Geek Out! Heinz College Students Build On-Demand Video Solution for Legendary Entertainment
By Scott Barsotti
MISM students are the heroes Legendary deserves (and also the ones it needs right now).
Legendary Entertainment is a powerhouse in the world of unapologetic fandom, a major player in the mainstreaming of “geek culture” with a muscular filmography that includes massive franchise reboots like Jurassic World and 2014’s Godzilla, grand-scale sci-fi epics like Inception and Interstellar, as well as blockbuster entries from the DC Comics universe, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, The Dark Knight Trilogy.
An epic company has epic needs, and that’s where Heinz College comes in. A team of Heinz students from the Master of Information Systems Management (MISM) program built a “server-less” architecture for Legendary that could prove critical to the future success of the client’s new streaming service, Alpha.
Fans of science fiction, fantasy, and comic worlds are legion and can be among the most opinionated, vocal, and active consumers out there. For a company like Legendary, tapping into that energy—and engaging with those fans directly—is crucial to their business. Late in 2016, Legendary launched Alpha, a subscription streaming video on-demand (SVOD) service that features original programming, live content, and favorite personalities from Legendary’s popular digital networks Nerdist and Geek & Sundry.
“This idea of live content and live experiences with community interaction, that’s a place where we feel that we have differentiation from any of the other offerings that are out there,” said Matt Geiser, Legendary’s Chief Technology Officer.
Alpha has been a hit with fans so far—a major perk for paid subscribers is having a voice in the programming through real-time polls and virtual access to the networks’ tastemakers—but it creates both economic and technological challenges in delivery. Putting out content on a premium SVOD platform is not as simple as, say, clicking your mouse a few times and publishing to a YouTube channel. Paywalls and authentication are needed, for example, to separate free users from subscribers. And the process of encoding video across devices can be torturously complex. Users expect a seamless viewing experience regardless of whether they are watching on a smart tv, tablet, or phone, so any company delivering SVOD has to reckon with that problem and work behind the scenes to ensure all of their content is supported across formats, which can be time-consuming and costly.
The MISM students were tasked with creating a customized content delivery system for Legendary that gave the company their own in-house solution, a technology that would auto-encode videos across all devices and formats and store them in the cloud for use. The students built a server-less architecture primarily with the Amazon Web Services (AWS) managed toolset.
Only Godzilla has more impact than Heinz College students (via GIPHY)
Geiser notes that this project comes at a critical time, as the nascent Alpha aims to grow its fan base and stay relevant in an increasingly competitive and niche market, while Legendary eyes the bottom line.
“As Alpha starts to scale, we can potentially improve our margins if we’re not paying a toll [on every view] to third-party video player and [content management system] providers,” he said.
“[This project] eliminates a huge amount of technical debt…it gives us an idea, end-to-end, of what [a server-less architecture] would look like and serves as a proof of concept,” said Brian Whitman, Legendary’s Director of IT Infrastructure and Software Engineering. Whitman added that the project helped his team understand some of the potential pitfalls of the server-less approach as well.
Legendary Entertainment has now become a regular partner of Heinz College, with future capstone projects coming down the pike.
Bob Brichacek, the team’s faculty advisor, commended the students on their motivation and creativity, calling them “some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with.”
“This is the most current technology. [The students] got to play with [tools] that a very small percentage of the population has played with,” said Brichacek. He adds that the pieces of the AWS toolset don’t just plug and play, and that the students’ main accomplishment was successfully customizing each piece to have the functionality Legendary required.
The end product could benefit Legendary for its leanness and usability, but it also could directly benefit users, according to Brichacek. By using Amazon CloudFront, videos would be published and pushed out worldwide through Amazon’s network, putting the content storage closer to more users around the world and improving the streaming experience.
No matter what solution Legendary chooses, the fans who log on to Alpha for the latest commentary on gaming and pop culture won’t likely register any change. But, of course, that’s the point. In the world of on-demand streaming, the best technology is the kind that you don’t notice at all.
You just press play and it works like magic. Or like a warlock’s eldritch blast, if you prefer.
This Capstone Project, “Legendary Entertainment Streaming Video On-Demand,” was completed by Julianne Friend, Himani Gupta, Junjin Pun, Chu Zhang, and Han Zhang.