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The Science of Streaming: How You’re Able to Binge-Watch Breaking Bad

We’ve come a long way since the days of rushing to Blockbuster on a Sunday evening to avoid paying the late fee on that VHS rental of Independence Day. Now, with a decent Internet connection and a few clicks of your mouse you can legally and easily stream and download movies to just about any device–something that your 90s-self would have probably assumed to be the sole reserve of science fiction.

“If you were to go back a decade and tell people that the Internet would be fast enough to stream video they wouldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t believe that YouTube could ever happen,” said Jeffrey Schiller from MIT’s Information Services and Technology Department.

Now, about 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube’s servers every single minute. Whether you’re watching the latest clip of DJ Roomba riding cat in a shark costume or streaming an Olympus Has Fallen rental on iTunes, this is how it gets to your screen (but ask yourself, do you really want to spoil the magic and take the red pill?)

The movie’s information is stored on a server database in a series of binary zeros and ones, which is first compressed to make sure the file isn’t so large that it would forever buffer on your computer. The video is then transmitted from the server to your device, typically over a cable signal, though it can also be broadcast via a satellite.

Once your laptop or iPad has received the signal, it needs to decode that string of zeros and ones into pictures and sounds, which your web browser does using a simple and pre-installed plugin. As soon as you hit the play button, your browser will begin to scurry away bits of information to play back; it’s building up a buffer of footage so that in the case of an interrupted signal (getting on an elevator, turbulence, alien invasion) it can continue to play the movie seamlessly by dipping into the buffer. Ideally, the signal would be reinstated before all the buffer footage is used up (a browser typically hoards a buffer of about 15 seconds). Otherwise, you’re presented with the dreaded “rebuffering” message.

Streaming: from server to screen and the mesh of wires in between
Streaming: from server to screen and the mesh of wires in between

Streaming movies and TV shows is no small feat, the amount of data that needs to be beamed to your computer or personal device to make it happen is vast and doesn’t really compare to that of an email or web page, but it was made possible by the quick pace of improvements to the Internet’s infrastructure.

One of the ways they make sure the signal isn’t interrupted too frequently, that the buffer remains intact, and the stream remain seamless is with the help of an immense network of servers dotted across the country. If you were to download/stream a movie from iTunes at this very moment, it wouldn’t come from Apple’s main server in California, unless you’re also in the vicinity. Instead, your computer would communicate with a “library server” – one of thousands dotted all over the country from coast to coast. These library servers contain pre-loaded versions of TV show and movie content. The streaming signal would come from whichever server in the network was the closest to you. This reduces the distance that the signal would have to travel, which in turn moderates the burden on the Internet’s backbone.

All this is to say that a tremendous amount of thought and hard work has gone into making it possible for you to access your favorite movies and television shows legally and seamlessly. The list of services growing to connect you to the content you love is growing (you can access our list right here).

One need not totally understand the science behind streaming to appreciate it’s wonder—all that matters is it’s possible binge watching Breaking Bad seasons 1 through 5 so you can catch up to the show finale is as easy as a few clicks and a few bucks.

Featured image: (L-R) Mike (Jonathan Banks), Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and Walter White, Jr. (RJ Mitte) – Breaking Bad. Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

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