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The Rise of Mobile Live Streaming: Are Services Keeping Up?

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It has been 30 plus years since the advent of mobile phones and just a little over 10 years since the first smartphones were introduced. Since then, the progress in technology has come at an unprecedented rate. The number of smartphone users globally is estimated at 3.5 billion in 2020. Just over 4 billion users are estimated in five years by 2023. To put that in perspective, there are currently 7.8 billion people in the world. The prevalence of smartphones has become the norm in most of the developed world and plays a pretty substantial role in developing countries. This is important to mobile live streaming as the platforms to broadcast and the tools to stream are usually designed around smartphones. With the exponential growth of smartphone users, it makes sense that mobile live streaming is now finally at the forefront of how content is distributed online. The practice is used in many scenarios, from a celebrity streaming a casual Q&A in his house to a professional journalist in a war zone reporting events. This change in content delivery has affected nearly every person that consumes any form of media online. Whether you’re an active viewer or not, the rapid change is a good reason to affirm that this is an important topic. Unfortunately, the scholarly work on this subject is currently nearly non-existent since how novel it is. This paper seeks to review mobile live streaming and evaluate the circumstances and quality of the services that facilitate it. A form of live streaming has been around for decades, but mobile live streaming has only become popularized recently in the last 6 years. The ability for anyone to broadcast live events over the internet simply with just a smartphone is a relatively new concept. As opposed to traditional forms of live streaming from a dedicated PC, mobile live streaming offers a convenient and often cost-effective way to broadcast events. This makes it possible for streamers to capture events that they might not have been able to with traditional streaming due to its portability. Other times, PC streaming could just be impractical. One of the case studies mentioned in this paper is about a local soccer club using mobile live streaming to broadcast their games and match analysis. PC streaming is also infeasible for emergency situations or sudden events by the very nature of having to set up some equipment. The scope of what can be streamed has a wide range from an informal vlog all the way to professional journalism. This is also a reason mobile live streaming has become so prevalent. It’s a versatile tool that can be used by anyone. Due to this wide variety of uses, there are no specific demographics that encompass streamers or viewers. With so many different scenarios and events, it is difficult to evaluate what the standard of quality should be and if it is being met. However, the existence of mobile live streaming means that there is a change in the way the target audience of certain forms of media or events will consume it. This is an outcome that usually occurs when a new form of media is introduced.

Challenges in Mobile Live Streaming

Key to the quality of a mobile live streaming service is the ability to maintain quality and stability during a stream. Poor network conditions can result in the inability to watch a stream, abrupt ending of a stream, or in worst cases, crashing of the app. Network conditions can often change suddenly, for example when moving from an area with good 4G coverage to an area with only 3G coverage. A robust mobile live streaming service should be able to adapt to these changing conditions in order to maintain the quality and stability of a stream. Techniques such as transcoding can enable a stream to be compressed or changed to a lower quality in a resource efficient way during poor network conditions, thus giving the viewer a better experience compared to letting the stream buffer or eventually stop. A service should ideally be able to detect when network conditions will not suffice for a stream and recommend to the streamer to stop broadcasting to prevent an unsatisfactory viewing experience. Finally, it is often the case that network conditions are just simply not good enough for mobile live streaming, so offering an audio-only option for the viewer can still allow them to enjoy a stream.

Bandwidth Limitations

In recent times there has been much debate on the subject of net neutrality and for good reason, however as of now it does not exist and cellular providers are free to throttle the bandwidth of a given service as they see fit. Were live streaming to become a considerable strain on cellular networks it is entirely possible that mobile streamers would be given special treatment, likely in the form of extra charges to allow a certain amount of high speed bandwidth. Failure to pay these charges would potentially render a streamer incapable of providing an adequate viewing experience to their audience. All of this combined means that the future of mobile live streaming is a bit uncertain. The popularity is certainly there, but it remains to be seen whether or not the technology can catch up to the demands that it is placing.

The grand majority of mobile live stream viewership is done over WiFi, however mobile streamers themselves almost always rely on cellular data plans. WiFi connections do not pose much of a problem in terms of bandwidth availability. Devices that are able to connect to a WiFi network usually have older brothers which connect via an Ethernet cable, and thus their hardware is usually somewhat comparable in terms of processing and graphical power. On the other hand, mobile devices can vary wildly in terms of hardware and more often than not are limited by the technology of the times. Most mobile streamers today own a smartphone or tablet with 4G capabilities but these devices are still far behind even a laptop computer that is several years old. This being the case, streamers are now faced with the task of trying to broadcast from devices which have limited processing power and a maximum output of only several megabits per second, and they must do it over a connection that is often spotty and highly susceptible to packet loss. High resolution and a high frame rate are common standards in the world of video, but they are becoming unrealistic goals for mobile streamers who simply do not have the proper resources to maintain such an output.

While the popularity of mobile live streaming continues to grow at an explosive rate, the same cannot be said for the technology required to support it. The phenomenon of live streaming began on personal computers, which usually have a fairly reliable internet connection. Bandwidth demands were not as significant of an issue as they are today. The migration of live streaming services towards mobile platforms has brought about entirely new sets of challenges due to the fundamental differences in both hardware and networking capabilities.

Quality and Stability Issues

With stability being a common user complaint, current services perform very basic error recovery, making the streaming client the one responsible for re-establishing a connection and not reacting well to packet loss that’s inevitable on a mobile network. The user will normally be presented with a “stream ended” message, with services often lacking an indicator as to when it’s possible to start streaming again. In the perspective of the content producer, the service should be aiming to make the experience as pain-free as possible. The less the user has to think about keeping their stream alive, the more they’re going to continue to use that service. This is a rather broad topic, but a more comprehensive error recovery and perhaps sacrificing some compression artifacts for the sake of stability could be a viable strategy. A packet loss-resistant protocol optimized for real-time video streaming over a mobile network does exist, but it’s certainly beyond the scope of most services at this point in time.

These problems are related to the simple fact that current mobile internet technologies are always going to struggle to live up to static connections to a Wi-Fi network. There are two types of network access available to a mobile phone: High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), which is available to most smartphones and allows faster data transfer rates than previous generations of mobile data, or the newer 4G network, which should eventually replace HSPA. Current implementations of 4G have been on limited trials, so most users are not experiencing the true capabilities of 4G. Either way, latency and throughput simply can’t match that of a traditional public Wi-Fi connection. This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away any time soon, as developing worldwide infrastructure for mobile internet is a gradual process. For the sake of current mobile live streaming services, it’s something they’re going to have to work around.

Some of the largest issues currently plaguing these services are stability and quality of the content being produced, and the concern is that they’re directly connected. Quality video is proving to be quite taxing on a mobile network connection. Consumers want to be able to produce their content on the go, so it’s of vital importance that this be addressed. Content that’s currently being shared ranges from trivial vlog segments to live music being performed. Consumers are currently finding varying experiences and exhibiting a common difficulty in achieving their desired quality. This can range from minor resolution issues to simply not being able to establish a connection.

Content Moderation and Safety

The ability to block streams with certain keywords or content types is also a desirable feature for larger services. This would allow said services to prevent the spread of a given stream without disabling a user’s access to the service, which is important as it both serves as a deterrent for malicious users and a means of damage control in the case of a user making an honest yet costly mistake. This too has yet to be realized as a feasible feature given the current state of automatic content analysis.

By contrast, Periscope has had well-publicized issues with users streaming copyrighted TV and sports broadcasts. In the case of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, there were a reported 66 streams showing the fight, each with a maximum of 10 viewers. These streams were taken down within an hour, but the bad PR resulting from the ordeal was a major blow to Periscope’s early branding.

Thus far, mobile live streaming services have had mixed results in this area. Popular streaming service Twitch, which has recently integrated mobile live streaming, has a well-documented and effective system for removing offensive or copyrighted video-on-demand content. This system has not yet been extended to live mobile content, though the influx of first-party apps with similar functionality to Twitch’s existing service suggests that it is only a matter of time.

As mobile live streaming rapidly gains popularity, the issue of inappropriate or offensive content becoming the face of a given service becomes more and more prevalent. The nature of live content is such that it cannot feasibly be monitored in real-time, and setting a precedent for attempting to do so could severely impact user experience and the fluidity of creating and sharing live content. That said, the ability to remove or block content after it has been streamed is crucial in limiting the impact of the occasional foray into offensive material, both for the service in question and for the individual or group responsible.

Advancements in Mobile Live Streaming Services

For solo streamers and casual users, real-time analytics will have limited use. Audience engagement, however, is beneficial to streamers of all kinds. YouTube has functionality for live chat used in conjunction with live video; however, it may need to improve this considering it does not have a separate mobile app. Both Facebook and Periscope have effective mobile apps and easy-to-use chat functionality. Facebook, with its billions of users, may have a real edge here in connecting people who already know each other. Wanting to attract new users to its platform, Facebook has added a map which allows you to see all the live streamers around the world. This could be a great tool for discovering new streamers, but is highly dependent on how many people are using Facebook Live.

Facebook Live is not far behind, recently allowing brands to see how their live video is performing in terms of engagement and audience size. Twitter-owned Periscope is not quite there yet, but as Twitter still has one of the best analytics platforms for overall social media, expect something great from Periscope in the near future.

Because competition in the live video space is at an all-time high, analytics have never been more important. For professional content producers or businesses, understanding the size and location of their audience is essential. YouTube Live already has a very good analytics system and, as the market leader, will be difficult to surpass. It shows real-time information about how many people are watching, their demographics, and from where in the world they are watching. 54% of all YouTube viewers watch on a mobile device, meaning a chunk of this data can already be applied to mobile streaming.

With 95% of all video platforms planning to deploy 4K video over the next 2 years, it is important to note that 4K video must also be 4K live video. With the rise of VR and 360 video, 4K will be the future standard for all forms of video, including live. More improved video compression technologies will need to be made in order to successfully deliver 4K video to the entire mobile community.

The most common of the live streaming video services, YouTube Live, boasts a 10-15 second latency between the live content and the user’s device. This is acceptable for some, but when it comes to live sports or events, it would be desirable for the video to be as close to real time as possible. Both Periscope and Facebook Live have latency below 5 seconds, which will force Google to somehow improve the speed of their live streaming as well.

There have been many advancements in the quality of mobile live streaming services. Improved video compression technologies have led to streams that are higher quality than ever before. One of the critical deterrents of watching live video on a mobile device is the amount of data usage. Videos often require quite a bit of buffering and are not optimized for mobile viewing, leading to potential high costs in data usage. With better video compression, mobile users are able to watch live video without such a heavy tax on their data plans.

Improved Video Compression Technologies

Another ongoing area of development is that of improved protocols and technologies for reliable, low-latency data delivery. The latency between video encoder and viewer player will always be higher than that of PC-based live streaming because of the inherent latency of mobile data networks. However, any reduction in latency that can be achieved will improve user experiences by reducing lag between user interactions and the resulting effects in the video stream.

As mobile live streaming grows in popularity and as demand for higher quality, more data-intensive video increases, the efficiency and performance of internet technologies are expected to continue to develop. This year, work began on the next generation of video compression standard of H.265. This upcoming standard will provide the same video quality at half the bit rate of H.264, making it ideal for 1080p high definition (HD) video at less than 1 Mbps. While it is some years away from being widely supported, H.265 represents part of a continuing effort to make more efficient use of available bandwidth.

A newer video compression standard known as H.264 is roughly twice as efficient as its predecessor (MPEG-4 Part 2) and is now becoming widely supported on mobile handsets. H.264 can provide very good video quality at less than 500 Kbps, making it ideally suited for delivery to mobile devices. Furthermore, another newer standard known as MPEG-DASH enables adaptive bit rate streaming, allowing a video to stream at the highest quality possible with the available bandwidth. Support for these standards and video codecs within live streaming platforms will result in greatly improved user experiences for mobile live streaming, compared to current experiences of choppy, low-quality video playback.

The video quality, and thus the viewer’s experience, can be significantly impacted by the rate at which data can be sent and received. The higher the video data rate, the better the video quality – and the more bandwidth the video will require. It is imperative for content delivery networks to use bandwidth-efficient video compression technologies to make efficient use of precious mobile data network capacity, and also for the content to be accessible to the widest possible audience.

Real-time Analytics and Audience Engagement Features

This can be achieved by providing an API to the analytics database with clear documentation. High-level metrics can be provided in a basic form as part of the streaming service, with more detailed data available from the service website.

These features would be more effective if a broadcaster is able to take them into the chat window itself, serving as a tool to increase understanding of the audience. Metrics on audience participation are often an important indicator of broadcast success. These can range from simple counts of viewer comments or content specific actions to complex user engagement indices. In all cases, it is important that such data is available in real time, allowing the broadcaster to react to viewer opinion.

We postulate that an automated system which can analyze chat content to provide a short summary of viewer opinions on the content as well as identifying and answering questions from the audience has the potential to significantly increase viewer engagement. Natural language processing (NLP) techniques could be applied to generate a word cloud or similar visualization of popular chat topics. A more advanced feature could involve categorizing viewers by shared interests and automatically forming them into groups for content discussion.

Mobile live streaming viewers are accustomed to interacting with the broadcast host as well as other viewers in real time via chat. However, conveying audience sentiment and opinion regarding the broadcast content is more challenging, typically involving the use of a hashtag on the part of the viewer and manual counting by the broadcaster.

Enhanced Content Moderation Tools

The problem in mobile streaming comes with the fact that data is low quality as a result of compression, and tools would need to be able to adapt to different types of streams and change over time to be effective. Currently, progress has been slow, and there is a lot of potential for improvement in this area.

Automatic detection tool success is based on the quality of the model being used and the amount of data that can be analyzed. Automatic detection tools are primarily based on machine learning classifiers and pattern recognition techniques that can be trained to detect specific types of audio or video. The success of such tools can range anywhere from 50-95% depending on the method used and the amount of training data available. These tools have already proven to be successful, with a case study showing that a relatively simple machine learning tool was able to detect specific types of audio in real-time VoIP with a high level of accuracy.

Unfortunately, due to the difference in mobile streaming platforms and its comparison to existing platforms, these tools have not kept up with demand and expectations. In existing web-based streaming platforms, content detected as inappropriate can be removed immediately and with relatively effective advanced user flagging moderation tools. However, in mobile streaming, an automatic system is necessary due to the lack of an effective user interface, and it is not possible to effectively halt the spread of unwanted content without being able to target and isolate specific audio and video streams.

Enhanced content moderation encompasses the desire to sift through and delete inappropriate user-generated content and to prevent it from being promulgated. Content moderation can come in many forms, from preventing unwanted text or video from being transmitted, preventing copyrighted software from being downloaded, or simply deleting unwanted content after it has been posted to a website. This area is becoming increasingly more important as advertisers become more wary of what environments their ads are being displayed in, consumers become more concerned about what their children are viewing online, and as mobile streaming increasingly becomes a target for individuals looking to spread unwanted content.

Monetization Opportunities

Having stated monetization’s current state, the solution to improving monetization opportunities will be clear as the forecast shift to long-form streams and premium content becomes reality. Initially, the shift to long-form content has both pros and cons for advertising. Long-form video ad inventory has greater supply than on short clips, and because these are more brand safe than user-generated videos, this ad inventory can yield high CPMs. However, it also will pose challenges on ad relevance, user tolerance, and potential to deter from stream quality. Due to these reasons, there will likely be skippable ad formats, where viewers can click to watch an ad of their choice, and also ad delivery in the form of interactivity during the stream (e.g. viewer triggered ad insertion). High CPMs are always nice, but the key in ad-supported revenue remains making it not feel like an ad and not detracting from the viewing experience.

According to Ooyala’s white paper, there is significant potential behind ad-to-purchase conversions where 20% of millennial audiences report they have directly purchased something after seeing it promoted during a video. The hope is that given live stream’s high touch nature and personal identification with streamers, this percentage can be higher, and happen smoothly without deterring from user experience.

Livestreaming may be today’s fastest growing social media tool, and among the most technologically difficult to monetize. To date, mobile live streaming is almost entirely ad-supported, and while ad revenues over short video streams compare favorably on a per minute basis with traditional video pre-roll, this represents a tiny amount of lost monetization versus long-form video. At the same time, because the top few platforms and individual streamers are seeing significant revenues from fan donations, various tipping models have begun to emerge. Finally, also at the proof-of-concept stage, are in-stream shopping opportunities – but with these yet to be realized.

Future Trends and Considerations

Augmented reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment whereby the objects that reside in the real world are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information. AR uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it. A simple example is a Snapchat filter that we always use. Imagine that the elements in the game, such as the design and the UI, can be implemented into a live stream. This will offer a whole new level of live streaming experience. Not only is it more interactive, but it may also create a wonderful and entertaining live streaming session. However, AR is still in development. It may take some time for AR to be integrated into mobile live streaming, but it is a trend worth waiting for.

Trends and considerations of live streaming are always crucial for the people who rely on it. 5G and its impact on mobile live streaming are a trend in the near future. 5G is considered a new generation of mobile networks and services that build on and extend the functionality of mobile broadband and wireless. It also aims to provide high-quality, reliable, and secure internet connections. The main goals for 5G in mobile live streaming are to provide better quality live streaming, shorter time, and lower prices for data charges. Scenery and location changes are events that actors and actresses hope for. With lower data charges, they can live stream anywhere and anytime without burdening heavy charges.

5G and its Impact on Mobile Live Streaming

Naturally, with mobile live streaming the common theme is being on the move. Often times you are at a festival, travel destination, concert, sporting event, etc. The introduction of 5G network will allow for high bandwidth in highly populated areas. This will significantly reduce latency as well as provide a better connection in busy public locations. For example, you might have had trouble live streaming at a music festival due to low 4G signal and high mobile traffic. 5G network will eliminate this issue. With high quality live streaming being more feasible than ever, there may be an increase in professional live streaming services by companies at events and locations.

Mobile live streaming services have been on the rise for the last couple of years. As technology has evolved, it has become an easier, more convenient outlet for social media users to share their experiences as well as watch and engage with others. The speed at which technology is evolving is only going to assist with the growing trend of mobile live streaming. One of the biggest future game changers in the mobile live streaming community will be the introduction of 5G network. With 5G network making its way onto mobile devices, the speed and quality at which live streaming occurs will be unmatched compared to what we currently have.

Augmented Reality Integration

The idea of integrating AR with mobile live streaming has sparked interesting new ideas and potential uses for AR. AR can provide a means of user-created content onto the live stream. For example, using a filter, a person could create their own facial animation and then, through AR, this could be projected onto a live stream to viewers. Another idea is using AR for virtual events and scenarios that are in the real world. An example could be a sports event; a media company could use AR to create a virtual sports game animation over the live stream of the real game in a certain area to bring a more animated experience for the viewer. These ideas bring a new dynamic of interactivity and entertainment to viewers in mobile live streaming.

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics. Simply put, AR overlays virtual information onto the real world in real time. AR has been found to be better with mobile live streaming due to the portability of mobile phones and tablets. The new and most popular game, Pokémon GO, is a prime example of mobile phone AR and how the game is an enhanced experience on mobile devices and not a stationary games console.

Privacy and Data Security Concerns

The increasing use of cloud-based services for mobile data and media storage means that there is a higher likelihood of personal data breaches from the cloud, where the data is usually at rest and not protected during long periods of storage.

The user may not be aware that the video has been stored or may have no control over it, as they may have automatic upload settings and limited controls over the management of their media stored in the cloud. Videos uploaded by the user to shared storage in the cloud may lose protection over who can access and view them, with services defaulting to public sharing for all media uploaded. This has the potential to affect employment opportunities and personal relationships for the user or cause embarrassment if the uploaded video is of a private event or has a mishap during public streaming.

There are many cloud-based services that use mobile phones as a recording device and then upload the images and videos taken to the respective cloud service. Some services are designed specifically for streaming live video to the internet. With a live stream, there are unique concerns as the data is being transmitted and is usually unencrypted, so it can be intercepted and stored by a third party.

Public cloud services can be an ideal location for storing data that is to be shared, as they can be easily accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. Mobile data connections are becoming increasingly reliable, which almost negates the need for local storage of data – a more costly and higher maintenance solution.

Data privacy and security are a prevalent concern in modern-day society. With the constant documentation of life that takes place today through mobile streaming, it has become an increasingly common concern for people. Our lives are constantly recorded through our mobile devices, and images and videos are increasingly stored on the cloud rather than local device storage due to the reduction in costs and increase in storage space.

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