It’s been a little quiet here lately. Not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I’ve been rather busy on a very exciting project. Sunday Night Football.
One of the cool new technologies used for NBCs presentation of the Beijing Olympics was a technology that became known as Smooth Streaming and has now been made available for on-demand content through the Expression Suite and IIS Media Services 3 add on to Windows Server / IIS.
Put simply Smooth Streaming allows you to encode a file into small (2 second) chunks at multiple bitrates (from low quality right through to genuine 720p HD and beyond. IIS delivers those chunks as simple HTTP traffic and the client is able to adapt on the fly to the users playback conditions (CPU load, graphics card capabilities, network throughput) to deliver the best quality experience possible. One huge advantage of using HTTP chunks is that they are just like the web pages and images that we’ve had years to work out how to deliver well - so no complicated server set up, and you can use an existing Content Distribution Network (CDN) without having to roll out any complex new technology. Akamai, Limelight and Level3 are all supporting it today and others are adding it in the near future. You can see an example of it in action at SmoothHD.com.
However we’ve taken it to the next level and are delivering live Smooth Streaming. Using heavily optimized hardware and very efficient versions of the encoder we are able to deliver a live broadcast in the same way. We can now deliver seamless mixing of content, switching camera angles, Picture-in-picture (PIP), ad insertion and all the other features you would expect from a high end interactive broadcast.
Sunday Night Football on NBC is the first time we’ve shown this off and it’s getting rave reviews – not just from the broadcasters and technology pundits but also real PC and Mac users who are getting an experience that they’ve, literally, never had before. 720p HD video, full screen with play by play data, the ability to pick from 4 alternate camera angles, game stats, live interactive chat and a selection of highlight clips all delivered in seamlessly in the same player.
It’s been a huge effort behind the scenes with a shopping list of partners – NBC Sports of course, the IIS Media and Silverlight teams for the server and client technology, Vertigo for the amazing player they built on top of those technologies (on the cutting edge once again), iStreamPlanet for the transcoding using a mix of Inlet and custom tools, Akamai and Microsoft’s own Edge Computing Network (ECN) for content distribution, DART for ad serving (yes,that company owned by Google supports this technology – first announced at MIX07), Conviva, and Omniture for reporting to tell us how it’s performing and of course the fabulous DevDiv BizDev and DPE Media Evangelism teams that I’m part of to pull it all together. Behind the scenes I’ve also using FogBugz to help track and support issues.
The project has involved a lot of late nights, a lot of travel (I think I spent more time in New York, Stamford, San Francisco, Point Richmond and Las Vegas in the last few months than Redmond) but I hope you have a chance to check out SNF Extra 8pm ET / 5pm PT / 6pm CT) sometime this season and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
After several months though I still don’t understand the game! But that’s okay because now we have to take all the lessons we learned here and go on to make NBCs delivery of the Vancouver Olympics even better!