Your attention is a precious commodity. The transition to a digital-first, mobile-first world has taken place almost in the blink of an eye and you now hold the keys to pretty much every element of subsistence and gratification — health, fitness, finance, shopping, entertainment, news, sports, business, communication, social interaction — in the palm of your hand. Literally.
For companies fighting for your mindshare, the result has become a never-ending race to navigate that wonderfully rich yet immensely fragmented digital landscape in order to successfully capture and captivate your attention. Engagement is no longer a distinguishing characteristic of a game, app, product, or platform; it’s simply a prerequisite.
At ActionStreamer, our primary goal is to help leagues, networks, and media companies bring you closer than ever before to the sports you love. More integrated. More immersed. More social. And while we are well on our way to realizing that vision, the path to the fan-engagement utopia we seek doesn’t come without its fair share of challenges, particularly on the tech side. So I enlisted the help of my business partner, Chris McLennan, ActionStreamer’s CTO, to break down some of our tech for you.
Stadium environments present challenges
If you’ve ever tried, unsuccessfully, to send a text or share a photo while at a concert or ballgame (we won’t even talk about trying to load a video), you have experienced the ramification of radio frequency (RF) congestion and noise. Major pain, right? That is indicative of the greater issues that arise when attempting to facilitate the transmission of a digital stream in a “chatty environment” such as an arena or a stadium.
Boiled down, a wireless video stream is essentially a digital transmission (think of a virtual wire with a sender on one end and a receiver on the other) operating on a specific frequency. When additional streaming devices are introduced, things start to get complicated. Typically, in order to facilitate multiple streams it’s necessary to have the devices split up the amount of time each one gets to occupy the frequency or to have those devices occupy different frequencies altogether. In both scenarios, congestion is likely. And when there are a number of devices all transmitting RF energy at the same time, the ability for a receiver to “hear” from the sender can be as difficult as trying to hear your buddy scream something at you from across a standing-room-only bar. Turning up the “volume” or power of a radio transmitter can help, but creates its own challenges of increased signal noise along with the fact that more power is required for the transmission.
Normally, the gain (aka the power) of a radio chain is set as high as possible in order to produce as large of a signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio as possible. SNR is a measure that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. A higher SNR will produce a higher data rate. For example, if a device receives a signal of -75 dBm and the noise floor is measured at -90 dBm, the SNR is 15 dB. Data corruption and therefore re-transmissions will occur if the received signal is too close to the noise floor. In the case of streaming live video, re-transmissions adversely affect throughput and latency.
There are times, however, when the transmit power can be set too high. This can introduce RF artifacts and “noise”, such as additional reflection of the RF energy that is out of phase with the original signal or signal-clipping resulting in the transmission not being understood by the receiver. Think of a concert’s speakers turned up so high you can’t make out the lyrics or a choppy phone call in which every few words get skipped. No fun.
That predicament has represented the Achilles-heel for the majority of streaming products and platforms produced by others in our space. They’ve fashioned their solutions around trying to overcome RF congestion and noise by trying to operate in unused RF spectrum (which is harder and harder to come by, as new technologies, devices, and use-cases emerge almost every quarter) or by increasing the gain, which in turn requires larger form-factors for batteries — a major hindrance to wearability — and eventually hits a virtual wall where additional radio power has no effect.
At ActionStreamer, we’ve taken the opposite approach, prioritizing a solution to systemic RF issues that interrupt the transmission process. We embrace the fact that RF congestion will exist in our customers’ environments. Instead of trying to overcome it with more radio power or grab whatever precious spectrum may remain unallocated, we work to exploit the characteristics of our video streaming use-cases using sophisticated data transmission logic and signal processing to make the best use of the bandwidth we have access to.
Navigating the disruption
Our patented approach has helped us address and circumvent many RF challenges using heavy digital signal processing and filtering in order to optimize wireless data transmission. We have six patents that work in concert to harness a handful of important network components (i.e. video encoding & decoding, bit rate & depth, resolution, jitter buffer), parameters (i.e. data length, chunk sizes, transmission speed), and radio tech (i.e. dynamic frequency selection, error correction, space-time block coding), all of which are integrated into an automated decision-making model that allows for optimal navigation of network congestion.
In practice, that model (also known as our Content Management System or CMS) treats all available bandwidth as one monolithic chunk. Once the game begins, our CMS works in real-time to assess the total available bandwidth, as well as the strength and success of each device operating on the network.
If, for example, one device is having challenges meeting its minimum-service requirements, other devices can cede airtime and clear virtual space for the struggling device to move to the head of the bandwidth-allocation line. This whole process of stream assessment and prioritization is entirely automated, with scores of virtual levers being pulled at any given moment to allow for real-time diagnostics and an ensuing re-delegation of network resources.
That sets us apart from other vendors, whose models are essentially defined by non-connected pieces of tech competing for resources and attempting to blindly interact and coexist. They are therefore subject to a “cross our fingers and hope it works” mentality because they don’t allow for retry opportunities or critical real-time insight into the conditions and challenges at play.
Now back to the big picture
That’s the crux of our streaming “engine,” so-to-speak. Secondary challenges revolve around hardware miniaturization — specifically the outfitting of players, referees, coaches, etc with tiny, lightweight cameras, sensors, and other electronics to capture content — and ultimately the process of routing the streams to you, the viewer. While these are necessary for a POV wearable device, without solid streaming technology it’s all pretty pointless.
Once the POV streams have been successfully transmitted, that’s where the fun begins for our clients & partners, as there’s no shortage of ways to disseminate the streams. They can be routed to broadcast trucks for alternative-angle viewing, chopped up into segments for instant replay and in-game highlights, fed into live social platforms like Facebook Live or VOD ones like Instagram or Twitter, tied into fantasy sports alerts, and so much more. Whether you’re a content creator or content consumer, please let us know how else you envision POV video being integrated into the sport media & entertainment landscape!