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Think Streaming 4K Is Years Away? Think Again, Says XI Media

By Troy Dreier

The future of UHD is happening right now. Here’s how one production company streamed low-bandwidth 4K live from a South by Southwest music stage.

4K is certainly the future of streaming video, but it’s not the present. Due to bandwidth limitations and other issues, mainstream 4K use is several years away.

That’s what Dusty Kraatz read on a few months back, and he took issue with it. As the owner of XI Media Productions, he had just spent 5 days streaming a 9Mbps, 30fps, 4K feed from a stage at the South by Southwest festival, so he knew that 4K isn’t tomorrow’s technology—it’s here today.

“Everything was smooth, man,” Kraatz says. “I knew that once all the troubleshooting was done that the actual production was going to just go.”

Saying Yes

Based in Austin, Texas, XI (pronounced “eleven”) is a decade old. Its crew has done every video job around, including birthdays and weddings—anything that would pay the bills, Kraatz says. For the past 7 years XI has worked in live streaming,

grabbing some of the conference market. The company is still small, with only a half­dozen staffers and plenty of freelancers on rotation. It can scale up to cover a four­stage music festival, if need be.

XI has been working at SXSW’s music festival for 7 years streaming Fader Fort, a multi­day music stage sponsored by Fader, Dell, and Converse. The tented stage operates from noon to 8–10 p.m. for 5 days, with a constant stream of thousands of attendees and a schedule of between seven and nine acts each day.

“The very first year we did it, everything fit in the back of my Toyota 4Runner,” Kraatz remembers. “We had a very small little switcher software­based encoder. The headliner for the whole thing was Kanye West. It was very much a trial by fire, and we nailed it. Knocked it out of the park. Everyone was happy, and then we’ve been live streaming that event at South by Southwest.”

When a job is available, Kraatz likes to promise he can deliver what the client wants, then figure out the details later. When XI first got the SXSW job, it didn’t have live streaming experience. A contact at Fader asked if they could deliver a live stream, and Kraatz said, “Yeah, sure, we can do it. We can pull this off.” Then he needed to research and test in a hurry to make sure he actually could.

Pushing the Envelope

Heading into the 2015 festival, Kraatz and his team wanted to figure out a way to deliver an even better experience. This was Dell and Converse’s fourth year sponsoring Fader Fort, and Kraatz didn’t want it to look like his company was coasting. He wanted XI to innovate and push existing technology as far as they could.

“Our producer, Jon Burke, who’s been with us from the very beginning, one of my best friends, he just kind of started throwing the 4K idea around,” Kraatz says. “We started talking to Omega Broadcast through the rental house in Austin here. We’ve had a long­standing relationship with them. We started going and finding out what live multicam setup exists, and what kind of gear could we get to put together a full production suite, or setup, if you will, that could handle doing the 4K live element.”

Kraatz proposed 4K to Fader and the response was iffy. While the Fader team members appreciated the innovation in 4K streaming and trusted XI after several years of working with them, they were hesitant. Why do we need to go to 4K? they asked. How does this benefit the viewer? And is this something we can sell?

If you shoot a concert in 4K, Kraatz explained, then even if the viewer watches it on a smartphone the feed he or she is watching has been transcoded from a higher­resolution source. The end product will look better no matter how it’s viewed. He also stressed the innovation angle: If we do this now, we’ll be the first, he said.

XI Media Productions’ crew spent 5 days and nights shooting and streaming in 4K from the Fader Fort at SXSW 2015 in March. 

“We would be innovators, and we would be further proving that Fader and Dell are technology innovators, and they’re always looking forward and looking to provide something that no one else is,” Kraatz says.

His arguments won Fader over. Then Kraatz had to figure out how to make it work. Talking to Omega, he figured out how to use Red Dragon carbon fiber equipment for a 4K shoot, but he still needed to deliver the feed. For that, XI turned to Cogo, a transcoding company that specializes in turning high-quality video into low-bandwidth streams. A new company, Cogo made its debut at this year’s NAB conference in Las Vegas. The Fader Fort stage at SXSW was the first time its technology had been used in a live trail. Cogo is based in Austin, as well.

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