If you regularly watch sporting events, movies or other content via the internet, are you satisfied with the experience? Probably not, especially in terms of bit-rate and delay. Streamphony, developed by a team at HKUST with invaluable support from industry and government, is set to change that thanks to its innovative solutions.
Remember the name "Streamphony". It is a catchy name, but the real reason you will be hearing it more and more in future is because its patented and patent-pending technologies define a new era for content distribution networks with a novel and highly efficient "substream-push" technology.
A research team, under the direction of Prof Gary Chan, Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has developed a software suite for large-scale live multimedia streaming, including video, audio and data, over the internet. Streamphony enables an Optimized Global Streaming Cloud for high bit-rate applications, which streams content to a variety of user devices such as mobile phones, tablets, smart TVs, set-top boxes and PCs. Streamphony is also useful for streaming time-critical data, such as stock quotes. It achieves sub-second delay that is much faster than multiple seconds as in many other existing streaming solutions.
Streamphony is being deployed by Mei Ah Digital Technology Limited（美亞數碼科技有限公司）, a top leader in entertainment technology, and a major telecommunication company. High-quality live broadcasts are set to air in December 2012.
"The research started about 10 years ago and after we accumulated experience we started to work with industry and government to commercialize it," says Prof Chan. "Mei Ah has been very supportive since day one. I have been conducting research on this area for years – my PhD thesis was on streaming. But just doing research without deploying in industry means that something is lacking. Therefore, I want to walk those extra miles to develop it as a real system for industry to use."
Quantum Leap Prof Chan explains more about the unique and innovative features that account for Streamphony's high efficiency and low deployment cost. "It divides the multimedia stream into multiple sub-streams and intelligently pushes them over multiple paths in the cloud. This new design paradigm is a quantum leap from the traditional design, leading to its remarkably lower delay," he says.
Mr Steve Law is Executive Director of Mei Ah: "We distribute content to end-users via traditional channels such as cable. We had been looking into new media when, by chance, I met Prof Chan. Hearing about his work, it triggered something with me. I felt he had a very mature thought about distribution networks – not just on the academic side but that he was just a step away from commercialization. It made sense to work together. Streamphony fits our goals with its innovative approaches."
Cost Savings The major benefits, he notes, are in cost savings. "We can save on bandwidth costs by about 70 percent, and by 30 percent on hardware. In order to cater for our target population size, with traditional methods we need large bandwidth and expensive servers, but now with Streamphony we can physically reduce the cost and number of servers with much lower bandwidth. And as our target population grows, the savings further increase." He is looking forward to further close collaboration with Prof Chan's team as Mei Ah rolls out its deployment to Mainland China and the rest of the world, following its Hong Kong release.
Another key partner is the Innovation and Technology Commission (ITC) of the Hong Kong Government. "Through this cooperation we have received funding that enables us to hire software engineers so that research results can be turned into software codes that can be tested in the real environment," says Prof Chan.
Mutual Benefits Speaking about collaboration with industry, Prof Chan says it is very important because both parties depend on one another. "For a researcher like me, who is keen to roll out technology that people enjoy using, such collaboration is the key. I like to address real industry needs through my research. In this way, our research results can be finally channeled into industry, bringing impact to our lives."
The team – which has averaged around 10 research staff, though at times rising to 20 – will continue to develop Streamphony, with the help of Mei Ah. "Many elements can be improved, especially as networks keep changing and users' expectations rise. This calls for better and continual research," he says.
Prof Chan did his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where he was a William and Leila fellow. He got his BSE in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University. He has been at HKUST since 1999. In 2011 he led a team that developed another wireless project, called Lavinet. Lavinet is a multi-hop wireless mesh network that greatly extends the coverage and improves the data access of Wi-Fi networks. The software implements a set of innovative channel selection and routing algorithms that effectively avoid traffic congestion and reduce signal interference. It is already commercialized and deployed in Modern Terminals, a leading port terminal in Hong Kong, and was awarded bronze in the Best Innovation & Research Award (College & Undergraduates) in the Hong Kong ICT Awards 2012.
As for the Streamphony, it is set to have a far-reaching impact on the world. It is expected that in a few years’ time it will be widely applied – and when you watch live soccer matches via this, you can think with pride of HKUST!