‘Stitching’ Weaves Into Video’s Fabric

Here’s yet another example of an everyday word vaulting to trendy tech talk: stitching. As you might imagine, it’s less about needle and thread and more about nuances surrounding two new-ish technology darlings: over-the-top video advertising and virtual reality (VR).

Let’s take a closer look, starting with over-the-top video advertising. There, “ad stitching” is the phrasing, usually prefaced with “server-side.” It’s all about content owners and their distributors wanting a better handle on where and when advertisements are inserted into an online video program.

OTT video advertising needs this for two reasons: One, to do a better job at what “traditional” video purveyors call “frame-accurate splicing” — such that as a viewer, you simply see and hear the ad. No extra seconds of black at the front; no restarts, no stuttering.

Reason two: To better thwart “ad blocking,” in which an OTT video app or chunk of code can anticipate that an ad is coming and make it go away. (Note: Viewers still prefer ad blocking, which is why people continue to work on it. Content owners don’t, obviously, because it’s partly how they get paid.)

Ad stitching is another classic example of two parallel industry sectors coming at the same thing, from different angles, at different points in time. One of them — people used to call it “cable” — started a long time ago.

Back in the day, 25 or so years ago, operators needed a way to insert local ads into national TV programing, with frame-accurate precision. So they invented the widely used international standards known as SCTE 30/35, or “Digital Program Insertion Splicing.”

Short version: What cable people call the “splice,” OTT people call the “stitch.”

Note that the people who defined SCTE 30/35 were pre-emptive about ad-blocking, going out of their way to make sure a set-top box or other downstream device couldn’t determine when or where an ad would play. Smart, in hindsight.

Because the “ad stitch” in OTT video typically happens at the device, it’s much harder to mask. Maybe the ad blocker somehow sniffs out the playout manifests (the lists of what elements play when, in OTT lingo), then snuffs them out. Maybe they see that the first few seconds of a show are a pre-roll ad, so they start the show that many seconds later, thus obviating the ad.

By putting “the stitch” farther upstream, for “server-side ad stitching,” they overcome device- side ad blockers. Ultimately, it’s the same thing as SCTE 30/35, at least in theory. The stitch is the splice.

Then there’s the stitch as it occurs in the lingo of virtual and augmented reality — two takes on the landscape that is the strapping of goggles onto your head, and headphones onto your ears, to immerse yourself in a video game, concert, whale birthing or anything else shot for nearly 360-degree visual access.

A recent CableLabs study involving a VR demo indicated that 58% of people consider it a “must-have,” while 88% said they could see themselves using a head-mounted display within three years. (Just curious: Is it the same sample set as the people who said they didn’t like 3D because watching it required wearing eyeglasses? We’re guessing not.)

The “stitch” in VR has to do with how the content is captured, which involves a “ball” of cameras, in a sphere, facing outwards, so that there’s enough overlap to cover 360 degrees. The “VR stitch” involves making the seams along the overlap points look good enough that your latest meal doesn’t revisit you.

The work of VR stitching involves identifying points in common, then running algorithms that make sure the “stitch” is clean and makes sense visually. Challenges to VR stitching include synchronization and camera motion.

That’s why so much of VR these days is as much art as science, aficionados like VRCinematic’s David Colter (a former Charter Communications engineering executive) notes. “Today, there are several automatic stitching methods, but all require some human intervention to optimize the final result.”

That’s the quick version of the upgraded verb “to stitch,” as a way to enrich the ways we hitch and switch ourselves into the digital ditch. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

(The equi-rectangular still image above taken in Moorea, French Polynesia, represents a virtual reality, 360 degree capture. Photo courtesy VRCinematic.)

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