Internet video streaming as we know it is about to change. Delivering video online is a terribly inefficient process, and Bram Cohen, the creator of the BitTorrent protocol, has figured out a way to do it better. While BitTorrent often gets a bad rap thanks to its links to piracy, it's still one of the least bandwidth intensive ways to share files with other people. Now the company is introducing what they are calling BitTorrent Live, which works in a similar way to the original BitTorrent protocol, but is instead focused on delivering streaming video. By using the bandwidth of the users, BitTorrent is able to take the load off of the original broadcaster, making it efficient for anyone to host a streaming video.
“My goal is to kill off television” Cohen said during the SF MusicTech demo session I hosted. Afterwards he explained to me in rhyme, “Television’s physical infrastructure is inevitably going to go away, but TV as a mode of content consumption is here to stay.” Essentially, people love what they see on television, but want it accessible from the web.
BitTorrent Live sidesteps the infrastructure cost by having viewers stream the content to each other like they’d torrent a download instead of pulling video from a central source. Cohen tells me he’s spent 3 years hacking on BitTorrent Live, “It’s a difficult engineering problem, and I’ve figured it out.” Now the protocol can offload 99% of the data transfer to users and achieve just a 5-second delay even with millions of viewers.
The requirement from users is that they download a simple plugin that remains live while using the service (similar to the SoShare, the service we talked about last month that allows you to do a file transfer of an unlimited amount of data to any user/users up to 1 TB at a time). A 5 second delay is simply remarkable considering it takes all of the heavy lifting off of the original provider. While the service is going to be free for those not looking to profit, those selling ads will pay a licensing fee which is reportedly much, much lower than anything else out there.
So what does this mean for you? While the service is in Beta right now, and I'm having a bit of trouble making any of the streams work, this has the potential to make streaming viable for anyone at anytime, absolutely free (potentially making a service like Ustream obsolete). The best part about the distributed nature of BitTorrent is that it works in a completely opposite way to other streaming services. It doesn't bog down with more users, in fact, the more users accessing the stream, the better the performance should be.
There is also an important distinction to be made between this service and services like YouTube or Vimeo. While we call those sites "video streaming" sites, they aren't technically streaming video. They are using what is called progressive download, which begins downloading a video to your cache at whatever point you select in the timeline. A traditional streaming network, like Netflix, does not work in this manner, and delivers video in realtime, and adapts the stream in realtime based on performance.
While Cohen is aiming for this to replace infrastructure for live TV content on the web, I could see filmmakers using it beyond just streaming live events. If everything works out as it should, the potential is there to hose live screenings of films online and show them anywhere, at very high quality. You could even host a live Q&A after the screenings, and show them all across the web, without any hit on performance, and at no cost to the filmmaker or the viewers.
Cohen has been teasing the service for a while now, but once the bugs are worked out, BitTorrent Live could very well could disrupt the status quo and truly democratize streaming. To try it out, and learn more about the service, head on over to the BitTorrent Live page.
What do you guys think? Do you have any other ideas about the possibilities for the service?