Euro 2016: A new world of distributed production
Ed Calverley, VP of products for Suitcase TV, describes his company's "distributed production" for BBC Sport's Euro coverage
In February 2016, Suitcase TV and BBC Sport began discussions around remote production architectures that may be useful for future broadcast and online activities.
BBC Sport was investigating two main remote production architectures, the primary difference being the connectivity required between event site and broadcast centre. The most common architecture today for remote production is the ‘fork-lift’ approach, where all feeds are brought back to the production centre, which by itself requires significant connectivity.
Conversely, the trial done with Suitcase TV focussed on an architecture that required minimal connectivity, i.e., audio and video signal mixing would be done at the event site and be controlled remotely with only a single contribution feed being sent back to the production centre.
The motivations for the trial were to investigate new options for remote gallery operation, which could reduce the operational resources needed to travel to an event site; coupled with a desire to transition to an end-to-end IP production workflow which could further reduce costs by minimising the need for baseband (SDI) operations.
For the trial we built a system around our Iphrame IP-based broadcast framework, which uses a modular software architecture that enables different video and audio processing functions to be linked across multiple physical or virtual machines connected via IP.
The system further utilises Suitcase TV’s TimeLock functionality, which timestamps all signals against PTP reference clocks. This enables frame accurate switching to be controlled with automatic compensation for latency, which had previously been a stumbling block for any IP-based or remote architecture.
Iphrame enables an operational control interface to be positioned anywhere a suitable network connection can be provided. The client is fed with timestamped proxy feeds of all sources, which are synchronised and presented ‘as-live’, and the mixing/switching commands made by the operator keep track of these timestamps. At the event site, uncompressed video and audio for each source is buffered, enabling a full-resolution, frame-accurate mix to be performed as switching decisions are received. This approach ensures that the final output accurately represents the mixing/switching decisions made by the operator.
Following initial discussions for the trial, it soon became clear that mixing an outside event remotely controlled from the production centre would most likely require the VT and graphics operations to also be located there, so a simple ‘remote mixing’ model would not work. We therefore modified the design for the Euro 2016 trial to enable sources from the event site (Paris) and from the production centre (Salford) to be combined as a single virtual mixer. To minimise the bandwidth required for the connection to the site, Paris sources would be mixed onsite with a single contribution feed sent to a second (downstream) mixer at Salford.
We believe that IP is not an either/or proposition as some would have the industry believe
User experience design
We designed the user experience to enable an operator to treat the system as if it were a single mixer, with all sources from Paris and Salford able to be switched from the same UI. Monitoring and control interfaces in Iphrame are typically built around Iphrame Surface UI, which is an application running on Microsoft Windows, typically full-screen, that uses configurable layouts built from multiple components (e.g. video displays and buttons). Surface UI can therefore create customised layouts specifically tailored to suit a particular operational requirement or to provide simple multi-viewer style displays.
Before the Euro 2016 trial, most Iphrame user layouts were designed for use by an operator with little or no vision mixing experience. Buttons on UIs would typically have more descriptive text displays and always perform an immediate action such as playing a video file, toggling the display of an overlay or simply muting the audio output.
BBC Sport wanted to expose more control capabilities, most significantly the inclusion of the program/preset concept familiar to all vision mixers and audio functionality. Suitcase TV took on board those requirements and designed a UI design that focussed on what the user actually needed to do rather than simply to replicate typical vision mixer functions.
The most important result of this exercise was that the two separate mixers (Paris/Salford) could be made to be transparent to the user – i.e. the user experience was the same as if all sources were being controlled on a single mixer.
Using Iphrame as a distributed production platform provided significant cost savings by reducing the need for production teams to be present at the event site, and doing so without the need for expensive fibre links.
The trial also helped Suitcase TV not only prove that remote production over IP is viable, but further develop the Iphrame platform for use in such scenarios.
What is important to point out, though, is that ‘remote production’ probably isn’t a good description of what was achieved. We think ‘distributed production’ is a more accurate description, primarily because we believe that IP is not an either/or proposition as some would have the industry believe. It is more of a compromise. IP is a tool, if you will, that offers greater, and often lower cost, audio and video production options.
That said, what is abundantly clear is that any solution for remotely switching/mixing signals at a live event needs to integrate tightly with an ability to also switch/mix with signals in the production centre. Iphrame’s single, unified user interface, which displayed remote and local sources on the same UI, meant that the operator needn’t give any thought to the two-stage mixing process operating in the background.
In short, it was a no-brainer. All the thinking had already been done, or was taking place in the background, which enabled the operator to focus on producing compelling live television.