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Video streaming algorithm minimises data output without degrading quality

Image credit: Dreamstime

A video streaming algorithm has been developed that detects the speed of a watchers’ internet connection and will only output data at the rate they can accept it.

Developed by Stanford University engineers, the algorithm, dubbed Fugu, was developed with the help of volunteer viewers who watched a stream of video, served up by computer scientists who used machine learning to scrutinise this data flow in real time, looking for ways to reduce glitches and stalls.

“In streaming, avoiding stalls depends heavily on these algorithms,” first author Francis Yan said.

Video streaming platforms typically use what’s known as a buffer-based algorithm (BBA), which simply asks the viewer’s device how much video it has in its buffer.

For example, if it has less than 5 seconds stored, the algorithm sends lower-quality footage to guard against interruptions. If the buffer has more than 15 seconds stored, the algorithm sends the highest-quality video possible. If the number falls in between, the algorithm adjusts the quality accordingly.

Although BBA and similar algorithms are widespread in the industry, there have been repeated attempts by researchers over the years to develop more sophisticated algorithms using machine learning.

“The internet turns out to be a much messier place than our simulations can model,” said Keith Winstein, supervisor on the project. “What Francis found is that there can be a gulf between making one of these algorithms work in simulation versus making it work on the real internet.”

To create a realistic microcosm of the TV-viewing world, Winstein’s team erected an antenna atop Stanford’s Packard Building to pull in free, over-the-air broadcast signals, which they then compressed and streamed to volunteers.

Starting in late 2018, the volunteers streamed and watched TV programs and the computer scientists simultaneously monitored the data stream using their own machine-learning algorithm, Fugu, and four other leading contenders, including BBA, that were trained to adjust their performance based on the actual quality conditions the viewers were experiencing.

At the start of their stream, each viewer was randomly assigned one of the five streaming algorithms and the Stanford team recorded streaming data like the average video quality, the number of stalls and the length of time the viewer tuned in.

When the supposedly sophisticated machine-learning algorithms were tested against BBA in the real world, the simpler standard held its own. By the end of the trial, however, Fugu had outperformed the other algorithms – including BBA – in terms of least interruption time, highest image resolution and the consistency of video quality.

What’s more, those improvements appear to have the power to keep viewers tuned in. Viewers watching Fugu-fed video streams lingered an average of 5-9 per cent longer than other tested algorithms.

“We’ve found some surprising ways in which the real world differs from simulation, and how machine learning can sometimes produce misleading results. That’s exciting in that it suggests a lot of interesting challenges to be solved,” Winstein said.

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