“We saw more and more creators going Live, doing everything from playing music with their band, working at home, hosting fitness classes, to creating talk shows that discussed current events,” says Tala Huhe, an Engineer at Facebook who oversees technological development for Instagram Live.
The catch was that, while millions could watch these videos, Instagram Live only allowed for one host and a single guest to broadcast at a time. That meant some ideas — such as an expert panel discussion around a given topic — would not work. Creators wanted to go live with more than one guest, but Live’s technology, engineered in 2016, hadn’t caught up with the increase in video demand that arose during the pandemic.
Huhe realized it was time to invite more guests to the Live party.
He gathered engineers from teams throughout Instagram to build Live Rooms, a new platform where up to four people can go live at the same time. This seemingly small shift cracked open a treasure trove of novel ideas. Since its introduction, Live Rooms has spawned new events such as livestreams of Paris Fashion Week where designers discussed their inspirations, the Jonas Brothers bantering about Nick’s latest album, Spaceman, and Broadway stars coming together to discuss their favorite moments of this year’s Tony-nominated shows.
You can create a Live Room only on mobile devices (but they’re viewable on the web as well), which means there’s no need for video cameras or other expensive equipment, and the system makes production seamless and easy for content creators. Just as Instagram is designed to capture the spontaneity of discovering something new, Live Rooms gives creators the freedom to livestream when the moment strikes them. Or they can share the serendipity of having an unexpected guest drop in for a chat.
Yet developing technology that allows people to effortlessly capture these impromptu moments is far from effortless. Pushing beyond a straightforward host-guest dynamic into a situation where one person hosts up to three guests increases the likelihood that “bad tech things will happen,” as David Chiles, a Software Engineer on Instagram’s media infrastructure team, puts it. For instance, squeezing four images onto a single mobile screen can jeopardize both video and audio quality. Also, arranging multiple screens into a format that’s easy to follow on a tiny screen took some engineering acrobatics.
The same went for figuring out how to keep Live Rooms conversations flowing. Each broadcaster’s actions take roughly 500 milliseconds or more to travel to viewers’ screens. Those delays begin to add up with multiple broadcasters. Early on, cobroadcasters’ streamed actions did not always sync up to real time, making it hard for viewers to understand what was going on. The challenge was in pulling videos from multiple sources, where the host and guests might have different mobile devices and connection speeds, and syncing them in a way that would feel akin to having them all broadcasting from the same physical location.
The team was able to work out these kinks with internal testing. One of the most effective experiments was using Live Rooms during weekly team meetings that had to be held remotely, thanks to the pandemic. “Instead of just walking across the hall to talk, we were in a Live Room and internal video conference together to test the quality of our product,” says Chiles. “It was the perfect testing ground for this product.”
The engineers were able to get Live Rooms to market within 10 months by repurposing technology that already existed. Live Rooms combines existing video-calling technology from Facebook’s Messenger with Live broadcasting infrastructure, which allows it to handle the robust demands of streaming live video coming from multiple sources. It combines the robustness of a video conference with the reliability of a direct live stream.
Additionally, the team added code to support the invite flow and layouts for hosts and guests. “This was not about reinventing the wheel,” explains Chiles, “but rather getting a fun and useful communications tool out to creators and people at a moment when they really needed it.”
As it turned out, Instagram Live was an attractive entertainment option for people as they faced the challenges of pandemic living. For example, viewership for Club Quarantine, a dance party hosted by DJ D-Nice via Live, soared from 250 viewers in mid-March 2020 to over 100,000 within a few weeks, attracting headline guests like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Will Smith, and earning D-Nice an NAACP Image award this spring. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this memorable night, D-Nice hosted another Live DJ set, as well as a Live Room that invited fans, friends, and family to join him in reminiscing on what that night meant to them and how music got them through this past year.
With the world in lockdown, people were hungry to become a part of larger conversations, and Instagram Live offered them a platform already trusted by over a billion people. “We got to witness folks discover the feature in real time,” says Huhe. “The joy from seeing more people join their Live Room broadcast groups was incredible.”