Head: An upstream swim

There’s a debate underway. It’s not very loud and not too many people are taking sides, but there is an argument going on.

The point under discussion: is anyone out there employing two-way streaming media?

No one questions if the technology will exist. Even sceptics agree that it’s coming. If a person is willing to spend money on it, someone else will build it.

Bob Evans, chief technology officer at Toronto-based IcebergMedia.com, said two-way streaming technology is here now, although it is not yet firmly rooted.

“I think that this technology still needs much more time to mature,” he said. “The technology has not taken off the way it could.”

But Greg Howard, principle analyst with HTRC Group LLC in San Andreas, Calif., maintains that when people say two-way streaming exists, they are more or less thinking of video conferencing.

“Streaming is a one-way technology by definition,” Howard said. “Streaming is you can see me and that’s it.”

He used the example of 100 analysts discussing 13 presentation slides. The slides are streamed to individual PCs, but for a real-time discussion they would have to add another technology, like telephone conferencing.

“You have to use very complementary communications technology for the interaction of the participants,” Howard said.

He added that the best use of streaming is from one person to many, such as corporate communications or training. “I think this is a really cost-effective way to do meetings,” he said.

Streaming has been defined as a technique for transferring data such that it can be processed in a steady and continuous flow. Streaming technologies become increasingly important as Internet users want to download large multimedia files. Most users do not have fast Internet connections, making downloads tedious. With streaming, by contrast, the client browser or plug-in starts displaying the data before the entire file has been transmitted.

Megan Prentiss is the director of solutions product marketing, streaming applications, for Akamai, a streaming media vendor in Cambridge, Mass. She noted that today people are seeing about 30 frames a second on a video stream.

“To then couple the demands of making that a two-way medium I think is a ways off,” Prentiss said. “I think that there might be other media protocols that satisfy better the one-to-one exchange.

“To expect streaming to become a two-way medium in any way is a bit off.”

Prentiss agreed that streaming is best used in a one-to-many scenario. Any real collaboration that can be brought to the desktop will not be done through streaming. “The real benefits to streaming media are being able to couple an audio or video experience with other rich media like PowerPoint, like real-time interaction,” she said.

Akamai has found the interaction level in a streaming event to be far greater that that in a classroom or auditorium, according to Prentiss. “People are able to put in questions without pressure or fear.”