Real-time Streams

Real-time timestamps

MediaPipe calculator graphs are often used to process streams of video or audio frames for interactive applications. The MediaPipe framework requires only that successive packets be assigned monotonically increasing timestamps. By convention, real-time calculators and graphs use the recording time or the presentation time of each frame as its timestamp, with each timestamp indicating the microseconds since Jan/1/1970:00:00:00. This allows packets from various sources to be processed in a globally consistent sequence.

Real-time scheduling

Normally, each Calculator runs as soon as all of its input packets for a given timestamp become available. Normally, this happens when the calculator has finished processing the previous frame, and each of the calculators producing its inputs have finished processing the current frame. The MediaPipe scheduler invokes each calculator as soon as these conditions are met. See Synchronization for more details.

Timestamp bounds

When a calculator does not produce any output packets for a given timestamp, it can instead output a "timestamp bound" indicating that no packet will be produced for that timestamp. This indication is necessary to allow downstream calculators to run at that timestamp, even though no packet has arrived for certain streams for that timestamp. This is especially important for real-time graphs in interactive applications, where it is crucial that each calculator begin processing as soon as possible.

Consider a graph like the following:

node {
   calculator: "A"
   input_stream: "alpha_in"
   output_stream: "alpha"
node {
   calculator: "B"
   input_stream: "alpha"
   input_stream: "foo"
   output_stream: "beta"

Suppose: at timestamp T, node A doesn't send a packet in its output stream alpha. Node B gets a packet in foo at timestamp T and is waiting for a packet in alpha at timestamp T. If A doesn't send B a timestamp bound update for alpha, B will keep waiting for a packet to arrive in alpha. Meanwhile, the packet queue of foo will accumulate packets at T, T+1 and so on.

To output a packet on a stream, a calculator uses the API functions CalculatorContext::Outputs and OutputStream::Add. To instead output a timestamp bound on a stream, a calculator can use the API functions CalculatorContext::Outputs and CalculatorContext::SetNextTimestampBound. The specified bound is the lowest allowable timestamp for the next packet on the specified output stream. When no packet is output, a calculator will typically do something like:


The function Timestamp::NextAllowedInStream returns the successive timestamp. For example, Timestamp(1).NextAllowedInStream() == Timestamp(2).

Propagating timestamp bounds

Calculators that will be used in real-time graphs need to define output timestamp bounds based on input timestamp bounds in order to allow downstream calculators to be scheduled promptly. A common pattern is for calculators to output packets with the same timestamps as their input packets. In this case, simply outputting a packet on every call to Calculator::Process is sufficient to define output timestamp bounds.

However, calculators are not required to follow this common pattern for output timestamps, they are only required to choose monotonically increasing output timestamps. As a result, certain calculators must calculate timestamp bounds explicitly. MediaPipe provides several tools for computing appropriate timestamp bound for each calculator.

1. SetNextTimestampBound() can be used to specify the timestamp bound, t + 1, for an output stream.


Alternatively, an empty packet with timestamp t can be produced to specify the timestamp bound t + 1.

cc->Outputs.Tag("OUT").Add(Packet(), t);

The timestamp bound of an input stream is indicated by the packet or the empty packet on the input stream.

Timestamp bound = cc->Inputs().Tag("IN").Value().Timestamp();

2. TimestampOffset() can be specified in order to automatically copy the timestamp bound from input streams to output streams.


This setting has the advantage of propagating timestamp bounds automatically, even when only timestamp bounds arrive and Calculator::Process is not invoked.

3. ProcessTimestampBounds() can be specified in order to invoke Calculator::Process for each new "settled timestamp", where the "settled timestamp" is the new highest timestamp below the current timestamp bounds. Without ProcessTimestampBounds(), Calculator::Process is invoked only with one or more arriving packets.


This setting allows a calculator to perform its own timestamp bounds calculation and propagation, even when only input timestamps are updated. It can be used to replicate the effect of TimestampOffset(), but it can also be used to calculate a timestamp bound that takes into account additional factors.

For example, in order to replicate SetTimestampOffset(0), a calculator could do the following:

absl::Status Open(CalculatorContext* cc) {

absl::Status Process(CalculatorContext* cc) {

Scheduling of Calculator::Open and Calculator::Close

Calculator::Open is invoked when all required input side-packets have been produced. Input side-packets can be provided by the enclosing application or by "side-packet calculators" inside the graph. Side-packets can be specified from outside the graph using the API's CalculatorGraph::Initialize and CalculatorGraph::StartRun. Side packets can be specified by calculators within the graph using CalculatorGraphConfig::OutputSidePackets and OutputSidePacket::Set.

Calculator::Close is invoked when all of the input streams have become Done by being closed or reaching timestamp bound Timestamp::Done.

Note: If the graph finishes all pending calculator execution and becomes Done, before some streams become Done, then MediaPipe will invoke the remaining calls to Calculator::Close, so that every calculator can produce its final outputs.

The use of TimestampOffset has some implications for Calculator::Close. A calculator specifying SetTimestampOffset(0) will by design signal that all of its output streams have reached Timestamp::Done when all of its input streams have reached Timestamp::Done, and therefore no further outputs are possible. This prevents such a calculator from emitting any packets during Calculator::Close. If a calculator needs to produce a summary packet during Calculator::Close, Calculator::Process must specify timestamp bounds such that at least one timestamp (such as Timestamp::Max) remains available during Calculator::Close. This means that such a calculator normally cannot rely upon SetTimestampOffset(0) and must instead specify timestamp bounds explicitly using SetNextTimestampBounds().