The Tech Behind the 2021 XDN Summit
Organizing a live event is no small feat in normal times: indeed, over the past decade, event planning has mushroomed into a lucrative industry focused on helping businesses find the perfect city and venue, secure the required permits, and contract suppliers and vendors for their next big events. You’d think putting on a virtual event during a pandemic and in the age of Zoom would be a lot easier, but you’d be mistaken. As with traditional live events, infrastructure is a key component to success. Participants need to connect through natural engagements while event organizers need the power and flexibility of cloud-based architecture. At the core of such an event is low-latency streaming as only an experience delivery network (XDN) can deliver.
In this post, we'll spotlight the companies and technologies behind our first virtual XDN Summit. (For a summary of the presentations and sessions you might have missed, check out our recaps of Day 1 and Day 2 of the event.)
The Venue: Eventuall™ by Addison Interactive
Addison Interactive has a history of creating immersive digital experiences for entertainment and Fortune 500 clients. Early in the pandemic, they were approached by one of their clients with ties to WonderCon who wanted to take that convention online. This involved creating a platform that supported 60 actors and artists, a very large community of fans and visitors, and 120 vendors. The deadline... three weeks.
Addison Interactive founder and CEO, Scott Addison Clay remembers, “We had some unexpected downtime because we were working on very large tentpole films that were set to be released last summer and whose releases all had to be delayed. . . . So along with our partners, we put together the Virtual Pop Expo, it used Zoom, it was cobbled together using various pieces of technology including YouTube, Twitter, WebFlow, and Auxxit, but it worked. We were amazed when 15,000 people showed up.”
Addison would go on to improve this makeshift solution creating their flagship product, Eventuall™ — an engaging online venue for staging virtual events including press interviews, theatrical experiences, and conference-style panel discussions as well as proprietary log-in with ticketing, live chat, break-out rooms, and a managed queue system that brings audience members on the virtual stage to join the conversation.
One month later, that same client approached Addison with a new challenge: building an online venue for the premiere of Unbelievable!!!!!, a low-budget Star Trek spoof that featured Snoop Dogg and over 40 former Star Trek actors but had a minimal marketing budget. Clay and his team designed the event to approximate the experience of attending a premiere at a festival: you buy a ticket, you enter a cinema, and after the screening you stick around for a panel discussion and a chance to ask panelists questions. Fans could also purchase time-slotted tickets that would enable them to connect in 1-on-1 discussions with the actors directly on the platform and join the conversation with fellow fans through free-moving break-out rooms (which were similar to the XDN Summit break-out rooms where participants were able to socialize and talk tech).
Based on the success with their platform, Addison was then asked to build the press room for an internationally renowned awards show. They created a managed Q&A system that enables members of the press to interview the nominees and winners, just after their acceptance speeches, in an orderly fashion. To pull off this complex feat, they engaged Red5 Pro to create some bespoke tech on top of their robust WebRTC SDK that included stream switching and live compositing.
Furthermore, Addison enhanced the Q&A features of their platform by designing a multi-room system — one for the general press and several others for members of Access Hollywood and other premier entertainment outlets. The press outlets stayed in their own virtual rooms while video feeds from the winners were rotated in. Addison also expanded their screening room tech to include 4K, 5.1 audio, DRM, watermarking, single active sessions, as well as constant user authentication. In short, by providing a secure way to premiere movies coupled with premiere Q&A technology, Addison is well-positioned to provide the kind of really cool — and tech-savvy — premieres that Hollywood craves.
When we were looking for a venue for our XDN Summit, we approached Addison and they readily agreed to showcase their platform in a more traditional conference-style setting. “The Virtual Pop Expo was very much like a conference-style event,” according to Clay, “So, it made sense to combine those early learnings with the latest version of our Eventuall™ tech and work with Red5 on making the XDN Summit happen.”
This is where XDN technology is unlocking new possibilities for media events. Currently, Addison is perfecting the process of efficiently streaming everything through cloud servers. “To bring in the individual feeds to composite, we actually need a computer per feed. So putting on a live show is a manual AV operation. We want to evolve that process,” Clay explains.
Skreens may just have the solution Addison is looking for to reduce this resource-intensive setup. Indeed, Addison started talking to them about how to build some of the Skreens functionality natively into Eventuall™. Ideally, Clay would like to see a Q&A where attendees can join, for example, panelists in a discussion while they are doing the compositing in the cloud via WebRTC. “That’s the future. That’s our next step.”
The Content Providers: Skreens and Singular.live
Skreens specializes in the curation of live content on the fly. The company’s platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technology provides browser-based access to an ultralow latency, broadcast-caliber production studio that supports website implementations of just about any video-rich application. Operating 100% in the cloud, they use accelerated semiconductors — Xilinx FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) — that support the ability to edit many videos extremely fast, and produce outputs for mobile at standard resolutions all the way up to 4K and even 8K 60 fps. The most exciting part — and the part that got our attention — the entire process of combining a large number of videos, producing it, and sending it out (as a single stream) to a destination occurs in under 200 milliseconds.
This focus on speed aligns perfectly with Red5 Pro real-time live streaming. Explains Skreens founder and CEO Marc Todd: “Where Red5 Pro comes in, is that they're in the business of taking video and distributing it in ultralow latency, the things that this will unlock is interactivity. New experiences, and new revenue potential: that's what everybody's chasing. Users want better experiences, and people who have content want more revenue. And the way to get that is through ultralow latency [to support] personalization and interactivity. If I can interact with my audience, in real time, and I can personalize it based on what the audience has to say, it opens up a whole bunch of new revenue possibilities and a whole bunch of new exciting experiences for consumers.”
As our partners in the XDN Summit, Skreens was responsible for positioning the “talking heads” of our panelists and speakers that summit attendees saw on-screen, projected through Addison’s venue, Eventuall; when someone requested to join the panel discussion, they would go through Addison’s Q&A tech, and then Skreens would place the person below the talking heads. Skreens also placed the so-called lower-thirds as well as the transitional graphics between the panels which were streamed courtesy of Singular.live.
Another partner that contributed visual components to the XDN Summit, Singular.live is in the business of providing personalized interactive graphics enhancements such as name overlays and the screens at the beginning of each session and during intermissions. While some would call them graphic overlays or lower-thirds, Singular.live CEO Andrew Heimbold sees them as “information presentation” for direct audience engagement. “It’s not just a pretty picture,” Heimbold asserts. “It’s about telling a story, so when we built Singular.live, we wanted to build a set of tools that work with streaming technology . . . to do the things that current CG solutions cannot and work natively in the cloud.”
The Singular.live platform, by virtue of enabling browser-based control over the creation of rich graphics overlays in real time, has been a leading force in leveraging remote production to bring a new level of enhancement to the user experience. The end-to-end platform makes it incredibly easy to enhance and customize the content to meet the demands of modern production.
Using HTML for the overlays, Singular provides a control panel that enables producers to trigger visual information graphics on and off and even add animations. Built for flexibility, it can be run using a variety of broadcast methodologies such as OBS, Vmix, on-premise with SBI or NDI, and many more. It can even be run in the cloud which was the approach they used with Skreens. Moreover, Singular.live uses so-called adaptive layers, which enable it to personalize the information it presents based on a recipient’s device’s language setting, location, and other details culled from their browsing history via queries embedded in the output URL.
Heimbold and his team have worked with the NFL, Formula 1, the German Bundesliga, and on election night for NBC, among other high-profile organizations. When Singular.live is integrated with a live video production suite, on-site or in the cloud (such as Skreens), “you can trigger input of graphics from anywhere in the world,” says Heimbold. “Our average time if I hit play right now — and it doesn’t matter if two people or two million people are watching — is 200 milliseconds; we built Singular with speed and scalability in mind to allow virtually instantaneous connection between content creators and their audiences. And with XDN the possibilities to truly engage your audience expand dramatically.”
Skreens stack their composited video in up to 255 layers and then they take Singular.live’s output, which is a transparent web page, and put it on the top layer. That HTML file holds all the templates, lower-thirds, video boxes, interstitial cards, and title cards for an event. And because it’s a transparent webpage, it doesn’t obscure any content on the other layers. As Skreen’s Marc Todd explains it, “As soon as they [Singular] say we're going to add some text or something, then that gets played on the web page and composited into the screen.” Thus, any changes to the template or its contents can be applied on the fly and, by hitting the refresh button on the platform’s control application, updated in real time.
XDN technology is opening up a world of new possibilities for the next generation of live streaming experiences. As Heimbold summarizes it: “XDN is an amazing concept [that requires] just some pieces that have to come together to connect us: you need low-latency video to be able to get real-time information; and then if you want to enhance it, you need a product like Skreens to be able to do the cutting, editing, switching, multiview layouts; if you want participation, you need a product like Addison’s [Eventuall platform], bringing people in and out and managing the flow; and if you want to have those professional overlays, tickers, everything to make it look like a normal broadcast, you need Singular.”
The Delivery Platform: Red5 Pro
One of the integral components of an XDN is real-time latency live streaming. Thus the Red5 Pro software formed a large piece of the XDN Summit, interlooping the various elements. As latency was key to demonstrating the highest degree of interactivity, our use of the WebRTC streaming protocol was essential.
Broadly speaking, within this architecture: broadcasters published their streams which were ingressed by a Red5 Pro origin; Skreens grabbed the streams and combined them into one feed; Addison’s Eventuall platform wrapped that feed; and Red5 Pro egressed the live stream out to conference attendees. The attendees would then subscribe to the XDN Summit through a Red5 Pro edge.
A very interesting feature our partners helped us add to the XDN Summit was a method by which participants that were watching a panel could be added to the panel to ask their question directly over video. This is a much more exciting feature then just typing a question in the chat although that was certainly an option that attendees had as well. The system consists of a five-step process: a person requests to come on stage; a stage manager confirms the request; the person is asked to test their microphone and camera; the person enters a managed queue that will greenlight interviewers in the order in which they requested access; and then they go on stage, at which point they can ask their questions (or join the discussion if the event is a panel discussion).
Conceptually, our XDN infrastructure consists of a server software stack hierarchically deployed and orchestrated in three-tiered clusters across one or more public or private cloud environments (fig. 1). Each cluster consists of one or more core origin nodes that ingest content, and stream it out to relay nodes, each of which serves an array of edge nodes that deliver live streams to their assigned service areas.
For the hosting environment of our XDN Summit, we partnered with DigitalOcean (DO) because of their easy-to-use dashboard, extensive and well-documented API, and responsive support. The API allows you to really dig into the code and ensure that everything is optimized correctly. Moreover, in a production environment, we like to have high availability, regardless of the number of broadcasters, so that if a server crashes, we have a backup one to connect to right away. DO’s support for Terraform enables us to deploy new nodes quickly when demand increases.
Set-up configurations and ongoing orchestration of all the nodes implemented as part of the XDN infrastructure are performed by the Red5 Pro stream manager. The stream manager works in real time as it processes live stream information; it applies automated scaling mechanisms to add or remove server nodes in response to fluctuations in traffic demand or the need to add new broadcasters and end users.
The automated node configuration and routing capabilities of the XDN architecture enable all nodes in a cluster to provide real-time streaming support for content in all directions. In addition, the stream manager also attempts to assign geographically close origin nodes for broadcasting and edge nodes for subscribing. Thus, in a situation where one hierarchical configuration of those nodes is supporting real-time streaming of, say, an esports event, that same set of nodes can serve as the distribution hierarchy for any users engaged in an interactive application tied to that content.
Overall, we were very excited to demonstrate some of the capabilities possible with XDN technology. We showcased a high degree of interactivity with specific features such as the ability for attendees to join the main conference stream with their own video feed along with a natural flow of conversation in general. The XDN Summit was a real world demonstration of XDN tech as we were able to support a panel of experts located across the United States and Europe. streaming to hundreds of geographically dispersed attendees. XDN is building the future of live streaming and we are excited to continue working together to progress it even further.
To participate in the next generation of interactive live streaming with the XDN platform, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a call and take a look at our white paper.