When shelter-in-place orders went into effect around the world this spring, people turned to and depended on livestreaming to replace in-person events, and the trend — already on the rise1 pre-pandemic — exploded2.
Lisa Solomon, owner of group fitness company The Studio (MDR) 3 in Los Angeles, closed her studio doors on March 16th, furloughed over 50 employees and watched as her revenue fell to zero overnight. She knew she had to find a way to reach customers in quarantine and keep her business going.
“Though we had never ventured into the virtual world before, we made the decision to implement livestream classes in order to keep our community engaged,” she said.
Stay-at-home orders presented everyone with a decision: accept livestreaming and video conferencing as the new norm, or sit out social interactions for the foreseeable future. The general adoption and popularity of livestreaming that has taken place during the pandemic has simultaneously sparked a certain amount of comfort with the concept that didn’t exist beforehand. But while the convenience and accessibility seem sure to continue its explosive growth, there’s work to be done to improve the livestreaming experience — from both a technological standpoint as well as a social one — for it to be a viable alternative to in-person interactions.
The Technology Gap in Today’s Livestream
Livestreaming doesn’t come without its flaws. Performers (musicians, teachers, exercise class leaders) often have to grapple with technical challenges. Solomon experienced all of the common downfalls of livestreaming right off the bat: failure to start, audio issues, visual issues, and the lack of human interaction.
And the stakes during quarantine are higher when audiences are depending on the livestream for interaction. That’s especially true during seminal life moments, like weddings.
“The decision to livestream a wedding would have been unfathomable a few years back, but today’s technology has made it possible,” said Vishal Joshi, Cofounder and CEO of Joy, a wedding planning service that recently began livestreaming their customers’ weddings.
Even such a special day isn’t immune to technical difficulties. In a recent candid account of livestream weddings6, couples shared that things can get a little choppy at times — especially when it comes to catching movement (like the first dance) on video.
This clunkiness that can occur on livestreams can result from networking limitations or poor storage. Steve Wilkins, who leads Data Center Storage Platform Marketing at Western Digital, says storage performance is about three things: the time it takes to respond (latency), how much processing can be done (IOPS), and how much can get done in a certain amount of time (bandwidth).
When storage performance is good, livestreaming can feel seamless — almost a relatively decent substitute for face-to-face interaction — but when any one of these elements are lagging, it can directly and negatively impact7 the user.
Closing the Gap with NVMe-oF and 5G
For livestreaming to be a viable medium post-pandemic, there’s a need for improvement in performance — and Wilkins says the technology exists today.
First, a new data fabric is available that is designed for flash storage, meaning that the underlying data infrastructure is getting faster.
“That’s the stuff that people don’t see. There’s new data fabric that’s getting rolled out right now that will step up storage performance,” he said.
The data fabric technology is called non-volatile memory express over fabrics (NVMe-oF8), a new method for accessing storage media. NVMe-oF improves overall storage performance, increasing the quality of the video enabling higher resolution video.
The other determinant of great livestreaming is networking and a new networking technology is on the way also. 5G networks will drastically improve livestreams by increasing the speed of data transfer. Using 5G, video data can transfer 10 times9 the speed of 4G. Data transfers of 20 milliseconds or less will be normal, even for a high-quality 4K video.
The investments made in existing bandwidth and storage infrastructure is what made it possible for livestream to explode in the first place. As livestreaming gains even more traction, businesses, companies and households will rely on 5G networks and better storage technology to power more satisfying social experiences.
Livestream Lives on Post-COVID
Although workouts and weddings are a small slice of the livestreaming pie, both Solomon and Joshi believe that fitness classes and weddings will look different post-pandemic, and they’re open to hybrid models in the future.
In fact, Joy recently conducted a nationwide survey which found that 64% of couples would be open to adding a livestream element to their wedding in the future.
“A lot of couples will choose a hybrid of in-person and virtual wedding guests,” says Joshi. “As reopening begins post-COVID-19, gathering size limits evolve, and couples personally choose more intimate wedding ceremonies for their and their guests’ safety, it will be common for couples to have some guests physically attend and some guests join via livestream.”
For Solomon, a hybrid model is not only appealing, but also necessary.
“Boutique fitness isn’t going anywhere,” she says. “People long for group interaction even if they want to feel like they are getting personal training in a group setting. But we now know that it must coexist with the virtual world in order to continue to service the current client list and expand our reach.”
As the latest storage performance technology and 5G networks are rolled out — coupled with increases in the $70.5 billion industry10 — they will power higher-quality hybrid social and livestream experiences across business, entertainment and more. It’s safe to say that livestreaming will undoubtedly continue to pop up in everyone’s day-to-day and people will depend heavily on it as a backup plan.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine a world where clicking “Yes” on a videoconference link could ever fully replace attending anything, from a wedding to a graduation to a concert, in person.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.