YouTube Looks To Make HD Standard And "Kill The Spinner"

More than 4 billion hours of video is watched on YouTube each month. The quality, however, varies for any number of reasons.

Paco Galanes, a YouTube software engineer, is striving for uniformity. No matter the device used, he wants it to appear in high-definition and stream without those pesky interruptions (also known as buffering).

His goal is quite a ways off. But the Cambridge, Mass.-based Galanes says his team is in it for “the long haul” as it makes a renewed effort to upgrade YouTube’s video quality.

Clearly, the task has become more complicated with the growing number of devices YouTube is watched on -- from tablets to gaming consoles to smart TVs. Also, varying broadband speeds, both within the U.S. and across the globe, continue to pose a hurdle.

Netflix faces similar issues. TV networks might increasingly as well as they count on TV Everywhere and Internet delivery to attract larger audiences.

Galanes & Co. are counting on adaptive bitrate streaming – which customizes the video quality based on the device being used and broadband speed available – to help fulfill those all-HD aspirations. Not to mention, “kill the spinner” – Galanes’ term for eliminating all buffering.

Challenges aren’t new to Galanes, who in a previous role worked on last year’s live YouTube-cast of a Red Bull-sponsored leap from space that broke the sound barrier, which yielded the most concurrent streams ever on YouTube.

Certainly, if YouTube were to achieve all-HD delivery (in the 1080p format) with the “spinner” eliminated, there could be significant revenue implications. It stands to reason the more satisfied viewers are, the more they will view and the more ad dollars will come in. (The 1080p format is known as true or native HD.)

Also, advertisers may spend more on YouTube with an opportunity to deliver their spots with a 1080p experience to smartphones and tablets. Many already have HD spots produced for TV ready to be shown on YouTube or other platforms.

“We are very aware that monetization is what pays our bills and keeps us here working on the quality problem,” Galanes says matter-of-factly.

As he continued his quest to prime the YouTube system last week, Galanes went into some detail with MediaPost about what’s in motion and what lies ahead. An edited transcript:

Galanes on the end game for viewing on handheld devices (YouTube says there are 1 billion views a day on mobile platforms):

“We have to be able to provide video quality or an experience that is comparable to what people can watch on devices like their TVs and DVD (players). It’s the 1080p experience. It’s the beautiful large-screen experience with great audio. That’s where we’re going and that’s what people expect. And, the challenge is how can you deliver that over an infrastructure that you don’t fully control.”

On what percentage of YouTube videos appear in full HD now:

“As you can imagine, it depends on the markets. For instance, there are many countries in the world where the infrastructure is not there to be able to sustain 1080p or even close to basic HD, 720p. The main constraint is there is no broadband deployment. If you’re looking at countries where the infrastructure is largely there, 1080p today is only a fraction.”

On the potential to increase consumer satisfaction by reducing or eliminating buffering via adaptive bit rate:

“Basically it acts like a shock absorber in a car where if you hit a bump, you don’t feel it as much … so if there are constraints such that we cannot deliver the best quality that you would want to watch, we lower the quality of your bit (stream) … and that allows us to eliminate the spinner …

We’ve seen large improvements out of this already, but now we need to upgrade our metrics to take into account these new behaviors … we are really focusing right now on understanding what the effect is on peoples’ behavior. Do they watch more, do they watch less, do they click on the next (video)? What we really want to know is do these experiences satisfy you?

We believe people vote with their time. That’s the main metric that we can track for user happiness. If people watch more, it’s because the experience is better and we believe there is a correlation.”

On the hurdles YouTube faces:

“One is the size of the catalogue. I don’t want to minimize that. The number of uploads is growing. The second one is the different geographies with different levels of infrastructure available for us to deliver that smooth experience. And the third one -- and it is probably the biggest today -- is the explosion of different devices and different platforms.

“One of the things we’re doing is looking at supporting and promoting standards for … application platforms. It’s no surprise we are big supporters of HTML5 and devices that support that layer of abstraction. We see a lot of traction there. It’s reaching beyond the desktop.”

On YouTube delivering videos in 4K – an emerging format four times the resolution of HD (also known as Ultra High-Definition):

“We cannot ignore 4K. It’s coming and we already have the ability to deliver 4K. Obviously, is this our main focus? No. However, we believe that by focusing on 1080p today, we are laying the groundwork for the kind of improvements that we will have to make; the kind of technology that we will have to deploy; and the kind of metrics that we will need to gather and collect. They are basically the same and we’ll be able to address 4K when it comes because of all the work we’re doing to deliver 1080p today.”

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