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Microsoft aims for smooth streaming in Vancouver

The software maker is helping NBC deliver HD video of the Olympic Games using Silverlight, offering new features, including the ability to pause a live event.

Microsoft is aiming to make Web viewing of the Winter Olympics a lot more like watching the events on TV.

While Beijing brought the first widespread use of the Internet to deliver live video of the Games, the Vancouver Olympics--which starts February 12--will offer a range of new options, including TiVo-like features like pausing, rewinding, and replaying during a live broadcast. In addition, broadcaster NBC is using the adaptive streaming capability of Silverlight (Microsoft's rival to Adobe's Flash) to allow those with a good connection to get the Games in up to 720p high-definition quality.

Microsoft plans to try and tap into Olympic fever by placing a special module at the top of the MSN home page that focuses on the Vancouver Games. Microsoft

"At the end of the day that's why people come, they want to see the video," said Jason Seuss, a senior technical evangelist for Microsoft. "They want it to be as big as possible and as high quality as possible."

In all, NBC plans to offer more than 400 hours of live competition and more than 1,000 hours of full-event replays.

The adaptive streaming technology also makes other new features possible. To power the streams, which dynamically change bit rates based on connection quality, the video is broken up into two-second segments. That approach to video streams allows for things such as the Tivo-like features, as well a new quarter-speed slow motion instant replay that is especially well suited to the high-speed events that fill the Winter Olympics schedule.

The technology also eliminates the hard distinction between a live stream and an on-demand replay.

In the past, if you wanted to watch an event live, you had to pick it up wherever it was at. To watch it on-demand, you had to wait until some time well after the event had finished. With adaptive streaming, NBC and Microsoft are able to eliminate that barrier, meaning you can watch an event from the beginning any time after it has started.

On the revenue side, Microsoft is also helping NBC by allowing the broadcaster to easily insert ads into the middle of video streams when there is a break in the action, something that proved to technologically challenging for Beijing, where only so-called "pre-roll" ads were used.

"They'll have an ad operator that is sitting there watching a stream," Seuss said. "They'll basically hit a button and it will do an ad insertion."

That, Seuss said, is a pretty big step. Plus, he said. "The really nice thing about smooth streaming is we can do that in a way that doesn't interrupt the user experience at all."

Microsoft is also looking to capitalize on the Winter Games in other ways, including Olympic-themed images on its Bing home page as well as a special results module on

There are also some tweaks being made based on lessons learned from Beijing. In some cases, the blogs and play-by-play commentary that accompanied Web streams from the Summer Games was ahead of the video action. This time around, such data will be better woven into the video footage with which it is associated, Suess said.

In another nod to sports fans, viewers to the NBC Olympics site won't have to see the score before they click on a video replay, something that irked many, including this reporter.

"That was an editorial decision made by NBC," Seuss said. "That wasn't a good decision; they've changed their stance on that this time around. When you go to watch a replay of hockey game, you won't see the score of the game in the title."

Another change for Vancouver is the fact that all streams will require Silverlight. With Beijing, Silverlight powered the enhanced player that offered the best quality and many of the cooler features, but a basic Windows Media-based player was also available. This time around, users will have to have Silverlight installed. Also, the video will be played in-page, a la YouTube, rather than through a separate player.

NBC is also tapping the capabilities of Silverlight to allow for the creation of more highlights packages more quickly. Whereas traditional highlights require an editor to cut the video clip, Silverlight allows for highlights to be created just by creating an XML file of the various time that one wants to start and stop.

That's important, because the demand for highlights is actually higher than for full streams of events, said Perkins Miller, Senior Vice President of Digital Media for NBC Universal.

"It's about that water cooler moment," Miler said in a telephone interview.

In Beijing, Miller said, that moment was Michael Phelps and his record-breaking tally of gold medals. "In Vancouver, who knows," Miller said.

NBC is also trying to tap into social networks, making it easy to post a link to a clip to social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. However, Miller said all the links will take users back to NBC's Olympics site. Miller said the network made the decision not to allow people to embed Olympics video directly on their site.

Miller said that doing so makes sure that those viewing the Olympics video will get access to the full range of features. "When you distribute highlights and small clips (via embedded video) you are getting only one dimension of the experience,"

One thing that neither Microsoft nor NBC had counted on in Beijing was the popularity of still photographs. This time around, Seuss said, the two are working on a Silverlight-based photo player that will use Microsoft's "Deep Zoom" technology.

People are also turning far more to phones, particularly smartphones to keep in touch, prompting NBC and Microsoft to spend more time on the mobile experience.

"People are using their mobiles and smartphones to stay in touch with sport like never before," Miller said.

Disclaimer: CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS.

This is part of a series of stories looking at the technology that goes into the Winter Olympic Games. CNET's Ina Fried is covering that topic from various angles and will be in Vancouver for the games, which start February 12.