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Saturday, September 23 2017 @ 02:25 AM CDT

More History of Wildlife Streaming

Previous: Preface - Next: Camera Subjects

The real story of live streaming wildlife video on the internet actually began several years before our initial hookup. It began with two people in the Victoria, B.C. area at a place called Goldsteam Ecology Center a the end of the Malahat Highway, about 17 miles from downtown Victoria, British Columbia. Darren Copely was working at the center as the park’s biologist. His friend, Bob Chappel, an ex Canadian Forces electronics technician, collaborated with him on setting up several video cameras on various species.

They had set up cameras to watch bears, including having to “bear proof” them to guard them from being damaged by the bears, and they had set up a number of cameras around the Ecology Center on the estuary of Goldstream River. These cameras were connected to televisions in the center and allowed visitors to view some of the wildlife including fish, birds and bats, depending on the time of year. One camera was remotely controlled by visitors and could zoom in and follow events and wildlife out in areas that people were not allowed to get to.

Bob has also put cameras in wood duck nests, on bee hives and in all manner of other urban and suburban wildlife situations. His time in the Canadian Navy wiring underwater electronics has stood him in good stead in that not one of the cameras or microphones we’ve had him build for us has failed for getting wet – and this in our fairly damp (400+ inches of rain/year in some sites) climate.

Looking at the eagle nest tree (center) from Doug Carrick's front door

Doug Carrick of Hornby Island learned of Bob and Darren’s work with these cameras and thought it would be interesting to have such a camera in the eagle nest on the property across the street from him. He’d been watching this pair of bald eagles for a number of years with binoculars and seen them raise several sets of young. His application to be allowed to put the camera in took a bit, but finally, during the period the eagles were away eating the spawning salmon on various rivers, a local arborist was allowed to climb the tree. He installed one of Bob’s cameras and microphones close to the nest in September 2004. A cable ran down the tree and above the road to Doug’s home about 400 feet away, where it was hooked to both a TV and VCR. Doug spent hours watching the birds and taped many hours of their antics and activities, from nest maintenance to courtship to egg laying and tending, and above all the activities of raising the chicks until they fledged and left. It was a DVD made from these tapes that captivated David Hancock when he saw Doug give a talk about his nest camera in nearby Courtenay on Vancouver Island.

During and prior to this time I’d been working in and around the internet pretty much since it started. In 1989 I met Ed Clunn who at that time was writing programs for the new competitive telephone long distance carrier industry. I worked with him on that for a while and then we lost touch for much of the next 10 years or so. During that time he ended up working in the video conferencing business and developed a talent for dealing with video over long-distance telephone connections initially, and then on the internet. It turned out that for several years we were living only a few blocks from each other in Pitt Meadows (a suburb of Vancouver) and finally in 2003 again met to work on a project involving video on vending machines. Shortly after that Ed got involved in a company that was working on offering entertainment video over the internet to compete with cable and over-the-air television. It was in late 2005 that I got the call from David Hancock about the eagle nest and of course I turned to Ed to ask him what was involved and if we could use his facilities to test things.

The company Ed and some associates had founded had servers in Los Angeles at one of the main hubs of the internet. The cost of internet bandwidth there was pretty much as low as anywhere on the planet because that cost is the killer for video since it uses so much bandwidth. David Hancock figured that maybe 100 people around the world might be interested in watching these birds, mostly for scientific study. He had spent days and weeks in blinds up 100-foot trees in the rain forest for far poorer views of eagles in their native habitat than this camera was providing, and if nothing else the camera view would allow someone who could not climb trees to do the studies. At that point the bandwidth costs for 100 people watching the camera for the 4-6 months of the nesting/raising season would have been on the order of $2000 total and we figured we could likely get government grants or even individuals to pay for the feeds to go with the studies.

Oh boy were we wrong!

We were wrong on two counts – the first being the number of people who wanted to watch, and the second on the bandwidth costs and whether we could get funding. The Pope’s live-internet videocast that year drew 60,000+ people for the 3 hour session. At that time this was the most people ever to watch live streaming video on the internet at one time.

The first week the audience grew to over 20,000 – but they were on continuously – 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. The second week this grew to over 30,000 – limited by the number of servers Ed’s company had. He, being a Microsoft developer and using their Windows Media Server software, talked to Microsoft about helping with some servers and bandwidth and they said “sure!” A feed was set up and the system told to route some of the hoards of viewers to Microsoft’s facilities – and about ½ hour later we were called and asked to stop the feed as the numbers were hurting their other network use and “oh, by the way, how are you doing this?” It turned out that Ed knew more about making their software deal with this kind of load than they did.

A bit of a helping hand later, and the total viewership with Microsoft’s help topped out at 40,000 live streams. And so it went for over 4 months, from a couple of weeks after the eggs were first laid until chicks hatched, grew and fledged (at another nest site but that’s a different story). The Pope’s visit drew more people but only for 3 hours. This session was live pretty much continuously for almost 5 months with 40,000 streams going – as one person left, another would climb right on to take their place. During the period the stream was live, over 20 million different viewers watched these birds interact, eat, sleep, nurture, feed, poop, squawk and grow. They watched in horror as the first nest’s eggs failed to hatch, then empathized with the new nest’s smaller chick when its sibling beat up on it; felt for it when food was scarce and cheered it on when food finally came in. Then they watched the two chicks fledge and leave the nest – and they hungered for more.

Few, if any, other live sources have come close to this mark. Today there are lots more streams to choose from so the numbers per stream are nothing like for that one. Some streams get up toward 10,000 simultaneous viewers but not for long.
And the upshot of all this was summarized by David Hancock and was the reason for him chartering the Hancock Wildlife Foundation: “In all my over 50 years of giving lectures and showing films to groups across North America and around the world I didn’t reach or affect anywhere near the number of people who watched that video stream in one week.”

The company that helped us with the streaming didn’t survive. The tools and techniques for “monetizing” a video stream that did not end (at least for months) simply didn’t exist, and trying to use the ones that worked well for “episodic” video (those with a definite beginning and end, typically less than a couple of hours) never resulted in enough income to pay for the bandwidth. Even the huge amount of publicity the stream provided was not enough and it faded into the sunset.

The next year we tried a different approach – pay-for-view along with “peer-to-peer” bandwidth sharing with another startup (Neocast – peer-to-peer streaming video) company’s new product. That too failed. The new technology didn’t live up to its expectations, and the number of people willing to actually pay to watch the birds was too low to justify the cost of the setup.

The following year we limited the total number of viewers at any one time to 90 – the number the foundation could afford to fund “for free” with advertising revenue and a lot of support from David’s publishing business, Hancock House Publishers.

That brought us to the 2008-2009 nesting season and our partnership with WildEarth.TV and the people there who were doing live wildlife safaris and cameras in South Africa. You see, our problems in monetizing the streams, along with some changes in the video technologies used and the general ongoing evolution of the internet, had come together in the form of several companies offering to do “free” video streaming of live cameras. Adobe’s FLASH video had become the de facto standard for internet video, and the structure of flash allowed overlays without re-encoding the video. The new businesses monetized the streams with overlaid ads that changed every few seconds to minutes, no matter how long the stream lasted.

At last, the time had come when we would not need to worry about the cost of bandwidth, no matter how many people watched our cameras. Some of them would complain about the ads, but we’ll get to the solutions to that later on too. We changed our encoders from Windows Media to Adobe’s Flash, and away we went.

Now, literally anyone can put a camera on the internet and let it run “forever” - but it turns out that some are better than others, and there are still production problems in the process leading up to the actual streaming that many people simply can’t fathom.

So let’s get on with learning how to make the best live wildlife video streams.


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