Live-streaming has become a powerful tool for increasing event participation, reach and ROI, while technology improvements are making it more accessible.
Provider TFI Digital Media started in Hong Kong as a one-man company in 2010 and now employs a staff of around 130 mostly software engineers. It has worked with the likes of Microsoft and Sotheby’s and built Netflix-style streaming platforms for regional TV broadcasters.
Recently, TFI has become known for its plug-and-stream solutions and handled streaming for more than 100 events last year, including an elevator pitch held inside an actual elevator. CEI Asia talks to Charles Tse, executive assistant to founding CEO Wilson Yuen, about how live streaming is becoming more stable, easier to use and a whole lot cheaper.
How do you live stream an event?
Basically you need to record a video feed from the event, then make that feed viewable on different devices to audiences in different locations.
We take pride in not only being a technology company, but we also commit significant resources to R&D. A lot of people were finding live-streaming complex and that it required a lot of manpower so we wanted to design a product that people with no network experience or infrastructure could use.
We developed the HERMES Live Encoder so all people have to do is plug in three cables [power, internet and the video feed] and press one button and they can host broadcast-grade live-streaming events. It is an Apple ProRes Authorized Product and is also certified by Akamai, a cloud delivery platform that manages one third of the world's web traffic. The hardware is produced by HP.
How does it work?
It is a combination of our proprietary transcoding technology, our knowledge in video streaming and delivery, and the whole infrastructure we built in the back.
What I mean by transcoding is that when you are shooting a video, in order to allow that video format to be viewed on different connected devices such as mobile, smart TVs, personal computers, you need to go through a process, which is transcoding.
Traditionally a video that is 60 minutes long requires 60 minutes to transcode – for each resolution profile. Even it is for one device, say mobile, you need three resolution profiles to cater for customers that view it at different speeds.
Our patented technology allows us to transcode in a much faster manner, that 60-minute clip will only take 5-10 minutes and not for one profile – all the profiles in parallel. In order to speed this up, we split the screen into smaller segments and allow different computers to do the processing in parallel, this is called distributed computing.
But splitting is the easy part. Chopping anything only takes a split second, but stitching it back together without what we call “artefacts” is the challenging part. Each pixel contains information about the pixel next to it so when we split images and distribute them to different computers for processing, you lose that relationship.
Then when you are combining the images back together you can see some artefacts. Our technology is focused on stitching them back together without any artefacts so the image will look exactly the same as the original.
How do you ensure the stream is reliable?
The most stable is a wired LAN connection, but a lot of venues don't offer that or they charge a ridiculous amount – and it's not even a good connection. To tackle that we use 4G connection. We have some partnerships with the local telcos for both landline and mobile.
We also have this 4G bonding device that receives 4G signal from multiple mobile network operators in case anything happens to interrupt the service. For some events, we call up the mobile network operator and have a dedicated line for the specific event.
That's one part of it, getting the video signal up to the cloud. The cloud also has a lot of infrastructure set-up. We are cloud agnostic, we can work on any cloud platforms and use multiple cloud providers to support the same stream. Anything can happen to the servers and we don't want to be interrupted.
How do you make sure only the right people see the stream?
There’s a very relevant technology called digital rights management, which is used for protecting content so people cannot intercept a file and do things like make private versions to sell off. We work with the industry giants on these standards – Apple, Google and Microsoft.
The underlying technology is cryptography. This includes how you authenticate someone, control how long they are able to view it and so on. To prevent interception of the file, we use end-to-end encryption. So even if people intercept the file they won't have the encryption key to view the content.
Sometimes planners’ are more concerned with security around the geo-location, because they only have the license to stream the event to certain regions – so this can be important too.
How much does it cost?
Global live-streaming can be as low as US$3,000 if you don't need anything fancy, but that price does not include video production costs such as cameramen, a director if you want to switch between two feeds, shooting and so on.
Our live-streaming service is typically in the range of US$3,000 – US$13,000, which includes equipment rental, on-site technical support, geo-blocking and cloud usage. More back-ups such as working with multiple clouds will incur extra costs.
What kinds of events have you worked on?
When we first started, it was mostly for corporate events. We work a lot with Microsoft, starting way back in 2011 when they just launched the Asia cloud in Hong Kong. We were their ‘Asia Partner of the Year’ so they used our live-streaming solution for their corporate training and some conferences. Alibaba also used us when they were having competitions or conferences.
Then in addition to corporate events and education, we started doing more related to entertainment and sports. We have streamed the Macau Grand Prix, Hong Kong Film Awards, Asian Film Awards, worked with Sotheby’s giving a pre-auction overview of the lots, and helped a Hong Kong pop singer stream the San Jose concert from his live tour to China. That one was over 100 million views.
Last year the boxer Rex Tso had a match in Hong Kong against a former World Champion from Japan. We streamed to three platforms: YouTube for Hong Kong; Alibaba Sports for China; and to our own platform for the rest of the world.
Whether for a school graduation that has 300 viewers or the concert with 100 million views – it’s supported by the same broadcast-grade hardware.