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VAST Interactive Templates: Simplifying Interactivity Standards with VAST 4.1

By Michael Tuminello, Aron Schatz, Jesse Leikin

VAST (Digital Video Ad Serving Template) and VPAID (Digital Video Player Ad Interface Definition), despite being old enough to pre-date the rise of mobile and over-the-top (OTT) advertising, have thus far resisted a wholesale update.  However, as detailed in the IAB Tech Lab’s earlier article, “Simplifying Video Ad Delivery” we are reaching the point where existing standards are coming unglued from the realities of today’s marketplace. One such area that needed a refresh is interactivity.

Increasingly popular new video delivery methods such as server-side ad insertion especially for OTT, and video file pre-caching for mobile are both incompatible with VPAID. Also, as a “black box” of code that fully controls video delivery and playback, VPAID is ripe for abuse such as client-side arbitration.

VAST 4.0 put forward a rough outline of how to resolve these problems, separating third-party code from the video asset itself, and also putting some rails around the third-party code by specifying that one codebase would solely govern viewability while the other would solely govern interactivity, hopefully reducing or eliminating other unintended uses.

A second useful idea, especially for OTT and mobile, is what the IAB Tech Lab has called “VAST Interactive Templates” in VAST 4.1.

The concept of VAST Interactive Templates is simple.  Existing interactive video has always operated by running proprietary code alongside the video, which relies on the player/device’s ability to execute the code, and the ability/willingness of the publisher to download and execute code in real-time.  It turns out in the era of mobile and OTT, neither of these assumptions are safe bets.  Compatibility with this proprietary code comes with performance risks and a maintenance cost, and bandwidth and device/app limitations may make it impossible regardless.

VAST 4.1 introduces a lightweight path for simple and well-defined creative use cases that, historically, only VPAID could be used to achieve. It is in the spirit of the separation and the idea of gaining wider adoption of the publisher that the VAST Interactive Templates were conceived. The template part of the name describes the approach being used in the standard. The creative passes all assets to the publisher player, which executes this in an obvious and easy to implement manner, all while maintaining direct access to the pure video asset. This allows the publishers to create the seamless experience they want to present for each well-defined “VAST Interactive Template.”

The best in-market example of this is the VAST “end card” format for mobile.  In this example, mobile SDK (Software Development Kit) owners have decided to use the existing companion asset (graphic, or in some cases HTML) as a creative element that follows the video.  This can be supported with VAST 2 and 3 because they are taking an existing element of VAST (the companion) and unilaterally deciding to use it in a new way on mobile. However, with VAST 4.1 this behavior is explicitly defined as explained in the next sections. It is always an end card, rather than an accompanying banner, which was originally the case for companions on desktop.

If we want to go beyond this usage, we need to start allowing ad servers and other entities to define additional creative uses in VAST.   The immediate nod to this in the VAST 4.1 standard is the ability to set a renderingMode attribute for the companion, allowing that companion asset to be explicitly set as an end-card, and clearing the way for additional uses of the companion (for example, half-screen, overlay). Proprietary implementations can use this new renderingMode attribute to pass this information to compatible players. Additional interactive template use cases will be added to future specifications, as needed.

One can imagine other creative formats and enhancements that could easily be supported with only the specification of additional assets – for example, a set of images for an image gallery, or a button image and URL for a social button overlay. It turns out you don’t have to just imagine it, since some companies have gone down this path in the past.  Jesse Leikin, SDK product lead at Oath, and at Millennial before that, took exactly this approach with a creative authoring tool and formats for their SDK.

Millennial entertained the idea of supporting VPAID in its SDK, but concluded that JavaScript-based creative was problematic in mobile due to JS issues in earlier versions of Android as well as the inability to pre-cache.  Even Oath today primarily only supports VPAID for external buyers, relying on proprietary VAST to serve interactive video creatives, including use of the companion as end card — or extensions that include a webview layer that renders over or alongside the video.   This way the video is played by the native OS (Operating System) for the best latency and performance and the webview executes alongside it.  “Most of what we are doing could easily be standardized”, says Leikin “and it would be pretty simple to do.”

So, what’s the challenge to this approach?   The biggest obstacle is to get universal publisher agreement on, and adoption of templatized formats.  It would be beneficial to agencies and advertisers to be able to run the same set of formats across the whole media plan, rather than trying to compare the results of proprietary formats in different media silos. This will ultimately help usher more dollars into mobile video advertising.  Hopefully we can start with broader adoption of the companion end card as an industry-wide mobile format, expand on the use of the companion, and then define a new generation of formats than can run in cases where downloadable code cannot be supported.

At the end of the day, everything could potentially be executed with three or four basic formats: one that renders an additional webview after the video (endcard), one that renders over the video (overlay), one that renders behind the video (background), and one that renders alongside the video if you choose to separate that from the overlay or background.

The IAB Tech Lab Digital Video Technical Working Group is already working on a next generation standard for highly interactive video creatives under the codename “VPAID-i”. VPAID-i is being designed with current and future market technologies in mind and supports the high touch, high engagement, type of video creatives that use VPAID today, but in a secure, sandboxed environment. VPAID-i for highly interactive ad experiences along with VAST Interactive templates for simpler but more widely deployed interactive experiences is the future the IAB Tech Lab and its members are working towards.



VAST 4.1 Blog Series

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Michael Tuminello
Vice President, Solutions & Partnerships, Innovid

Michael Tuminello is VP of Solutions and Partnerships at Innovid, working with clients, partners, and industry trade groups to help pioneer a new generation of video and TV marketing. He previously managed the development of rich media creative formats and authoring tools at Mediamind (now Sizmek) and Unicast, where he also managed the development of the ad server. Earlier experiences include design and development of an specialized IM client for Wimba (now part of education giant Blackboard), several years of hands-on experience as a multimedia designer and programmer, a few years playing in a band in NYC, and a stint teaching English in Japan.







Aron Schatz
Director of Programmatic Solutions, Powerinbox

Aron Schatz is the Director of Programmatic Solutions at Powerinbox and sits on many IAB committees. Aron has been involved in the advertising technology ecosystem for nearly fifteen years. During that time, he has seen the growth of new technologies and has been involved in crafting industry wide standards for interoperability between systems. Aron has managed product departments from a variety of companies that deal with mobile, programmatic, and video ad serving.







Jesse Leikin
Principal Product Manager, SDK and Ad Formats at Oath