The Streaming Toolbox: Hovercast, Prophet, and Pulsar

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The three tools in this installment of Stream­­ing Toolbox couldn't be more different. The first helps provide a compelling interactive experience within a live stream, the second gets you the best price for your ad inventory, and the third ensures that your content finds the best delivery path available when it goes viral. 

Hovercast

Hovercast brings interactivity to live digital and broadcast programming, adding a much needed "wow" factor to virtual events. Content producers have the ability to build another dimension for their content and change the viewing dynamic to more deeply engage their audience. Options include on-the-fly polls, tri­via contests, Q&A graphics, audience chat, maps, tickers, alerts, GIPHY integration, the ability to facilitate donations, and audience engagement measurement.

Hovercast

"The premise behind it was [providing] ESPN- or CNN-style graphics that can integrate social media and our video game engine," says Hovercast CEO Eli Stonberg. "You can build graphics in the tool or you can import assets from other sources." 

Event moderators have tools to engage the audience, promote specific content, and share with on-screen talent. Viewer participation can drive content direction or unlock additional viewing. Low latency is an important factor here, whether viewer feedback is coming from voting or chat from social media or owned-
and-operated sites using Hovercast's white-label chat. 

"It's a very customizable integration with whatever [a media company] desires. If they have their own app, we could build a clickable integration into that or through their remote or through a third-party chat," Stonberg says. This is essentially a transparent graphic layer that can either sit inside the video or on top of the video and enable audience interaction. Hovercast works with any encoding software to generate a Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) output embedded with the graphics. 

Customers can start by creating lower thirds and then build up more interactivity. There's a bit of a learning curve to get up and running, but this is a very powerful tool that can be quickly mastered to bring all sorts of interactivity to live content. It's web-based and can be used remotely by a production team. "Sometimes we are just providing the graphics, and sometimes we're being hired to produce a whole virtual event," Stonberg says.

Hovercast turned Antiques Roadshow into a cross-platform trivia game in which people on Facebook and YouTube were guessing to try to appraise the prices. The company has enabled choose-your-own-adventure stories and watch parties for Superbad and Happy Days, which together raised more than $2 million for Democratic candidates, Stonberg says. 

Hovercast is also being used in Comcast's Watchwith app, which is integrated into Comcast's X1 set-top box. It launched in November 2020 with The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. "We made a meter that would trigger secret clips when audience members pressed the button on the remote. It's a personalized, interactive layer," Stonberg says. 

Hovercast's newest features are a website builder and a virtual event platform. The company offers a free demo account, and pricing is available on request.

Prophet

The longtime video ad sales approach has been to sell inventory either at the upfronts a year in advance or based on infrequently updated rate cards. The result has been that pricing, capacity, and inventory haven't been optimized, potentially leaving money on the table. Prophet aims to revolutionize this business practice. It's an enterprise software platform that sits across ad-tech and infrastructure systems for television and video businesses to identify yield optimization for advertising inventory, says Ashley J. Swartz, CEO and founder of Furious Corp., which owns Prophet.

Up to now, many companies managed everything via Excel spreadsheets. Prophet ingests data via an application programming interface (API) on a nightly basis and publishes weekly rate card recommendations. "Yield is constantly optimized, and we're using data science to calculate what our optimal rates are," Swartz says.

Prophet

"The ultimate implementation of our system would be true dynamic pricing," according to Swartz. "You would give Prophet the parameters of that campaign, and we would provide to you a price based on, that moment in time, the inventory available."

Customers see historical or future-looking pricing on an impression basis, cost per complete, or however their inventory is being sold. Staffers working with pricing and planning or ad ops are able to see the percentage of inventory that is sold and how much is remaining. "They can also see what we recommended for that inventory, as well as the lowest, average, and highest unit rates," Swartz says.

Prophet ingests log or transactional details on campaigns that have been fulfilled to video ad servers like FreeWheel, Double­Click, or SpotX. It can also ingest target bud­gets. Users can slice and dice a campaign by various segments. For digital, distribution channels could be identified by platform, dayparts, or geographical area. "We can also in­gest measurement data, like Comscore, Niel­sen, [or] any third-party measurement provider," Swartz says. 

Historically, the differences between digital and broadcast measurement terminology have presented a challenge. Digital ad sales have been measured in impressions, whereas broadcast uses reach and frequency. Prophet offers the ability to create apples-to-apples comparisons. 

"Good premium video ad supply is still limited," Swartz says. "Digital ad sales [using Prophet] have seen up to a 9% revenue improvement, attributable to either more efficient inventory allocation or pricing." Prophet will be especially beneficial as ad sellers move further toward targeted, personalized audiences on both digital and advanced broadcasts. Prophet's main module is Mission Control, with add-ons that offer pricing analysis, adjustment on rate adherence, inventory management, and planning for scenario analysis. Navigation looked very straightforward in the demo I received, although due to the nature of ad sales, I was not able to use the product myself. Pricing is available on request.

Pulsar

NS1's Pulsar is an intelligence engine that provides real-time management for multi-CDN traffic. It allows publishers to create customized requirements without coding skills and works either standalone or accompanies the use of the NS1 DNS (Domain Name System) platform. If Cedexis was your previous go-to for traffic management, you'll want to find out about Pulsar.

"We can deliver DNS decisions," says Emily Pali, lead product manager for Pulsar at NS1, "or we can choose to do it via HTTP, which a lot of streaming customers typically prefer." Pulsar uses performance-based telemetry at the DNS layer based on data sent to the 26 points of presence on NS1's network and can deliver to geography- and autonomous system number (ASN)-level specificity. It's been used for several Super Bowls, but it works just as well for small events. 

Pulsar

Customers have the option to either set up Pulsar themselves or have NS1 configure it. "You can take our data from the community set and use that, or we can customize a Java­Script tag," says Pali. The community data is available for leading CDNs and cloud providers. The JavaScript is written specifically for a video segment, measuring delivery of up to a 2MB asset (as opposed to using a lightweight pixel for measuring Time to Last Byte for delivery of non-video-related content). If you already capture data via real user measurement (RUM) or QoE metrics, Pulsar offers a bulk ingestion method via API for precise control over your exact strategy, instead of a more generic community measurement.

"Filter Chain can be configured via the user interface or API," says Pali. "Decisions can be made across multiple CDNs, cloud regions, or data centres at the granular level of geography and network (e.g. New York + Verizon)." There is also plain-vanilla geography-based routing as well as the ability to route on a percentage basis to meet contractual obligations—so 30% of traffic can go to CDN1, 45% to CDN2, and the remainder to CDN3. Changes are updated in 2 ms or less.

Pulsar can facilitate throughput-based management—with routing going to the best CDN performance—as well as latency-based management. "If it's a one millisecond difference [between CDN1 and CDN2], we're going to switch and send people to the other provider," says Pali. Customers can filter based on availability or set performance thresholds to remove poorly performing CDNs, and there's logic to either support or deny traffic swings based on a few milliseconds of variation between networks. 

Pulsar is also General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)-compliant and can remove the last few bytes of the IP address to anonymize it, while still providing enough information for routing and decision making. Pricing is available on request.

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