At the beginning of the year, virtual reality looked as if it would become part of the arsenal of sports production. BT Sport was particularly keen, mooting plans to stream regular EPL matches in 360-degrees during the 2017-18 season. In June it delivered the most impressive live VR production yet when its covered the Uefa Champions League final from Cardiff in 4K VR using 12 rigs.
The presentation included bespoke graphics, dedicated commentary and special VR mobile unit. By all accounts, though, the effort was extremely complex and may be one reason that BT has not followed it with any event since.
Another reason was the shock withdrawal from the market of the VR camera and stitching system used by the broadcaster. Nokia ending all development on the tech in October having dropped its price several times in previous months
The Ozo was adopted by Uefa’s production partner Deltatre for a test capture of Euro 2016 soccer games and was considered a professional solution. Unfortunately, the VR market has not taken off in the way many may have hoped. CCS Insight forecasts global sales of just 14 million VR headsets this year, rising to 25 million in 2018.
Sky continued to dabble in trials of largely short-form recorded content including in partnership with boxer Anthony Joshua. Bitten by the failure of stereoscopic 3D, Sky is perhaps wise to commit commercially until the anti-social user experience of wearing cabled head-encasing displays is solved.
Timeline TV managing director Daniel McDonnell’s remarks that “VR needs quite a lot of kit separate from the main broadcast and is a cost overhead,” recall those once applied to 3D. “As the technology develops it will be easier to fit into a single OB.”
Live VR will return. Hamish Greig, CTV’s technical director reckons, “VR streams will probably supplement traditional coverage as a unique value add.”
Discovery has earmarked VR for Olympics coverage in 2020 and before that, North One and Aurora Media - the new host broadcasters of motorsport’s Formula E (in which Discovery has a minority stake) - plot AR and VR innovation.
“The Chinese walls between TV and video games are crumbling,” Aurora MD Lawrence Duffy told Broadcast. “Anything we do has to work well and tell the story of the race, but if we are able to do it, then why wouldn’t we?”
In April, Timeline TV put UHD2 on the road as the world’s first truck with a fully uncompressed IP workflow adhering to the latest SMPTE IP transport protocol 2110.
“There is no SDI video in it all,” explains McDonnell. “Because it is 2110 compliant, video and audio are treated separately which means we can move the signals around without needing to keep them all together. The benefit of that is that we can do huge volumes in 4K now.”
UHD2 launched with capacity to operate 32 cameras and 14 servers in 4K but this represents only half of what the truck is capable. “We could add multiple vision mixers, more cameras, or a second gallery without any issues,” he says. “The truck includes two vision mixers in order to run entirely separate workflows for HDR and SDR.”
While Timeline’s main client for 4K is BT Sport, the truck has been busy producing HD work such as the World Championships Marathon live from central London in August for FilmNova and BBC1.
“The costs of a 4K OB are narrowing,” says McDonnell. “It’s still more expensive because you have more expensive kit like cameras and lenses but it’s not a significant amount more.”
OB firms were upping their 4K firepower throughout the year. CTV upgraded three of its triple expanders to UHD by investing in Sony HDC 4300s, Canon UHD lenses and SAM Kahuna mixers to simultaneously provide 4K, 1080P and 1080i streams.
“Until early 2016, 4K was mostly restricted to film type cameras to capture shallow progressive depth of field images which was impractical for sports coverage,” explains Greig. “The recent ability to use TV cameras in 4K sport production makes a completely practical workflow for acquisition.” CTV’s UHD coverage of England Test matches against South Africa for Sky Sports this summer, a case in point.
CTV plans to adapt its remaining HD OBs to meet the demands of the market “whether that be SDI Quad 4K, 4K over IP or even HD HDR for remote or simplified productions.”
Sky Sports, which become F1’s exclusive broadcaster from 2019 aired all of this season’s race calendar in UHD. Next summer’s FIFA World Cup from Russia will provide the largest all UHD live broadcast to date when all 64 matches are acquired in the format.
As the industry get to grips with IP, a fundamental shift in outside broadcasting is emerging. “We are moving toward a decentralised approach with different production elements being contributed from diverse geographical locations,” explains Daf Rees, deputy director operations Arena Television. “This can only be achieved where suitable guaranteed bandwidth of appropriate latency exists but this capacity is improving year on year.”
Gearhouse Broadcast’s deal to distribute the remote IP transport technology of Aperi and Gearhouse parent Gravity Media Group’s multimillion pound swoop for Input Media in June were part of this pattern.
“The proliferation of IP-based hardware is changing sports production by allowing us to do more on a remote basis,” GMG chief executive John Newton told Broadcast. “However, it won’t change overnight and remote production is not right in all cases.
The mammoth OB trucks run by all the leading suppliers will travel to premium sports events for some time, not least because squeezing 4K UHD over IP contribution links is currently unreliable and expensive.
“What you save on not sending crew to a venue you spend on connectivity,” added Newton.
The BBC’s plan to cover an additional 1000 hours of sport per year, however, is predicated on the cost efficiencies of IP and remote production. It will stream live coverage of niche sports like the British Basketball League, hockey and women’s football Super League fixtures online using a slimline production which in some cases will be a single camera controlled remotely via web browser.
“We are at the point of transition from a place where IP production is contributed back to base and passed through a relatively traditional gallery with comms and graphics and switching towards a scenario where all of that takes place in the cloud,” explains Tim Sargeant, head of production system and services BBC North and Nations.
The BBC aims to move all its live event production, including Autumnwatch and Glastonbury, onto software and into the cloud for distribution on iPlayer.
Discovery Communications’ plundering of pan-European Olympic rights in 2015 has been accompanied ever since by noises from the company about its plans to shake-up sports broadcasting.
The first test of this will be evident in February when its sports division Eurosport delivers “the first fully digital Olympics for Europe.”
More than 4,000 hours of coverage including 900 hours of live action will be available on-demand with a promise of record breaking viewing figures.
Social media is a significant new approach to previous Olympics coverage. Discovery’s partnership with Snap will see user-generated and behind-the-scenes content from South Korea published to Snapchat users.
Augmented reality will also be deployed by overlaying graphics on top of live feeds in realtime. Sensors fitted to athletes are also being trialled to measure biometric data such as heart rate and glucose levels.
Eurosport CEO Peter Hutton told Broadcast, “The Olympics helps change people’s perceptions of what Eurosport is now – our challenge is to live up to that promise and not only show big events but show them properly.”
The company is so important that NEP UK, part of the world’s largest OB group, recruited Keith Lane from Sky Sports to be its dedicated client liaison executive.
The engine of Discovery’s plans is technology provided by BAMTech, the U.S. streaming specialist with which Discovery partnered at end of 2016 and which Disney took full control of in September. Disney plans to launch an ESPN-branded on-demand service powered by BAMTech in 2018.
The technology has not proceeded without hitch. Live streams of Bundesliga games in September suffered from delays forcing Eurosport to refund subscribers. Live stream hiccups like this are far from unique and mean that broadcast delivery remains the gold standard.