Live and remote event specialist Blaze Streaming Media in Portland, Oregon has had to largely virtualise its production services in the last year, as most in-person events switched over to an online format. Before 2020, its crew would travel several times a year to venues around the world to manage events.
That work is now handled remotely, translating all the components of an in-person event into a web browser for virtual attendees, connected via primary and backup streaming services on AWS. The crew has been so successful at managing this virtualisation that Blaze has experienced growth in new and repeat business.
Virtual Show Flow
Before each project, the Blaze team collaborates with the client to design a virtual show flow and then begins building up the engineering stack – applications and programming on the appropriate computer architecture – and production equipment required to carry out the job. Typically, the design includes AWS Elemental Link contribution encoders that are sent to a production base in advance to pre-established templates in the AWS Elemental MediaLive cloud-based video processing service.
Once on site at the production base, the Links act as a contribution onramp to bring the video signals into the MediaLive templates. The Blaze team can then prepare the content for broadcast-grade delivery to event attendees who will be present on a range of supported devices.
“Link gives us a simple contribution onramp to MediaLive and packs a huge amount of functionality into a tiny box for under $1,000,” said Joe Christensen, president, Blaze Streaming Media. “The workflow is so straightforward. Once we have programmed MediaLive and attached the Link inputs, we can go to the event folder, select a template and load it. There’s not much room for error.”
As teams adopt new cloud workflows, methods of moving live, high resolution video sources onto the cloud for processing have not always been clear cut. Link makes it simpler because when a user buys the device, it is supplied pre-configured to that user’s AWS account. The rest of the work involves plugging in a power source and the video source, such as a switcher or camera, and connecting an Ethernet cable. Link will automatically begin sending the signals to AWS. You can access it through the MediaLive service where processing occurs.
MediaLive prepares Blaze’s video streams for delivery to internet-connected multiscreen devices – connected TVs, tablets, smart phones, set-top boxes and so on. The service works by encoding live video streams in real-time, taking a larger-sized live video source and compressing it into smaller versions suitable for distribution to viewers.
Link to Cloud
It also transparently provisions resources that manage scaling, failover, monitoring and reporting – all of which are needed to power a live video stream. The service includes support for statistical multiplexing (StatMux), ad markers, audio features including audio normalisation and Dolby audio, and a variety of caption standards. Statmux resources are automatically allocated across multiple Availability Zones, which means users do not have to procure and manage redundant infrastructure on their own.
Joe said, “Adding an on-premises piece of hardware like Link to a cloud workflow in MediaLive has opened Blaze’s opportunities for innovation. The new features that AWS regularly supplies, even simple updates like the new ability to bulk start and stop multiple jobs at once, can make an impact.”
For projects where Blaze only handles content encoding, streaming and delivery, it ships out a flight kit with Link units connected to the on-site production team. The team then just has to power up the Link encoders, connect to an Ethernet cable, and the Link devices are streaming video within minutes. “There’s an industry tendency to work with tools with complex knobs and dials, but often, that just makes your job harder. Using Link, we can achieve the same quality transmission with a lot less complexity,” said Joe.
Ideally, Blaze would manage each client’s on-premises network to set up optimum conditions but, in reality, the networks at venues are managed by third parties and are unpredictable and unreliable. For a long format stream, this could mean an entire day of on-site troubleshooting of audio/video sync issues, but Blaze can work around this with Link and MediaLive.
Link has various techniques to ensure the quality and reliability of video feeds, even in challenging network conditions. The device encodes video with high quality-per-bit using the HEVC codec and transports the stream with high resiliency using the Zixi delivery protocol, which combines content-aware and network-adaptive forward error correction (FEC) with error recovery. When network conditions change during a live stream, Link adapts automatically with Zixi’s adaptive bitrate algorithm, and adjusts to the changes in real-time by varying the bitrate of the encoded video.
Post-event, Blaze uses Amazon CloudWatch to deliver metrics on any MediaLive channels it creates, outputting a detailed overview of all audio levels, the network inputs and outputs. Blaze can then respond to system-wide performance changes. If audio dropped on a channel, for instance, Blaze confirms where it occurred and shows the client the source of the problem.
“Being able to share detailed, client-facing reporting across a fleet of more than 20 Link devices with three simple mouse clicks is impressive,” Joe said. “Between Link, MediaLive and Amazon CloudWatch, we can report at that level, at scale, without having to bounce through tabs or TeamViewer instances to see the whole fleet. If we’re called in to assess an issue, all the tools and metrics we need are available right there.”
Considering that virtual conferences often involve back-to-back sessions with little or no time in between, effectively managing and transitioning between video inputs can prove a challenge, especially because attendees click on web links and dial into sessions early and presentations can sometimes run over. However, input switching with Link and MediaLive has helped Blaze in this respect. Using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Blaze can play pre-event audio and video from a file on a loop while attendees are joining the live event, then switch to Link as the MediaLive source when the presentation starts.
“We recently tested input switching for the first time. Although we were nervous about input switching at the encoder itself, it turned out well. The Link device remains active and still sends to the job, so all of the alert metrics related to it are still available in MediaLive. It’s still burning in even though it’s not mapped to the show output. This kind of functionality is what sets Link and MediaLive apart from the rest,” Joe said. aws.amazon.com