4K, HDR and VR: BT's quest for the heart of sport
BT Sport broadcast this year’s Champions League final with a raft of tech innovations. We talks with BT Sport COO Jamie Hindhaugh about the editorial vision that drives tech innovation
Five years ago, BT Sport didn’t exist. Now it’s leading the broadcast industry in its dogged mission to bring an ever more immersive experience to sports viewers across the UK. BT Sport COO Jamie Hindhaugh has been a key part of that growth, proving that the motto “who dares, wins” holds true in the world of modern broadcasting.
“All of our innovation is delivered around our editorial aspirations,” says Hindhaugh. “Everything we do is a focus on how we bring our audience closer to the action.”
Being at “the heart of sport” is the driver for every technology and editorial choice the company makes. This customer-centred focus has been BT Sport’s guiding light in picking up with new tools and techniques that might burn the fingers of other broadcasters.
For a start, BT Sport already has more live 4K experience under its belt than almost any other broadcaster in the world. The network decided to offer live 4K sport to its customers over two years ago, when most other broadcasters were still evaluating whether 4K was feasible at all (a discussion which, in most cases, remains unresolved). In those two years it has produced more than 350 live 4K events.
In January of this year, BT Sport also rolled out Dolby Atmos broadcasts, allowing those home viewers with the appropriate installations, an immersive audio experience.
When BT Sport became host broadcaster for this year’s UEFA Champions League final, the company decided to use it as the ultimate showcase.
“It was one of those wonderful moments, where it’s a massive event and you can really use the halo effect of that event to showcase the different things you’re up to,” says Hindhaugh.
BT ran with the opportunity, producing, in addition to the HD broadcast of the final, a 4K multi-HDR broadcast with Dolby Atmos audio, plus a VR offering available through multiple online outlets.
There are a lot of broadcasters who have forgotten that they are broadcasters and instead are just making a single VR camera feed available
The HD broadcast alone was impressive. Available in 200,000,000 households worldwide, it was the biggest ever audience for multi-camera coverage of a Champions League final.
“I’m told it outperformed the Super Bowl, from a world-wide reach perspective,” says Hindhaugh.
But in addition to the HD broadcast, BT Sport flexed its 4K muscles with a 25-camera, 4K production. Traditionally, BT Sport creates an HD stream out of its 4K coverage, but for the Champions League final, the team deployed a complete, standalone 4K workflow, separate from the HD workflow.
Twenty-five 4K cameras were employed, thirteen of which were shared with the HD production. The kit also included a 4K spider cam, 4K polecams and a 4K helicopter cam. Additionally, eleven 4K cameras were used for presentation.
A range of dynamics
But there’s more.
The 25 camera 4K coverage was an HDR feed as well. High dynamic range imaging can add particular value in sport coverage, offering greater fidelity to a real life experience and eliminating variables in exposure which can make shooting sport, especially outdoors, especially tricky.
The Sony 4K cameras output a Sony S-Log signal - Sony’s proprietary HDR gamma curve which enables use of the extensive dynamic range of the Sony camera sensors and the matching colour profiles of all the cameras in the Sony ecosystem.
The feed was delivered in multiple HDR formats. Last year, the International Telecommunication Union cut short a potential HDR format war by settling on two HDR standards, PQ (Perceptual Quantizer) and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma). PQ is the format preferred by online content providers like Netflix and Amazon; HLG appeals to broadcasters because of its backward compatability. BT Sport broadcast the final in both PQ and HLG HDR formats, as well as in Dolby’s proprietary HDR format, Dolby Vision.
Capturing the atmosphere
The 4K BT TV broadcast also featured Dolby Atmos audio. BT Sport isn’t new to Dolby Atmos. So far the company has broadcast around 37 live Premiere League and Champions League matches in Dolby Atmos since launching the offering in January.
“Dolby Atmos been very well received. People really do get that sound is very important,” says Hindhaugh. “And I know a lot of other broadcasters are now getting interested in that and how you drive awareness to get more people to take it up. It’s one of my favourite pieces of innovation actually. It makes such a difference.”
The live 4K broadcast was presented to the Dolby theatre at Dolby’s Soho headquarters, in Dolby Vision HDR, with Dolby Atmos sound.
All of our innovation is delivered around our editorial aspirations
Hindhaugh says the Champions League final coverage was the first 4K HDR production with Dolby Atmos on that scale, which seems hard to refute. But BT Sport was just getting started. Turning a 360 BT Sport has been working with VR for about nine months now. They have been using it primarily for their boxing coverage.
“VR is about being immersive, about being part of the action,” says Hindhaugh. “But to be blunt, I think VR is in danger of becoming the Emperor’s New Clothes. There are a lot of broadcasters who have forgotten that they are broadcasters and instead are just making a single VR camera feed available. That’s not engaged enough for me. There’s a way you watch a live football match - you want to have a story curated to you. “
Working with UEFA and Nokia, BT Sport placed 12 of Nokia’s Ozo VR cameras around the stadium. The company developed its own 360/VR OB truck and the capability to do a director’s cut from the 12 VR cameras to create a curated VR feed, allowing viewers to follow the action entirely in 360. The coverage included live VR replays and a virtual jumbotron which displayed the feed of the HD coverage. BT Sport also worked with UK-based VR company Moov to develop live, augmented reality graphics.
The VR coverage was made available on YouTube for free. BT also developed its own VR app in partnership with LiveLike, who specialise in VR sports experiences. The app allowed viewers to watch the VR coverage live, as well as select up to eight different camera angles.
“I have to say, I was blown away by the reaction on social media and by articles by some opinion formers,” say Hindhaugh. “I think people could see the effort that had been put into it. It was by far the biggest VR coverage of a live game. We had over 290,000 people who engaged with that VR feed live.
“The Champions League final was setting out our stall for what we’ll be doing next season in terms of 4K, Dolby Atmos and VR. HDR will come later, because we don’t think the consumer appetite is quite there yet. But it’s all about pushing toward that editorial strategy of bringing people closer to the action.”
Innovation is never wasted
Whether BT Sport’s tech innovations yield big financial returns in the long run is still an open question. More than one company has been unable to turn editorial integrity and innovative execution into big profits. But in the event that BT Sport’s “closer to the heart of sport” vision does go the way of, say, Sky’s valiant but doomed 3DTV offering, the company’s efforts are continuing to produce value not just for fans, but for the entire broadcast industry.
In the past, the BBC led the field in innovations in technology, content and audience engagement. Reined in by budget cuts, the Corporation has had to tread a more cautious path in recent years and in the vacuum there are few alternative organisations that will see a mountain and climb it “because it’s there”.
Jamie Hindhaugh has always been at pains to point out that all this technical innovation is in service to an editorial vision. As BT Sport get audiences closer to the heart of sport, maybe it can inspire others in the industry to get closer to the heart of the audience.