Producing the first live video stream, as far as we know
Groningen Rock City
Groningen is one of the youngest cities in Europe. Of the 180.000 people back in the nineties, almost 80.000 were students. No closing hours made for a healthy rock scene. Almost every night, students played in bands in many of the hundreds of bars. The audience: other students. Groningen was -and still is- a vibrant city.
There weren’t that many jobs back in the early nineties, so students – and those who dropped out of college like me – found voluntary jobs in one of the rock temples in Groningen. This is where the coolest bands played: grunge, rock, punk, surf, beat, hip hop, dance, ska, funk, metal, you name it: it was there. Vera and Simplon were the places to go, to see cool local and international bands. Some of these international bands became quite famous, like Green Day and Nirvana.
The rock scene in Groningen attracted other young people. Concerts had to be filmed. Posters needed to be designed. A creative scene of designers, photographers, light jockeys, film makers and artists joined in and mixed with the rock culture. People between 17 and 25 were in charge of bookings, stage lights, sound, filming, promotion and designs: everything you need to promote bands, let bands play, and let the audience (themselves) have a great time.
Do it yourself community
The people in the scene were quite poor. Playing with your band could mean free beer. Filming on stage could get you in a concert for free. People were in the scene to be part of something bigger, to learn and to create. And of course to drink beer, flirt with girls or guys, watch cool bands and do cool new stuff yourself. Because there was no budget, you had to be creative. And you had to convince other people to help you. The scene embraced the Do It Yourself mentality of the punks and mixed it with the community idea of the hippies.
In the early nineties the creative scene from Groningen started to work with computers. Computers had been gear for nerds so far, but now they offered tools to do graphic design and music composition. I loved it. Our mission: to create great underground rock and roll designs, but with the automation of the computer. Exactly the opposite of the boring clean DTP design styles of that era.
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With the limited resources available, we managed to buy a Mac computer with a video grabber card in 1993. And that changed a lot. We could now capture and digitise the analog video feed from the video crew who filmed the concerts.
In 1993 we also bought a modem. Because we had heard about this internet thing. We browsed the entire web in The Netherlands. Literally. Web pages were typically text only. But then came Netscape. We built our first – graphically designed – website. We started to upload audio fragments and video clips of concerts. Took us an hour to upload, but who cares. Rock and roll. Okay, the phone bill was a problem.
Gerad and Rudo and me
1994. It must have been one of those many nights where we sat at the bar in Simplon, drinking beer and you know, having fun. Great stories. Cool music. And always full of crazy ideas. Gerad, Rudo and me. And a bunch of other drunk people. Gerad basically lived in Simplon. Gerad was a gifted film maker. A rockabilly. He was so passionate, I learned so much from him. Rudo really knew a lot about computers. Even unix stuff. Wow. And we shared the enthusiasm for the same music.
Let’s broadcast live!
We were talking about all that internet stuff at the bar. About the opportunities. And what our next big plan should be. I don’t recall who shouted it: “WHAT IF WE COULD BROADCAST A CONCERT LIVE ON THE WEB?!”. Everybody started laughing. ‘Come on guys, you’re pushing too far, nobody has internet anyway!’ We laughed too and drank more beer. But it also made us more determined to try it. Who cares if it didn’t work. It will be fun. Rock and roll.
We had prepared some scripts but had tested nothing. This evening was our test. Just do it. It was a Friday night, November 4 1994. We moved our Mac computer to the Upstairs Bar, which has a small stage, typically used for local bands to play for their friends and family and a small audience on a Friday night. We taped a phone line to the ceiling, from the office to the kitchen next to the stage. The band rehearsed. And then the band started to play. Really loud.
First step: grabbing frames
Okay, getting technical here. A video feed went from the video crew’s analog Panasonic video mixer into our Apple Mac Performa 630’s video grabber card. It captured really small JPG files, like 200×150 pixels or so – to the hard drive. A local script repeatedly uploaded the latest JPG as fast as it could through our modem to a web server, using FTP.
The web server was important: it was running the latest Netscape server software, which introduced a new feature called HTTP Keep Alive. Before, each request for a HTML page, or an image, required the browser to open a new connection, request the object, and then close the connection. For the second object, the entire process repeated. Open, request, close. Open, request, close. Terribly slow. But now, a browser could keep the connection open and request all required objects, which was much faster.
Instead of embedding a JPG, we put a CGI script in the <IMG> tag. This server script told the browser to constantly refresh just the image, as fast as it could. Load, reload, load, reload. Without needing to refresh the entire page. It was later called server-push-jpg, the technology became popular with webcams.
The first browser to implement HTTP keep alive technology was Netscape 1.12 beta for Mac. I remember it was just released. Windows 3.1x users still had to refresh the web page manually to see a new image. (Yes, that’s right, Windows 95 was not out yet). But on our Mac, we saw magic: a live stream of images.
We saw live images, auto refreshing inline. Just 200×150 pixels. One or maybe even 2 frames per second if you were lucky. We had no audio. Which is quite important if you want to broadcast a concert. And we had just 4 viewers. These were people we knew, who stayed at home to watch, instead of drinking beer with us at the concert. It was a stream of images. Which is basically what video is. And it was live.
To me this was a breakthrough. Yes, technically it sucked. But! We were one of the first mortal souls to broadcast live video on the World Wide Web.
In the nineties, live broadcasting across the globe was something that was restricted to very rich companies with extremely expensive satellite connections.
And here we were. Three punks sitting in a kitchen, behind a computer with a modem, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, broadcasting live, protecting our ears against the extremely loud noise of the band playing next to us.
I realised how this would change the world. Anyone could broadcast. The technology would improve. This would rock the broadcasting industry. I wanted to be part of that revolution.
25 Years streaming…
All we had seen before was a static live image of a coffee pot in 1993. We made a live stream of images in 1994. It wasn’t until 1995 before RealNetworks introduced RealAudio, and RealVideo was introduced in 1997. I launched Jet-Stream.com in 2002. YouTube launched in 2005: 11 years after our first live stream.
Today, we can’t imagine life without (live) streaming: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, FaceTime and Netflix for instance. Watching video on the web is unavoidable these days. There are now more subscriptions to streaming services than to digital television. And we happened to plant that small seed 25 years ago. Wow.
p.s. all kudos to Gerad and Rudo and the people from Simplon. This was a team effort.