Elemental Technologies Deploys GPUs to Vanquish Video Buffering

by Tony Kontzer

Buffering has long been the scourge of streamed video.

But a Portland, Oregon-based company at the center of the video-processing industry is working with GPUs to help relegate it to a thing of the past.

By taking advantage of the parallel processing capabilities of GPUs, Elemental Technologies has helped Comcast, HBO, and a variety of sports broadcasters all but eliminate buffering issues that can severely limit the success of their video streams.

“It’s a core competitive advantage for Elemental over competitors that don’t make use of the GPU,” said Elemental co-founder and CEO Sam Blackman, at the GPU Technology Conference.

Buffering issues carry a real cost. When streams are buffer-free, viewers watch 240 percent more content, he said. Conversely, viewers watch three fewer minutes of video for each percentage point increase in buffering time.

A solution to buffering is a concept known as adaptive bitrates, which allows streaming software to change bitrates in real time to match the changing quality of the connection. GPUs power this by enabling these multiple bitrates to be processed in parallel.

“You’re not just processing video across different devices,” said Blackman. “You’re creating many different versions of the video so you can broadcast it across different connections.”

While most of Elemental’s business is in de-buffering programming for streaming services such as Comcast’s Xfinity on-demand and HBO’s HBO Go, it’s the company’s impact in the sports world that’s gotten it the most recognition.

Starting with an agreement it signed in 2011 to stream content from the Big Ten Network, Elemental has powered streams for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Stanford University’s iCardinal real-time replay application, ESPN.com, and the 2012 London Olympics.

The latter was, as one of Blackman’s slides noted, a “game changer for online video.” The numbers he provided supported that claim.

For example, with buffering essentially eliminated from its streams of the games, NBC generated $60 million in digital ad revenue, triple what the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought in. That impact was echoed throughout the world, with 500 million streams delivered buffer-free to viewers in more than 70 countries.

“The GPU architecture allowed us to make that cost-effective,” said Blackman.

Looking forward, Blackman expects streaming to get even better in relatively short order. With bandwidth constantly rising while bandwidth requirements for HD video streams steadily drop, he expects 4K ultra HD to experience fast adoption once hardware for consumers reaches the right price point.