The History of Live Streaming

The History of Live Streaming

Now that streaming is here to stay, we wonder how we ever did without it. But of course we did. Let’s take a look back at the history of live streaming and the road we took to get here.

Streaming is a lot older in its origins than one might intuitively suppose. One of the earliest streaming platforms was Muzak. This along with similar audio systems played continuous music. The original patent for this technology was sought in the 1920s, before the computer was invented.

When we think of streaming, though, we think computers and the Internet. The full development of that capacity was more recent. Many technical advances in the 1990s and 2000s improved the bandwidth of networks. This increased the number of people and computers with access to those networks, creating the Internet as we know it today. Standard formats were also developed and protocols that we use to code online material and functions (TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, etc.).

This increase in computing and connecting capacity with the development of programming tools started to set things in motion. Along with commercial development of the Internet, this allowed the first true streaming media to be born.

Early Efforts

Early live streaming efforts were mostly single-event broadcasts rather than continuous multi-use streaming. History of Live StreamingIn 1993, the garage band Severe Tire Damage became the first band to broadcast live over the Internet. This was when their concert in Xerox PARC was streamed around the world.

In 1995, RealNetworks televised a baseball game over the Internet for the first time during that year’s American League playoffs. Seattle made another advance in streaming later that year when the city’s Paramount Theater placed the first symphony concert online.

The first continuous and regular streaming was probably Word magazine. Word magazine also launched this in 1995 (a big year for streaming). The magazine was the first to feature streaming soundtracks online, although not live streaming (the music played from recordings). These pioneer streaming efforts concentrated on audio content. This is because audio doesn’t need as much data capacity as video.

These represented rather small-scale dipping of toes in the water. An early step compared to the ubiquitous presence of streaming video today, let alone what the future may hold.

Bringing It To the Public

The commercial development of live streaming had to wait for further technological advances. Over the 1990s and 2000s, the typical power of a home computer increased by orders of magnitude. That’s not an exaggeration. In 1995, a top-line Dell personal computer had a 66 MHz processor and eight megabytes of RAM, and it sold for over $4,000. That’s 1995 dollars. Hard drives at the top of the scale had a single gigabyte of capacity.

Connection to the Internet was equally primitive. Most connections then were by modem over the phone lines and the new standard was 28.8 kb. Painful to think about for those spoiled by modern equipment.

The History of Live StreamingWith such primitive gear (and yet 1995 was only 20 years ago!), the ability of people to receive, process, and appreciate streaming media was limited. Faster computers and faster connections solved that problem. This set things up so streaming video was poised to take off by 2005, when YouTube was founded. The creation of software tools such as Flash Player facilitated the streaming of video content.

Streaming radio, however, was the pioneer in commercial streaming. Initially, this was received on stand-alone Internet radio receivers. Moving the process to computers and eventually to mobile devices was a logical development. A development that occurred with their introduction and immediate popularity.

As the bandwidth of connections to the Internet and computing power available to the average person continued to increase, it was natural that the audio streaming used by Internet radio would graduate to streaming video. Data compression methods contributed a lot to this development as well. Video files contain a lot of information. Compression allows that information to be efficiently transmitted and stored.

Video streaming had some pioneering efforts even in the 1990s, though. The first large-scale on-line video broadcast occurred in 1996. This was when Marc Scarpa produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert. President Bill Clinton also made use of video streaming for his Townhall events. Other single video streaming events occurred from time to time in the last decades of the 20th century.

Live Streaming versus On-Demand Streaming

The term “live streaming” is sometimes applied where it doesn’t belong. Streaming from a recorded source, which is what one finds on YouTube, Netflix, and many other commercial streaming sources, is on-demand streaming. This means that the user can watch the content at will, while live streaming occurs only at the moment, in real-time. Live streaming comes from a content source such as video cameras and microphones. It is made available at the same time as the event being filmed occurs. On-demand streaming provides content from a recorded source instead. Streaming radio and much Internet television consists of live streaming.

As far as the “streaming” portion of the process is concerned, live and on-demand streaming are similar from the viewer’s perspective. They are quite different in technical and procedural details from the standpoint of the producer or broadcaster, though. The main difference from a technical end is the use of temporary storage for the material in progressive streaming or on-demand streaming. This is where a file is partially downloaded, stored to memory, and played while the next portion of the file is downloading. True streaming or live streaming doesn’t employ partial memory capture. It streams directly from the source to the user via a computer processor that finalizes the broadcast.

The Situation Today and Tomorrow

History of Live StreamingIn today’s Internet environment, streaming, both live and on-demand, is everywhere. It’s  passing beyond the confines of commercial operations like Netflix and social streaming platforms like YouTube. If you have a web site, you can stream live video to it, embedding the video on the page, or embed recorded video files.

Future developments may include increasing the “seamless” quality of embedded video. A fluid integration of video content on websites, without requiring the viewer to react. This is already possible, of course, on desktop browsers with autoplay. It’s currently blocked by most mobile carriers, for bandwidth concerns. It’s likely to become more common in the future, though, as capacity on mobiles increases. Speaking of, optimizing for mobile devices is also ongoing. Video on web pages is configured to play well on the smaller screens of tablets and smart phones. Video no longer requires a desktop or laptop computer to play well.

One thing is certain: streaming video is not going to go away. It has already transformed the way we think of television and video content.

By Esther Vicent.