You may know YouTube primarily for its awesome sports highlights, classic TV clips and popular music videos, all of which are offered on-demand in easily clickable playback format.
But the 2012 Olympics represent the service’s biggest live streaming effort ever. The Games also offer a window into the changing nature of online video and where YouTube is headed next.
YouTube partnered with NBC to deliver the American broadcast giant’s online Olympic coverage, delivering 34 million live streams to customers over the first week of the Games. Nearly 1.5 million people watched live streaming coverage of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team winning a gold medal.
Nearly 1.2 million watched via live stream as Michael Phelps beat Ryan Lochte for the 200m IM swimming gold. YouTube is also delivering free live streamed coverage via the International Olympic Committee’s channel to fans in Asia and Africa, further boosting its global reach for the Games.
To power its partnership with NBC, YouTube officials say, the company built an entirely new platform for delivering live streaming footage at a previously unprecedented scale. As many as 100 simultaneous high definition feeds are in action at one time to deliver multiple events from multiple angles for fans online.
Not Just the Olympics
About 25 employees stationed in offices around the world have helped build and maintain the Olympic effort but Jason Gaedtke, YouTube’s director of software engineering, says that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily an Olympics-specific tool.
“While it’s true we built this platform for the Olympics, a better way of characterizing it would be to say we used the Olympics as an opportunity to challenge our capabilities and set some high quality-of-service and streaming goals going forward,” Gaedtke told Mashable.
Make no mistake, though — the video-on-demand clips that made YouTube popular in the first place aren’t going anywhere. Users watch four billion of hours of playback footage per month and upload 72 hours of video per minute. The company has had live streaming capability for several years, but only began investing in it more heavily and seeing more demand over the past few.
It’s delivered a number of concerts and live streamed last year’s Royal Wedding, for example. But what other areas are becoming more popular for live streaming coverage?
“We certainly see strong demand in a couple verticals: gaming, sports, news increasingly — anything with a realtime or community-driven aspect to it seems to play well in this format,” Gaedtke says.
Blurring the Line
Integration of more social features will increase, too. In April, the site began hosting Google+ Hangouts to wild success. Adding more social updates — such as publicly viewable audience analytics — help drive engagement and may become more common, YouTube officials say.
But the biggest change we’ll continue to see with YouTube’s streaming offerings — and one exemplified by the Olympics and its many events — is a decreasing distinction between live and on-demand video.
“We’re intentionally blurring the line between live and video-on-demand,” Gaedtke says. “With the technology we’ve built here — realtime transcoding at a high level as well as how we prepare the media stream — we can immediately go from a live to DVR experience once an event ends.”
Aside from anecdotal reports of service problems with YouTube’s Olympics delivery, Gaedtke says analytics and quality-of-experience metrics have been positive. More importantly, the Games have helped the company lay an improved foundation they can continue to build on for future events big and small.
“This has been a fantastic opportunity for our team to learn how to apply the experience forward to the full YouTube platform for both live video and video-on-demand to deliver both realtime and playback content,” engineering manager Andy Berkheimer told Mashable.
“The only limitation we have at this point is that we can’t predict the future.”
Where do you see YouTube in five years? Share you thoughts in the comments.