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For the Win! Live Sports Are Driving Streaming Video Innovation

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A single 4K camera (or pair of them picture-stitched to provide a panoramic view) can be controlled remotely from a central production hub, making more games economical to produce. However, broadcasters will still send significant mobile setups to flagship events such as a Super Bowl or Ryder Cup, in order to command a more complex multicamera arrangement and generate wider coverage from talent on the ground.

Many broadcasters are looking to time their adoption of video over IP with a move to 4K/UHD. The economic argument is simple: A 10Gbps Ethernet cable can transmit much more efficiently and cost effectively than quad-link HD SDI cabling.

Experiments in this area require unprecedented collaboration among the notoriously proprietary broadcast equipment makers. One proof of concept has been demonstrated by integrator Gearhouse Broadcast in which an EVS IT-based DYVI switcher was shown cutting together 4K signals over 10Gbps fiber from Hitachi cameras. Sports producers need to be convinced that the signals can be encoded/decoded as necessary and cut together in synch with audio without latency—critical for any live broadcast.

It’s worth noting that experiments into 8K continue to concentrate on sports. Japanese broadcaster NHK, which plans to introduce 8K domestic transmissions ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, tested the format at the FIFA Women’s World Cup and at a New York Yankees game, and plans to do the same at Super Bowl 50—even while the NFL has announced no plans to broadcast games in 4K.

NHK has an agreement with FIFA to offer Super Hi-Vision—which combines 8K with a 22.2 surround sound system and 60 frames per second—transmission of the 2018 World Cup. Just as 4K capture is used by broadcasters such as Fox Sports to zoom into and resize pictures for HD output, so 8K cameras could soon be used for similar purpose for 4K output.

Aside from high spatial resolution, the Ultra HD road map passing through standards bodies SMPTE, DVB, and ATSC includes HDR, wider color gamut, frame rates up to 120p, 10-bit sampling, and immersive audio. With each new enhancement, the amount of data the network must transport increases demands on the entire live IP production infrastructure.

“There’s lots of work to be done on the delivery side before 4K is widely viable,” says Bill Wheaton, executive vice president and general manager of media products at Akamai. “We’re going to have to change the fundamental technologies of the internet. Ninety percent uptime [reliability] isn’t good enough. If consumers miss that one goal, they’re going to be frustrated.”

Akamai forecasts that 500 million viewers will soon be watching prime-time live sports online. “With 500 million online viewers, we need 1500Tbps. Today we do 32Tbps, so you can see the huge gap we have to bridge,” says Akamai’s director of product enablement and marketing, Ian Munford.

Akamai’s solution involves using HTTP/UDP to prevent packet loss and reduce latency, to speed the transit of content, and make it easier to handle unpredictable peaks within the CDN. It will also use multicasting, pre-positioning of content at the edge to bypass unpredictable events, and peer-assisted delivery using WebRTC.

Akamai is focusing these efforts around live workflows built especially for sports. “You will see a transition from broadcast toward IP because, unlike broadcast, the internet is not a limited platform but one that allows editorial to be creative with the experience,” Munford says. “And people will pay for that better experience.”

3D Audio

The unlocking of audio from the broadcast picture is likely to be the first creative iteration of object-based broadcasting, a potentially seismic shift in broadcast presentation predicated on the move to IP. Object-based broadcasting conceives of a program “like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle,” according to BBC R&D, that is sent in pieces and can be reconstructed on-the-fly in a variety of ways just before the program is presented to the viewer.

Two proposals to update the audio delivery of UHD delivery are being considered by the Advanced Television Systems Committee as standard ATSC 3.0. Dolby’s AC-4 competes with MPEG-H, developed by an alliance of Fraunhofer IIS, Technicolor, and Qualcomm.

Both technologies promise greater interactivity by letting viewers adjust the presence of various audio objects in the broadcast signal. The user could choose a language, bring an announcer’s voice out of the background for enhanced clarity, listen to a specific race car driver communicating with his pit crew, or have the option of listening to either the home team or the visitor’s native broadcast mix depending on fan preference.

BBC R&D’s web application Venue Explorer, tested at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, is an example of how a broadcaster might provide viewers with separate audio mixes corresponding to the part of the scene that they wish to look at.

“When viewing a wide shot, the audio will convey the ambience of the stadium, similar to what would be heard by someone in the audience,” a BBC R&D blog reads. “As the viewer zooms in to an area, the audio is remixed to a broadcast feed corresponding to what is being seen.”

The implications are exercising minds today. As digital competes with—and in some cases exceeds—linear coverage, it brings a tension that producers have yet to resolve.

“Broadcasters have been very keen to control the production, but today everybody can curate the live event from multiple angles,” Exarchos says. “This most important challenge for broadcast is how to integrate more democratic storytelling into coverage of a sport event?”

Live sports are so compelling because they deliver those water cooler moments of drama that resonate around the world in an instant. “I don’t believe that with all the infinite choices that are offered to experience a sport there is not a need for a narrator,” Exarchos says. “The question is how we make the traditional directed narrative a more shareable experience?”

The answer is surely a closely marriage of broadcast-produced live pictures and commentary with social media reaction supplemented by greater user choice of content and data which will be played out over a giant and second screens as fans seek ever-closer immersion in the experience at the game.

Data Acquisition and Visualization

Wearable cameras and sensors are feeding the demand for an information-rich sports experience to mobile. In its report “Football’s Digital Transformation,” PwC predicts that a completely personalized user experience will become a natural expectation among fans.

MLB Advanced Media has been able to lead in this field, in part because of its control of media production for all 30 teams. Like the NFL (and unlike soccer), baseball’s regular in-game pauses provide a window to disseminate stats to fans who cannot get enough data.

Virtual Reality Live Streams

The NBA’s Sacramento Kings became one of the first teams in professional sports to employ digital headgear when it broadcast to Google Glass augmented with graphical overlays live during home games in 2014. The technology allowed fans to witness the courtside experience through the eyes of the team mascot, cheerleaders, and sideline reporters, who streamed their first-person views. While Google has benched Glass, new streaming experiences have retrained on the anticipated mass market for smartphone-adapted virtual reality gear. Leading the charge is NextVR, with a system of stitching and encoding multicamera streams based on R&D for 3D TV transmission. The producer has its own rig of RED cameras and tested the service with many sports organizations including NASCAR, NHL, and NBA games which will look to monetize a pay-per-view experience this year.

Social Media Fuels Ignition

The Formula E motorsport series enters its second season. The 10-race series, which is marketed to Millennials, is organized by the FIA using more environmentally friendly electric powered vehicles. It races on street circuits (in Paris, Beijing, Malaysia, and Long Beach) and allows fans to potentially influence the outcome of the race, perhaps making it unique in major professional sports.

FanBoost gives three drivers with the most votes on social media prior to each race a 5-second power boost per car, per driver, temporarily increasing their car’s power from 150kw (202.5bhp) to 180kw (243bhp).

“Viewers don’t just passively watch. They influence the outcome from second screens,” says Ali Russell, CMO of Formula E Holdings.

Drivers are encouraged to interact with fans too. One of the most active, China Racing’s Nelson Piquet, Jr., won the inaugural championship.

“Fan boost is hugely successful in the Far East because fans don’t have any of the preconceptions that fans in Europe might have,” says Russell.

Formula E car

Formula E motorsports gives fans a chance to influence the race, giving three drivers with the most votes on social media a 5-second power boost. 

FIFA World Cup Streaming

Internet traffic during successive FIFA World Cups has grown tenfold to 222 petabytes between 2010 and 2014. For the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, HBS delivered 2,799,360 minutes of live video streams to multiscreen viewers via tech provider EVS and processed through the Elemental Cloud.

The Brazil World Cup was the first where viewers were able to use second screens to watch games from multiple camera angles and play back clips on-demand during a live match. Rightsholders could use turnkey apps and video players to deliver customized multiscreen services with this functionality.

EVS used C-Cast, the distribution platform connecting HBS’ live production to a central cloud-based platform, to supply rightsholders with six live mixed ABR video streams from 14 camera angles per game. The service also provisioned 17 unilateral video streams plus four audio commentaries. Using Elemental Cloud, EVS was able to process and deliver multiangle live coverage to 24 million mobile and web viewers worldwide.

EVS delivered live ingests to Elemental Cloud using Aspera FASP. According to Elemental, the efficiency and speed of the workflow meant that streams were delivered from source to viewer screens at latency levels comparable to satellite broadcasts. Over the course of the monthlong 64-match tournament, Elemental Cloud estimates it ingested and streamed 35,280 hours of video.

According to EVS, on-demand multiangle replays are the most consumed additional content distributed by sportscasters as part of a digital package. “It’s a staple feature of PVRs, but having the ability to do this from a smartphone or tablet is the perfect example of being able to consume the broadcast experience on the go,” says Nicolas Bourdon, senior vice president of marketing for EVS.

HBS C-Cast 2014 FIFA World Cup

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, EVS used HBS’ C-Cast distribution platform to supply rightsholders with six live mixed ABR video streams from 14 camera angles per game. 

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Live Sports Driving Streaming Innovation.”

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