WebRTC Expert Feature

April 08, 2013

The WebRTC Data Channel

Most of the thought and demos of WebRTC have been of video and/or audio, but now the data channel is coming and it may drive even more change. Mozilla has successfully implemented the data channel in the latest version of Firefox, and Chrome is close behind. 

Now that the data channel is becoming a reality, it’s worth thinking about how it could be used and why it is transformational. On the Web today, all data flows between users and servers. With the exception of peer-to-peer programs like Bit Torrent, when you send a data or file it goes to the server and then to the other user. 

With the WebRTC data channel, it’s between the end points, and it uses UDP, so it is fast and can be used for things that wouldn’t work well through a server – such as sensor inputs.

Obviously the data channel can be used in a conference or other activity to move data between participants. This can be file sharing, screen sharing or some other form. But the data channel can be used outside of a voice/video conference. For example, a group of people could be in an app and their browser could be sending updates constantly. That could be accelerometer information, other metrics, or something simpler like text.   

So the movement of my device could be sent to the other browser and used as an input, rendering the potential for new gaming paradigms with mesh data in the game.

No doubt there will be many creative uses of the data channel. Eric Zhueng of PeerJS (a data channel library developer), even hints at the concept of a distributed Facebook where your browser can send your info directly to another browser.  Another interesting concept is to think about Bit Torrent. With the WebRTC data channel, a server can keep the indexing files for a distributed file sharing system, keeping a record of which end point had which file segments. When a user asked for the file, the server would merely set up a WebRTC data channel from each of the originating browsers to the receiving browser – an instant sharing network that can be topic specific. 

In other words, any topic-oriented website can become a hub for managing large amounts of data, without having to actually store or provide transmission bandwidth for that information distribution. This will open up huge new challenges for those interested in preventing open distribution, as it will become harder to determine what is being sent and how it’s being originated.

Imagine using the data channel for continuous crowd sourcing and decisions. A group can be in continuous contact and the data channel can be used to update data between the endpoints. And, as WebRTC is not just for browsers, one of the peers could be a server, getting a continual stream of information. 

A sensor that plugged into the headphone jack, for instance, could be used to send a continual reading of some environmental data to an analyzing location, using only the browser.

The data channel will open many new doors. I fully expect to see some exciting data channel uses at the WebRTC Conference and Expo in Atlanta. In fact, there’s a session dedicated to understanding the data channel. WebRTC is truly a revolution, and not just in voice and video, but also in data.

Edited by Braden Becker
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