going on across multiple events; offering special promotional bundles of pay TV content for upselling purposes, and much else.
“One of the most clear and high-value use cases is multiple live sports events with the ability to monitor and switch to them instantly with full trick-play and DVR capability in every window,” notes Chanchal Chatterjee, founder and CEO of i4Vu. “Everybody gets that instantly.”
Or the system can be set up to allow users to create their own clusters by selecting from the full lineup of available live and on-demand options in order to have their preferred viewing choices immediately at hand for quick switching from one to another – as is commonplace with today’s frenetic viewing habits. The i4Vu MultiView technology delivers the user’s individualized selections in a live mosaic presentation, customized for the specific device form factor and resolution, Chatterjee says.
In another approach to enabling instant access to viewing options, a distributor can make an entire playlist available from linear and on-demand sources where all the thumbnails are playing as secondary videos and one becomes the primary video as soon as it’s chosen. “Today, when people deliver video they show a playlist with standard thumbnails,” Steele notes. “Users have to go back and forth between thumbnails, each time consuming a considerable amount of time waiting for the video to start playing. With the same workflow using our technology the distributor can have an unlimited number of options queued up as live feeds so that when the user makes a selection the response time is instant.”
Among other use cases people are thinking about deploying is the display of multiple movie trailers in an on-demand venue where users can jump from one to the other without leaving the app prior to making a purchase. Personalized advertising is another appealing capability supported by the platform, Steele adds. And there’s interest in features such as remote device control, program migration among devices and live social TV.
The client-server architecture of the i4Vu platform uses adaptive rate streaming technology with enhancements to deliver the primary and secondary videos, all multiplexed together on the feed to any given user. In thumbnail mode the live videos are taking up the equivalent of bandwidth consumed for a mobile video app with a resolution of about 160 by 90 pixels, Chatterjee explains.
“If we’re sending four videos, one as primary and three as secondary, the primary may be consuming 800 kilobits per second and the remainder another 90 kbps,” he says. The app is currently available for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch devices, Adobe Flash Player (in Android and PC browsers) and in Android 4.0 environments, he adds.
Even though the streams are multiplexed together for any given user they are segmented in such a way as to allow each one to be treated individually in the cache at CDN end points, Steele notes. This means that a primary video at full resolution viewed in one user’s cluster can be viewed from cache at full resolution if it’s part of another user’s cluster, thereby minimizing the amount of traffic streamed from the i4Vu server to the caching points.
Indeed, says Steele, the ability to orchestrate the i4Vu FastChannel and MultiView (clustering of videos) functionalities with CDNs affords distributors an opportunity to work with third-party or their own CDNs to implement these advanced capabilities with minimal impact on bandwidth consumption. “The [adaptive bitrate] chunks we package and send to devices via the CDN are now fully cachable,” he says. “In fact, we’re talking with CDN providers as potential partners as well, because it’s possible to deploy our platform at the CDN edge.”
The i4Vu system also minimizes bandwidth usage by virtue of its ability to operate adaptive rate streaming more efficiently than is typically the case in the OTT environment, Steele adds. Here there are important implications with regard to bandwidth efficiency and quality assurance that might have broad application for streaming over cable and other managed networks.
Rather than relying solely on the standard HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) adaptive rate communications between client and server that determine the bitrate for each succeeding segment or chunk of streamed content targeted to a given device, the i4Vu platform uses an out-of-band link to provide greater control over the conditions that determine what the client communications to the server. For example, in the FastChannel application, when a secondary video is selected by the user as the primary video, the i4Vu SureStream client/server algorithm tells the device processor to drain the buffer so that a segment from the selected video can be transmitted into the buffer immediately.
Similarly, by regulating the amount of content in the device buffer at any one time, the SureStream system can control the client request for succeeding bitrate fragments of a selected video. For example, if the client is experiencing a slow fill rate in the buffer indicating a drop in bandwidth that would normally mandate a request for a lower bitrate with the next fragment, the algorithm can see to it that the buffer fill rate remains high enough to trigger a request for the higher bitrate. This can be applied in a managed network situation where a premium service subscriber who might otherwise experience quality-impacting fluctuations on the bitrate of a TV show being viewed on a high-resolution device consistently receives the video at the optimum quality level for that device.
“Because we’re operating on a client/server platform we can take advantage of a lot of information at the server to improve on the quality of experience,” Steele says. “We’re outpacing the usual buffer read by looking at all the information we have about what’s going on in the network and feeding the buffer based on that information, including information about the changing of channels by the user. So we have more degrees of freedom to optimize the individual user experience.”
The only limit on the number of videos that can be made available on a playlist for instant access is the capacity of the server, Steele notes. “Our current view of the capacity of one of our servers is the CPU performance is comparable to the other media server products on the market today in terms of the number of streams sourced out of a single media server instance,” he says.
That translates to “somewhere between 500 and 1,000 simultaneous end points running on a standard quad-core Linux server instance.” Or, if used on a cloud basis, which is an option, the platform capacity is equivalent to a large server instance on the Amazon cloud, he adds.
The server is available as licensed software or as a service appliance for deployment in the service provider’s infrastructure or via a software-as-a-service model. i4Vu makes both the server and client available in the form of software development kits, with “defined APIs which allow the provider to integrate i4Vu technologies into their workflow and develop their own customer applications,” Chatterjee says.
I4Vu also offers services and support for server integration and application development, he adds. For example, the server technology is available for integration with home multimedia devices, such as set-top boxes, media servers and gateways. “The i4Vu home server allows service providers to deliver the benefits of MultiView and FastChannel to their subscribers within the home, with the added potential of providing access to user-owned or created media assets stored on the home network,” he says.