What Is Streaming Video (Media)?

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Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill

Streaming media is video and/or audio data transmitted over a computer network for immediate playback rather than for file download and later (offline) playback. Examples of streaming video and audio include Internet radio and television broadcasts, and corporate webcasts.

Using Streaming Media

High bandwidth network connections are generally needed to work with streaming media. Specific bandwidth requirements depend on the type of content.

For example, watching high resolution streaming video requires much more bandwidth than watching low-resolution video or listening to music streams.

To access media streams, users open their audio/video players on their computer and initiate a connection to a server system. On the Internet, these media servers can be Web servers or special-purpose devices set up specifically for high-performance streaming.

The bandwidth (throughput) of a media stream is its bit rate. If the bit rate being maintained on the network for a given stream drops below the rate needed to support immediate playback, dropped video frames and/or loss of sound results. Streaming media systems normally use real-time data compression technology to lower the amount of bandwidth used on each connection. Some media streaming systems can also be set up to support Quality of Service (QoS) to help maintain the necessary performance.

Setting Up Computer Networks for Streaming Media

Certain network protocols have been specially developed for streaming media, including Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP). HTTP can also be used if the content to be streamed consists of files stored on a Web server. Media player applications contain built-in support for the necessary protocols so that users typically do not need to change any settings on their computer to receive audio/video streams.

Examples of media players include:

  • QuickTime
  • RealPlayer
  • Windows Media Player

Content providers wanting to deliver streams can set up a server environment in several different ways:

  • Subscribe to one of the online live streaming video Web services such as justin.tv or ustream.
  • Build a private Internet media server by installing specialized commercial software onto a Web server. Examples of media server software include RealNetworks Helix Server and Adobe Flash Media.
  • Buy a commercial hardware/software system for media streaming. These systems typically interface with broadcast television as well as the Internet, and they also support higher performance streaming in many cases.

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