Deeper Dive—The co-viewing house that Philo built

Philo is currently testing out its co-watching feature for both live and on-demand video. (Philo)

LAS VEGAS – Philo, a $16-per-month live streaming TV service focused on entertainment programming, is internally testing a co-viewing feature for live and on-demand content.

The company confirmed the trials during the NAB Show after CEO Andrew McCollum said earlier this year during CES that the feature was in the works. The feature will allow Philo subscribers to link up with other Philo subscribers to watch video together while reacting and interacting.

It makes sense that Philo would want to build social features into its platform, considering the company’s roots in social media: McCollum is a co-founder of Facebook. Not surprisingly Facebook has its own co-watching feature called Watch Party that lets groups of users watch videos at the same time and interact. The company has also started testing Watch Party functions for live TV.

Philo’s team has its own plans, and has been working on building a platform feature for synchronizing different livestreams. Seth Madison, a software engineer at Philo, gave a tech talk in October last year at Demuxed, a video engineering conference in San Francisco. He said uses for the feature include providing a more seamless experience for people trying to video chat with others, while manually synching up streams and making it easier for couples binging shows together to coordinate their watching even when they’re not together.

Madison pointed out that synchronization for live video is not necessarily a new topic; it’s essentially what the industry is talking about when it talks about latency and reducing delays in livestreams.

But Philo has built a feature that extends beyond live video into VOD, too. The company also wants to allow users to rewatch scenes or scrub video back and forward without necessarily having to bring their friends with them, so the controls need to be shared and need to toggle between synchronized and not synchronized.

Philo’s synchronization is built on top of existing adaptive bitrate technology which allows the company to use HLS or DASH streams on multiple players and allow them to watch together simultaneously. The tricky part was figuring out an algorithm for a distributed system that would have all the users involved in one co-viewing event converge to synchronized (or close to synchronized) video watching.

The video server has a good idea of what point in the video everyone should be at moment by moment, which it communicates to the participating clients in the co-viewing session. That allows the individual clients to adjust their positions within the video to match the source of truth put forth by the server. Since it’s up to individual clients to keep up, the overall group’s streams won’t be hamstrung by one or more clients being held up by a bad internet connection or other disruptions.

Philo built the feature from scratch on top of its existing technology that allows it to generate timelines and manifest files that are specific to individual users and viewing sessions.

The feature is still in development and the company needs to make it simple to use on mobile devices as well as connected TVs. That could mean building cross-device features that incorporate mobile apps into the connected TV watching experience.

“We really like to get the user interaction details right,” Philo CTO Ben Chambers said, adding that user feedback is important but Philo likes to fine-tune as many aspects as possible before launching a feature. “We’ll iterate on it internally until we get it to a place where we’re happy and then we’ll look forward to sharing it with our customers and getting their feedback.”