This Company Wants to End Video Buffering Forever

08/09/2016 08:43 pm ET
Google Fiber uses fiber optic cables like these to provide internet speeds up to 100 times faster than the average American's
Google Fiber uses fiber optic cables like these to provide internet speeds up to 100 times faster than the average American's internet, but will this alone be enough to kill buffering?

In the 1990s everyone was familiar with the expression the “blue screen of death”, which referred to when a Windows computer experienced a fatal system error, or crash, and a blue screen would appear with instructions for how to reboot. The blue screen of death (or BSoD) was a pretty common experience and caused users to experience hair pulling frustration.

Today, the BSoD has been replaced by a totally 21st century version of computer problem known as buffering. Buffering is the interruption one might experience while streaming a video, commonly identified by the presence of a spinning wheel and subsequently poor resolution. And of course buffering has spawned its own behavioral response, known as buffer rage.

Buffer rage is a very real problem affecting 51% of consumers, and according to the video delivery expert Nathan Barnett, it is also really bad for business. In an online landscape that is trending towards video content, video delivery still lags behind and that is costing media companies substantial numbers of viewers.

Barnett, CEO of video delivery company Swarmify, thinks buffering can be a thing of the past. I wanted to better understand the nuts and bolts behind video delivery and how it can be improved so I asked Barnett the following:

The video buffering sign has long been the source of great frustration for internet users.
The video buffering sign has long been the source of great frustration for internet users.

Q: How much can bad video quality hurt the distributing company? Is there any data to suggest loss of viewers due to buffering or downtime?

There have been many studies on this very issue and the results are pretty startling. As soon as video playback starts buffering, Limelight Networks found that 51% of viewers immediately stop watching the video. In our own aggregated data from users, we have seen that a user who experiences buffering will watch 64% less video than those who don’t. These are large numbers, but I think it also intuitively makes sense when we look at our habits. What would you do if video stalls out or even reduces down to that very grainy picture quality? 

Ultimately the user has a bad experience with the website and chooses to leave and spend time with video that is not having problems. That leads to a magnified impact over time as users begin to form habits of watching their content on sites with reliable video and not on ones where the video fails. And when everyone is competing for the user’s attention right now, you really don’t want to lose it for technical difficulties.

Q: Pied Piper is America’s favorite compression company - what is Swarmify?

Swarmify is fail-proof video for our customers. We ensure that our customers’ content, message, and video is delivered in high definition and without buffering issues. Ultimately our customers are not video companies, they are media companies, news companies, or entertainment companies. Video is just the medium for them to tell their story, serve their customers, and achieve their mission. We are doing our job when their video is as reliable as electricity and they can stay focused on what is important to them, which is the content of the video and not the delivery.

Nathan Barnett, CEO Swarmify
Nathan Barnett, CEO Swarmify

Q: What is the leading cause of buffering? Is it that I should be paying more for my internet?

First, to answer the question about whether upgrading your home internet speed will solve the problem. I think that is just how the ISP’s have turned a complaint scenario into an upsell for more revenue. I can explain this with just a personal example. At my home I have cable internet with a download speed of 200Mbps. Out of that 200, watching HD video requires on average only 5Mbps, yet I still experience video buffering. And most people with high speed Internet have a download speed that greatly exceeds the necessary amount for high quality HD video, so increasing your plan with your Internet provider isn’t the solution unless you have less than 5-10mbps download speed currently. But if your bandwidth is that low, every video you watch from anywhere on the internet will be buffering. Basically video would be unwatchable all the time on every site if that was your problem.

What this doesn’t address is the experience that most people have with poor video, which is that sometimes it is fine and sometimes it is not. And this will vary across websites even to where video on Hulu might be terrible right now, but if you pull up Netflix, it works fine. Or in the mornings it is great, but evenings it is terrible. So what causes those problems?

The best way to look at the Internet is a series of roads. Some routes from home to work for example might be faster in the dead of night, but during rush hour, some other path is faster. If we look at the Internet like that, then it becomes clear that the only way to ensure that your video is taking the fastest path is to be able to use any available route. And, since the video experience might be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or even longer for movies, you have to be able to shift routes throughout the video playback as the conditions change. The road you pick at the beginning might suddenly become blocked due to an accident and so you need to be able to shift around these types of things as they happen.

Q: Based on your knowledge of the U.S. network, are there areas of the country that are better or worse for streaming video?

We don’t really see any patterns as to certain areas of the country being better than others with this problem as there are times where people even in the same city will have very different experiences. The only consistent thing we see is that roughly 1 in 5 video playbacks will have a delivery problem that leads to buffering. If you take a poll of people and ask them whose video streaming is great and whose is bad, you will get conflicting responses as it isn’t the video itself that is the issue, it is this dynamic problem of getting that video to your device over the ever shifting Internet.

Q: How did Swarmify come to be and what do the next few years look like?

Swarmify was started because this problem affected us. The story I like to share is that of my two year old daughter who was watching a cartoon being streamed on our TV. She is sitting there happy and content and then that video starts buffering and won’t play. You can imagine what happens next as she throws herself on the floor in tantrum, my wife is asking me why does this always happen, and all eyes are looking at me to solve it. So we started looking into it to see what was going on and if there was a way to fix the issue. That was three years ago and we are now solving this problem for our customers so they don’t have their users feeling like I did that day.

Our current solution solves the problem for video on demand as we wanted to focus on offering the very best experience for that medium. Live video, which has been growing so rapidly, has a very different set of challenges and expectations that are wholly different from watching pre-recorded video, and so we are going to explore how we can make that experience better as well. Also, there are significant applications in VR where more bandwidth is required to deliver a high quality experience. We won’t stop until we make all video experiences fail-proof.

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