Media streaming is now part of our lives, but how does video streaming work?

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Video streaming is a technology that allows a user to view online video content over the internet without needing to download the media files first. Video streaming refers to online video content specifically, such as movies, TV shows, live event broadcasts and online videos produced by general content creators. But streaming can also involve audio content such as music, podcasts and more.

Since the user does not have to download the media files to consume the content, streaming helps save storage resources, time spent loading or buffering the video and ensures a good viewing experience for users.

So, How Does Video Streaming Work?

Streaming works by breaking down the data packets that constitute the video or audio data, and interpreting each to play as a video or audio in the player on the user’s device.

This is different from what used to happen before streaming, when an audio or video file had to be downloaded completely onto the user’s device before it could be played. While this was acceptable in the early days of the internet when web content only constituted simple pages of text and static images, today the situation is much different. 

High-speed internet connectivity has allowed anyone on the internet to create large volumes of high-quality video and audio content and simultaneously, the demand for viewing such content has also gone up. 

Users are also consuming content on the go in their devices and can be turned away to creator’s competitor if they don’t get to access the video or audio they are interested in or are forced to wait for the video or audio to buffer.

Streaming allows users to view such content continuously and enjoy a seamless viewing experience. Instead of the entire media file being downloaded first, the content is transmitted in data packets a few seconds at a time and stored on the user’s device and played there remotely.

Why Has Streaming Become So Popular?

Streaming as a technology has been around for a while since it started as a proof of concept in the 90s. From 2000 to 2010, it began to grow through the use of Flash, YouTube and the iPhone. 

It was when the MPEG-DASH standard was developed in 2012 that streaming technology took off. This standard allowed YouTube and other video streaming platforms to move from Flash to HTML5. Since then, the video streaming market has grown leaps and bounds.

There are three more specific factors that fuelled this growth in popularity of video streaming this decade – the growing number of platforms and providers, the rise of live streaming and gaming

    Streaming Platforms & Providers    

The number of streaming platforms and providers has increased rapidly. Just in the last decade, video streaming services like Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Tencent Video and Disney Plus have gained major market share as their subscriber base has increased. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing people to stay home, the demand for such streaming content has only increased even more. 

    Live Streaming     

Live streaming is the video or audio broadcast of an event as and when it is happening. Video streaming does not necessarily have to be live, as the content can be produced ahead of time with the viewer streaming it at their convenience. 

But live streaming allows viewers to experience an ongoing event in real time as the action happens. Think of sports events, award shows, global conferences and product launches, video game experiences and real-time news coverage – these all involve live streaming, often facilitated by video hosting and social media platforms. 

    Gaming

Another significant trend that contributed to the rise of live video streaming is that of live video game streaming. Through platforms like Twitch and subsequently, YouTube, video game enthusiasts and hobbyists began broadcasting themselves playing games to a live audience.

Not only did this allow professional gamers to showcase their gaming skills along with live commentary and interaction with their audience, it also opened up ways to monetize their passion through ad revenue, sponsorships, subscriptions and donations.

The increasing demand from this passionate community has given a huge boost to the growth of live video streaming technology. The games market insights company Newzoo reports that the global games live-streaming audience will hit 728.8 million in 2021 and that the number of people watching live streams of games will increase +10.0% from 2020.

Streaming FAQs

If you are looking to take advantage of the numerous options you have to consume entertainment via streaming or want to create content to stream to your audience, this is the right time. Here are a few commonly asked questions about streaming that you might find helpful.

What is Buffering?

Buffering is the process of loading part of a stream ahead of time so that the user can watch the video or listen to the audio continuously even if there is a brief interruption in the connection. You can see this when you open a YouTube video and the loading bar in the player shows a light grey area until a few seconds after the playback point at which you are in the video. Buffering is helpful in situations where the network speed is low or has a chance of getting disconnected. 

What is Bandwidth?

Bandwidth refers to the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted over your network connection every second. It is an indicator of how much information can pass through a network, calculated in Megabits per second (Mbps). Generally, video streaming requires your network to have a bandwidth of at least 4 Mbps, and much more if the video is high-definition.

Bandwidth is not to be confused with the speed of the streaming, which is a measure of how fast the content can be downloaded.

Related to bandwidth is the concept of latency or delay. Latency is the amount of time taken for the information to reach the end user. It is also known as ping rate and can be experienced as the lag when you wait for a video to load.     

    Downloading vs Streaming – What is the Difference?     

Streaming is by its very nature different from downloading. When a video is streamed to be played on a user’s device, the actual file is not downloaded onto the device. Instead the video data packets are transmitted a few at a time, so that the video loads in parts instead of in one go. When a video is downloaded on to a user’s device, the entire file is copied. Only once the entire file has been downloaded can the video start playing. 

    What are Examples of Streaming?

From a relatively new concept in the early 2000s, streaming has become almost a household name today. So many of our activities on the internet involve content consumption in the form of streaming. Here are just a few examples of streaming.

  1. Movie and TV show streaming: Perhaps the most common example of streaming, this is essentially “video on demand” functionality, with streaming media platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV and others leading the way.
  2. Live streaming: Streaming of video or audio content in real time, as and when an event happens, through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and others.
  3. OTT Streaming: This refers to “over the top” streaming, where users access content using specific devices like desktops, mobile devices, smart TVs or gaming consoles.
  4. Video game live streaming: Live broadcasts of people playing games streamed to a live audience on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
  5. Music: Audio files streamed by people when they want to listen to music – through platforms such as Spotify, SoundCloud and Tidal.
  6. Podcasts: Another form of audio format which is gaining popularity and which can be streamed for people to listen to, over Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify and other apps.

There are numerous other examples too which use streaming technology. Any form of media consumption where the content is transmitted to the end user in small pieces of data packets instead of being fully downloaded first can be considered to constitute streaming. 

Do You Have to Pay for Streaming?

Accessing streamed content does require payment in some form. For example, if you are trying to stream movies or TV shows, you will need a fast enough internet connection, a streaming device (smart TV, gaming console, a laptop or even a mobile phone). Besides these, you will generally have to pay for a monthly subscription to access one of the common streaming platforms. Each of the platforms will have their own rates and accessibility so check their individual plans before subscribing. 

How to Stream Your Favourite Movies & Games Faster

Although streaming technology has definitely made the viewing or listening experience much better for the user, it is still subject to the same kind of delays and performance issues as other types of content.

If you are experiencing issues with your streaming, start by troubleshooting your internet connection. This means double checking if you are connected to the right network, ensuring that there are on loose connections and rebooting your wifi router and modem if necessary. 

See if the streaming picks up speed when you lower the resolution or video quality. Live streaming can drain the bandwidth in a network and cause buffering, especially if the video is high-definition and your internet connection is not great. In fact, a report from IBM on The State of Streaming showed that 63 percent of live stream viewers found buffering to be a most serious issue in their experience.

A key factor that influences performance is the location of the content hosting since video streaming relies on remotely storing data packets closer to the user so it can be played faster on the user device. If for example, a user in Singapore is trying to stream a movie on Netflix and the content is stored on a server in Los Angeles, the data packets will still have to travel halfway across the world to reach the user’s device. This could lead to long buffer time for the video, or it may not play at all.

One way to overcome this and make the video stream faster is to use content delivery networks (CDN). These are systems of geographically distributed servers, which store content at various locations around the world. These make sure that for any given user accessing the content, there is a server that is close by, from which the video files can be retrieved and played. The CDN selects the server closest to the user to deliver the content, and once cached on this local server, it can be ready for another user in the same area to stream to.

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