Timing mechanisms allow operations to be executed at the correct time. The Web already has several mechanisms supporting timed operations, including setTimeout and setInterval, as well as controllers for media frameworks and animations. However, the Web lacks support for multi-device timing. A multi-device timing mechanism would allow timed operations across Web pages hosted by different devices. Multi-device timing is particularly important for the broadcasting industry, as it is the key enabler for web-based secondary device offerings. More generally, multi-device timing has wide utility in communication, collaboration and multi-screen presentation. This Community Group aims to define a common, multi-device, timing mechanism and a practical programming model. This will improve the Web as a platform for time-sensitive, multi-device Web applications.
Timing mechanisms allow operations to be executed at the correct time. Timing has many purposes such as correct time ordering, delay, concurrency/synchronization, periodicity, or perhaps rate adjustments in progress or processing.
However, the Web lacks support for multi-device timing. All the timing mechanisms above are limited in scope to a single Web page. In contrast, a multi-device timing mechanism would allow timed operations across Web pages hosted by different devices.
The Community Group aims to define a common, multi-device, timing mechanism and a practical programming model for time-sensitive, multi-device Web applications.
We envision multi-device timing resources, such as clocks, stop-watches, timeouts or controllers, to be explicitly represented as objects of the Web. This means that timing resources are identified by URL’s, and that they are hosted by dedicated Web servers or services. This way, multiple devices may share timing resources essentially by connecting to the same URL. Furthermore, devices may assert control over timing resources by interacting with a server-side object. For example, applications will have the ability to request timing resources to slow down or speed up, and request controllers to pause, resume or skip back to start. Effects of timing control will be equally available to all connected devices. Finally, since multi-device timing resources are true objects of the Web, traditional concepts of ownership and access control apply and may be enforced by servers. This way different permissions (i.e., read-only, read-write) may be given for different end-users and/or different application components.
This vision is in line with the classical client-server architecture of the Web. The vision also enables a programming model, where Web applications can define and use application-level timing resources (e.g., clocks, stop-watches, timeouts or controllers) for application-specific purposes. These timing resources then drive the execution of relevant, time-sensitive aspects of that application. In effect, time-sensitive execution can be remote controlled from anywhere in the world, via the server hosting the timing resources. This approach naturally matches the event driven nature of modern Web applications.
Multi-device timing resources will be modeled after existing timing concepts, i.e., the system clock, stop-watches, timeout-mechanisms, and controllers of media and animation frameworks. In short, the CG aims to provide multi-device implementations of these concepts (with the realization that this may call for modifications to existing concepts and API’s).
Multi-device timing implies that timing resources may easily be shared between distributed components in a multi-device Web application, or even between different applications all together. Note also that multi-device timing resources support the abstraction of being simultaneous (in real time). Essentially they implement distributed agreement in time. So, if an application-specific media controller is shared between, say a 100.000 devices, and they all evaluate the controller currentTime property (during playback), at exactly the same moment in time, they ideally should get the the same media offset. Furthermore, if one device requests the controller to skip ahead by 5 seconds, this ideally affects all connected clients equally and immediately. Implementations of multi-device timing resources must approximate this ideal behaviour as precisely as possible.
Furthermore, precise multi-device timing must be available for any permutation of device, network connection, OS or Web-browser. In short, multi-device timing resources should be available whenever and wherever the Web is available.
Finally, a main goal for a multi-device programming model is to facilitate easy and flexible combination of time-sensitive application components within multi-device applications. In particular, we imagine a common API between Web browsers and providers of multi-device timing resources. A common API would be a great contribution to the interoperability of time-sensitive application components, and would even allow independent systems to share temporal aspects without necessarily sharing any application data. A common API would also work against a development of proprietary timing solutions and technological “islands”.
Scope of Work
The CG will:
- Define a common API for multi-device timing resources, i.e, clocks, stop-watches, timeouts and controllers.
- Review existing programming concepts for timed operation, i.e., setTimeout, setInterval, HTML5MediaElement, HTMLTrackElement, WebAnimation, and suggest adjustments to simplify integration with multi-device timing resources.
- Draft a protocol specification for a common interface between Web browsers and providers of multi-device timing resources.
- Discuss native support for multi-device timing in Web browsers.
The outcome of this will likely be a combination of bug reports, API proposals and protocol specifications.
The CG will borrow concepts, ideas and solutions from the Shared Motion proposal [SMP] (aka. Media State Vectors [MSV]) as a starting point. Shared Motions is a generic concept for multi-device timing on the Web, supporting clocks, stop-watches, timeouts and a wide variety of controllers. Shared Motion adopts the centralised approach where motions are hosted online by specialised motion services. Research on Shared Motion documents timing errors < 10 ms when Shared Motion is used in distributed synchronization of HTML5 video and audio, by regular, non-optimised Web browsers [SYNQ]. Though the limits of scalability has not yet been formally documented, the light-weight nature of Shared Motion indicates that online timing services may be highly scalable.
Out of Scope
- Timing mechanisms based on assumptions of synchronized system clocks (e.g., NTP) are out of scope, as synchronized system clocks is not a realistic assumption in the Web environment. This is especially true on mobile devices.
- Timing mechanisms based on assumptions about ISP, network carrier, Intranet or other local communication are out of scope. Multi-device timing services should work anywhere the Web works, and can not make any assumptions, except that devices are connected to Internet, have an internal clock, and support TCP communication. In addition, it must continue to work in NAT setups without port forwarding etc.
- Timing mechanisms that can not reliably deliver lip-synch precision or better are out of scope. Although many applications do not require lip-synch, the ability to use a single mechanism independent of precision-requirements is valuable.
- Timing mechanisms based on multicast streaming or pulse propagation are out of scope, as precision is affected by variation in network latency.
- Timing mechanisms that just provide a clock (i.e., read-only) are out of scope. A multi-device timing mechanism for Web must support a programming model allowing application code to interact with and control timing aspects within the application.
- Timing mechanisms that do not scale well are out of scope. For example, multi-device timing in broadcasting scenarios might require individual timing of millions of devices.
- Timing mechanisms that only support one-way asymmetric control are out of scope, as interaction and control generally should not be limited to a single device, but be available from multiple devices. If desirable, asymmetric control may instead be achieved by means of application-specific restrictions layered on top of a symmetric mechanism.
- Data formats for media synchronization and timed operation are out of scope. In this CG we are only concerned with multi-device timing resources. The CG advocates a model where timing resources are cleanly separated from data resources. This implies that timing resources can be used in combination with any type of timed data, and remain relevant for any choice of data delivery mechanism. This model also supports separation of concern, as backend services can be specialized for timing only - essential with respect to high precision and scalability. Data formats for timed data are already covered by other groups within W3C as well as other standards bodies.
A multi-device timing mechanism would significantly improve the Web as a platform for timing sensitive multi-device applications.
The broadcasting industry in particular provides a host of use-cases for multi-device timing. For example, Web coverage of live sport may require a delay to match latency of broadcasting networks. Live Web content also requires time-shifted presentation to match later on-demand consumption. Web-based companion device offerings should be synchronized with the programs they enrich, both in live and on-demand settings. Accessibility features for TV may include the option of foreign language audio tracks delivered by smart phones, synchronized (lip-synch) with a shared screen. Traveling viewers might prefer the “light” option for TV programs. This could be audio plus light-weight timed HTML5, as an alternative to bandwidth consuming HD signals. Interactive, time-sensitive ads on companion devices may enable new forms of engagement and revenue.
More generally, multi-device timing is key to a number of very important functions in multi-device applications. Timed presentation of same content on different devices constitutes collaborative viewing and may also require collaborative control. For presentation tools, there could be solutions based on remote controlled HTML5 as an alternative to video-based screen sharing. Multi-device timing also enables multi-screen solutions. Visualization of complex timed data models may be split across multiple screens, yet navigated in unison along a common timeline. Multi-device timing may also be used to record data input from distributed sources according to a common clock, and then later to reproduce those timing aspects in multi-device playback.
In summary, multi-device timing comes with profound implications for the Web as common platform for communication, collaboration and presentation. It will likely affect all domains of Web-based activity; in particular broadcasting, online media, education, health, music, industry, and government.
Community and Business Group Process
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[SMP] Shared Motion Proposal
[MSV] Ingar M. Arntzen, Njål T. Borch and Christopher P. Needham. 2013. "The Media State Vector: A unifying concept for multi-device media navigation". In Proceedings of the 5th Workshop on Mobile Video (MoVid '13). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 61-66.
[SYNQ] Njål T. Borch and Ingar M. Arntzen, “Distributed Synchronization of HTML5 Media” (15/2014), http://norut.no/nb/node/3041/