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Understanding The Basics Of Video Streaming Hardware

When handled carefully and creatively, video streaming represents an enormous opportunity for businesses of all sizes and industries. It can radically improve a company’s internal and external communications, representing a hyper efficient approach to training and an engaging branding method. It’s truly difficult to overestimate the power of video streaming in the right hands, but it’s also difficult to relate some of the technical concepts involved in the process. Fortunately, those concepts shouldn’t be something that most business leaders concern themselves with, just like executives shouldn’t concern themselves with the nature of network traffic. It’s entirely possible to set up effective video streaming without making a huge time or financial commitment, and A/V integrators can guide their clients through the process, ensuring production quality and usability are fully optimized.

What are the basics of video streaming hardware?

First, a quick primer on how video streaming works. These details aren’t essential to making the right hardware decisions, but it can help in understanding where the hardware comes into play. This is how a stream basically works:

  1. Analog signals are first captured by audio and video inputs – The real work in delivering a stream from server to client is encoding, or translating, the data into a language that can be understood digitally. So, every stream begins with cameras and microphones picking up analog signals. This raw wave data is what has to be encoded into a format usable by media players.
  2. The wave data is translated into a digital format – Encoding hardware takes the video and audio analog signals and converts, or encodes, them using what is known as a codec. Codecs are programs that compress and decompress data, and they are essential for efficient data transport over the internet.

    Video data is extremely large and impossible to send over a network without compression. This is at the heart of what makes video streaming so ingenious. Using compression rules like codecs means that a large video file can be chunked into packets and compressed so that users can play the media as it arrives.

  3. The encoded data is sent using a special transport protocol – The most widespread data transfer protocol is TCP/IP, which dictates how data is converted into packets and delivered from server to client, or client to client. Transporting streaming data uses a different protocol known as RTMP, or Real Time Messaging Protocol. RTMP is based on the TCP format and prioritizes a persistent connection and low latency. RTMP utilizes several channels through which packets are sent, and each one is associated with a different type of data. So, for example, one channel is established for audio data while another is for video data. With RTMP, streams can be viewed in real time, though the data isn’t reproduced perfectly as it arrives at the client, due to transfer limitations. This is why streams may occasionally drop frames or become pixelated briefly.

That is the most basic of explanations for how streaming works, and it takes even less room to introduce the kind of video streaming hardware that businesses will need. It looks like this:

  1. Video and audio inputs – You don’t need to understand the technical aspects of video streaming to know that streaming relies on capturing audio and video. This is done with cameras and microphones, and though there are plenty of options to choose from, companies don’t have to get too fancy to put up nice production values. In fact, many webcams can provide sufficient image quality and are easier to encode as well. If image quality is the number one, chief concern, though, then professional video cameras can provide users with that quality and additional features.

    Microphone selection needs to be a bit more involved. Audio quality tails off quickly with cheap microphones, and there are likely to be dead spots with a poorly built input. Still, it’s possible to find a sturdy, quality mic for just a couple hundred dollars, and these microphones can be mounted to or placed on a desk for hands free operation. If multiple people are going to use the microphone on stream, then make sure it comes with multidirectional capability, or one person is going to sound like they are underwater.

  2. Hardware encoder – This is what takes the analog signals and converts them into the proper format for compression. The first thing to check with a hardware encoder is if it can connect to video equipment. Beyond that, it depends on how much a company wants to invest in their video streaming.

    Encoders come in some truly impressive, and truly expensive, forms. Rack-mounted encoders are the most sophisticated on the market and are designed for use with multiple streams and when using multiple formats. These high-level encoders usually have a number of features like captioning, DRM and advertising placement. In truth, rack-mounted encoders are overkill for most companies, but are probably necessary for businesses that are communications focused, like those in broadcasting.

    Portable encoders are where most companies will want to enter the market, as they are less expensive and designed for maximum usability. Portable encoders are built to be moved around and to be quickly connected to a streaming device, so they are ideal for personnel that want to stream from the field. For example, someone in the marketing department may want to set up a stream from an expo or product reveal. They will need a portable encoder to do so. Again, usability is a feature, as the company’s technical personnel can preconfigure the encoder with the proper server credentials and encoding presets, so all the user has to do is punch a single button and plug the encoder in.

    On-camera encoders plug directly into the video camera and send the encoded video signal to a streaming server. They are needed if a company wants to leverage professional level video input hardware. Transmission method is a point of consideration when using on-camera encoders, as they can leverage Ethernet, WiFi or 4G to deliver the signal to the server. It’s tougher to send a consistent signal via 4G, but additional technology like 4G aggregation can help with that.

    Another concern is battery life, as encoders are power hungry. If streaming from the field, make sure additional battery mounts are present for hot-swapping during the stream.

And, of course, a beefy PC or laptop is needed to provide the horsepower for the encoder and input hardware. This may be where the heaviest investment is needed, but there is little guesswork needed here. In fact, with an integrator helping select and configure streaming hardware, there is little guesswork required, period. An A/V integrator can get their clients from start to streaming in no time, and ensure that their streams look and sound professional.

Matt Zaleski