As a form of viewing tied to online speed and accessibility, the evolution of streaming into its current dominant state was inevitable. Escaping the confines of traditional analogue systems, online streaming is on-demand, has a far greater selection than older methods, and it can often cover a far wider geographical range.
It is not, however, a technology that could maintain its rapid pace of development forever. For the last few decades, all the different avenues that streaming could take have effectively been playing catchup to what might be possible. With these avenues increasingly explored, fewer new streaming technologies are likely, though the overall popularity will unquestionably continue to grow.
Passive Visual Media
The most common form of streaming that most engage with comes from passive video media like YouTube. Launched in 2005, YouTube was not the first video streaming service, though it was arguably the first international breakout hit. Ever since the release of “Me at the zoo” from YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, YouTube has kept pace with greater tech, but it’s never overstepped its bounds.
The most obvious changes to streaming services like YouTube have come in terms of video quality. At the time the service launched, most videos came in at a resolution of 320×240. Working from a base of 76,800 pixels and then run through compression algorithms, this level is what we consider to be of unwatchable quality today. At the time though, the 240p standard reflected the data, monitor, and camera tech restrictions of the era.
Eventual progress advanced resolution and other viewing aspects and technologies as average potential grew. Videos are now available up to a resolution of 3840×2160 on YouTube, and at framerates of up to 60 FPS, double the former cap of 30. On a raw resolution scale, this means over a hundred times the pixel counts alone, though compression will again modify the exact number seen.
While other streaming services such as Amazon or ESPN+ walked similar paths, none have done much more than increase fidelity and add quality of life changes. The one key exception to this is the addition of VR integration which, while still in the early days, does allow a major shift in the viewing experience. In other words, passive streaming has done more, but it hasn’t necessarily done much that is new.
The more complex part of this equation ties into the growing possibilities available in interactive streaming. A more elaborate beast than its passive counterpart, the higher demands, and younger implementation makes interactive streaming an area with considerably more room left to explore.
One of the more famed examples of this idea in action comes from the streaming service Twitch, first launched in 2011. Originally designed as a way for people to stream videogames, Twitch soon evolved into something else entirely. With better and easier programs to use, higher levels of overall engagement, and faster internet connections for everyone involved, Twitch went from passive to a far more active setting. On the way, it even abandoned pretenses of being a videogame online service, going as far as finding an important place in modern fundraising.
Today, the biggest channels on Twitch are those where the host actively participates with their audiences. This can be as complex as a complete dialogue when working on an artistic project or as simple as holding a conversation. In fact, at the time of writing, the Just Chatting section of Twitch stands as the most popular, with more than 12 million followers.
In a more personally active sense, there are certain streaming programs in the entertainment sector that are controlled directly through player input. Live casino games like those from Betway are a growing illustration of this, where titles like Lightning Dice and Caribbean Stud Poker are controlled directly from a player’s device. With physically streamed hosts operating at a distance, this blended reality approach is still finding ground. Also leaning on this idea are traditional video games, through systems like Stadia and Project xCloud. Requiring immense bandwidth and low latency, these are still lacking in their implementation when compared to their contemporaries.
For a long time, streaming systems were about playing catchup to ideas just out of grasp. In the 2020s, our reach has finally met this point, where concepts percolating for years have finally reached fruition. While this means that access and opportunities for users are greater than ever, it also raises the question of where is left to go.
While some unpredictable innovations like we saw with Twitch or online casino games could open new landscapes, it’s just as likely that the ground-breaking streaming steps are a thing of the past. It’s not a bad problem to have, and it serves as an important technological marker of human progress, but it takes a little magic out of the experience. At least in other areas, such as education, we’ve still got a lot of wonders left.