Winter Olympics Trials Virtualised OB Van

The Olympic movement can always be relied on to push the broadcasting barrier. Most innovations in its history have been incremental such as the move to color or HD and latterly UHD. Its host broadcast division Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) is arguably in the midst of the most sweeping set of changes ever in transitioning its entire production fabric to IP and cloud in order to meet the goals of sustainability, flexible production, huge content demands and new formats and immersive presentation. BroadcastBridge examines this including a virtualised OB van project being tested at the Winter Games.

Tokyo 2020 saw the full introduction of live coverage in UHD HDR, which was a breakthrough in format delivery for the Games’ live signal. Beijing follows suit.

“Introducing UHD and HDR was much more challenging from when we introduced HD for the Beijing 2008 Olympics,” says OBS Chief Technology Officer Sotiris Salamouris. “UHD isn’t a small increase in data flow. It means a big change in all of the back-end systems and the technical infrastructure that can support such mega large bitrates. In addition, there is the HDR factor, which by itself is extremely complex. In parallel, you also need to keep the system consistent with the SDR HD signal that is still our main content distribution format and the one that most of the broadcasters still use.”

To this end, OBS has created a single HDR to SDR production workflow model that will allow the trucks to generate an HD 1080i output via conversion from the primary UHD HDR signal. Almost all of the content will be produced natively in UHD HDR; however, OBS will also rely on several specialty cameras that at this time can only operate in HD 1080p SDR. The video source of these cameras is up-converted to UHD HDR to be integrated into the main production. A full IP infrastructure has been built to support the transport of the UHD HDR signals for the contribution network.

OBS Venue Technical Operations (VTO) team has developed a set of LUTs in-house to maximise the quality between all cross-conversions (from/to UHD-HD and HDR-SDR). By having natively captured the content in UHD HDR or up-converted to UHD HDR, then down-converted again, the final HD 1080i signal delivered to broadcaster will offer higher quality across all platforms than if produced in a standard HD production, OBS state.

All broadcasters will receive the International Signal in the host city’s HD standards. For Beijing, the SMPTE 292 standard is used for the production of the 1080i/50 HD-SDI signal. OBS will follow the 50 Hz specification. The UHD production will adhere to the SMPTE 2036-1 standard and follow the 50 Hz specification. The HDR standard will be Hybrid-Log Gamma (HLG). The 5.1.4 audio configuration will be provided for both standards.

This unified new UHD-HD workflow had one unexpected side-effect: It also contributed to improved HD picture quality, due to the way that video content from UHD HDR is upconverted.

“The picture quality in HD that we managed to achieve for the Tokyo 2020 Games could not have been possible if we had followed the traditional, HD-only, live production workflows from the past,” he says. “Not that our journey did not have its tough moments. Debugging a totally new live production workflow in a new and demanding format like UHD HDR would always have its hurdles.”

Virtualised OB Van Proof Of Concept

Virtualisation will redefine broadcast production requirements and allow for the possibility to scale services and greatly reduce the set-up time. It’s not alone in this of course and in many ways it mirrors the wider broadcast universe, not least in having to design, build, plan and replan many times under Covid.

There is a lot of excitement around a virtualised Outside Broadcast van pilot project in Beijing. It is part of a wider aim to explore more flexible and modular production environments with the goal of reducing logistical and operational complexity compared to traditional broadcast infrastructure.

Since January 2021, OBS Advanced Technologies Manager Geert Heirbaut has worked with systems integration teams at Intel to design a forward-looking virtualised OB van that is able to support agile production.

In use as a proof of concept during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, OBS will be testing this new live production environment at the curling venue. Based on a cloud-hosted, software-based architecture that mirrors the function of a traditional OB van, the venue production crew will perform their job from a production gallery in the compound, using COTS solutions that offer a similar user experience as traditional broadcast appliances. An on-premise data centre will replicate the cloud-based architecture platform.

The first stage of this innovative project will give priority to functionality and interoperability, as well as ingesting and processing of the 1080p50 SDR video feeds coming from 18 cameras used for the coverage of one of the ‘sheets’ at curling, alongside the audio feeds. Further, four additional native IP cameras, dedicated to the virtualised OB van project, will be connected to the network stack, eliminating the need for camera control units.

“Flexibility and scalability, and especially the potential to maximise our production workflows, are behind OBS's cloud strategy and virtualisation efforts,” says John Pearce Director of Venue Technical Operations. “Virtualised production set-ups will make our workflows a lot simpler, allowing us to deliver a very high quality production with greater agility, reduced footprint and cost efficiency. Making some OB van functions independent of physical infrastructure and moving them into the cloud will also help reduce our set-up time and broadcast footprint.”

Teaming up with Intel and Alibaba, OBS will also explore more flexible and modular production environments by designing a revolutionary virtualised Outside Broadcast van. With the full adoption of an IP-enabled infrastructure, certain functions of the in-venue production units can be moved away from the legacy broadcast components into using virtualised COTS servers and networking, opening up new opportunities that could lay the groundwork for producing the Olympic Games in an entirely new way in the near future.

“It is not possible to use the same system for each sport with the traditional technological stack,” says Salamouris. “With new technology, it is possible. We can use the same servers and systems in a standardised rack arrangement. We can use virtualisation technologies, along with ICT tools to allow us to configure the system for different sports. The broadcast equipment, such as the vision mixer, audio console, and replay server are software that is placed in standardised hardware, which are then configured to the relevant sport. As such, it optimises planning and preparation for future Games.

“Our idea is that in the near future, we will be able to replace the use of typical OB vans or bespoke flight pack systems, with a standardised ICT architecture of servers and IP switchers, where all standard broadcast applications for live production will be only software functions. This will offer us tremendous flexibility in order to address the major problem of having to deal with so many different systems, like individual production units with each one of them based on a different combination of broadcast boxes which themselves require specialised configurations and overall handling. We are ready for this set-up. We have tested the system on numerous occasions and are now excited about using the virtual OB van in a live Olympic environment.”

Move to IP, cloud and UHD HDR made under Covid conditions.

Move to IP, cloud and UHD HDR made under Covid conditions.

Cloud And Sustainability

OBS’ entire broadcast workflow has transitioned to IP with more and more content distribution and post-production workflows supported in the cloud. From Beijing, OBS will distribute feeds in HD and UHD through the cloud for the first time to more than 20 broadcasters.

Not only can RHBs receive all the live content produced during the Games over IP, they can now also send back their live interviews with the athletes from the mixed zone directly to their home headquarters, with ultra-low latency and in UHD.

Cloud technology allows broadcasters to address media management workflows from processing to editing to distribution operations in a better, easier, and faster way. If most broadcast organisations were still in the early stages of deployment and integration of cloud-based systems in the beginning of 2020, the pandemic has clearly pushed forward the adoption of such solutions. Most organisations have been forced to carry out production and distribution workflows from home and, during the crisis, rely on cloud services to support their newly remote production.

With its own Cloud platform, OBS says it can accommodate tailored, fully-fledged cloud-based front and back-end solutions for broadcasters to help them more easily set up all or part of their processes in the cloud. For broadcasters, this is a dramatic inflection point in the cost structure of their on-site production as they reduce up-front investments. Also, they can significantly keep their set-up time to the minimum and have their equipment all prepared for their Olympic coverage before even setting foot in the host city.

More than 6000 hours including 900 live will be produced over the two weeks from Beijing.

More than 6000 hours including 900 live will be produced over the two weeks from Beijing.

Impact On Footprint

Rights holding broadcasters (RHB) will always need a base in the host city, so no matter how more efficient and remote workloads are, the IBC will not shrink massively in size. Quite often the issue affecting RHBs in the host city are the same as those in their home country, notably the number of extra personnel required. So, even for the domestic broadcaster of the host country, for instance in this case China Media Group, there is always the need for a big presence in the IBC, because it is not possible to find the increased space in their HQ for their Games-time staff.

“If the IBC was only needed to address the problem of distance from the host country, then the domestic RHB would not be needing space there; however, Games after Games, we have seen that the domestic broadcasters continue occupying one of the largest broadcast areas inside the IBC. It is not like 15 years ago when broadcasters had to be in the IBC to have access to all the content. However, there will always be the need for a large broadcast operations centre in the host city, as well as smaller hubs in remote venues like here at Beijing 2022.”

Elements of an IBC may be different in the future, but the IBC will still be a hugely important component in the broadcast of future Games. By moving all broadcast workflows into the cloud, it can reduce its footprint further.

“Virtualisation is the starting step when moving into the cloud and is all about how one can take advantage of a particular piece of hardware in the most efficient manner,” says Salamouris “Thanks to virtualisation, hardware is now utilised to levels up to or more than 90 percent, a level that was unthinkable with previous approaches that were only relying on physical servers for running the applications software.

“The cloud is the next step as it holds the highest possible density in terms of virtualised assets, together with a highly sophisticated and rich set of tools that allow the just-in-time use and management of this tremendous concertation of computational and networking capacity. There is not a more efficient manner to run applications of any sort.

"For example, in the past, to use a visual mixer in a conventional OB van, it would have required a huge frame consuming a large amount of power, even if we were to use a much smaller portion of its features and overall capacity. A virtual, purely software-based vision mixer running on the cloud will be a significantly more efficient, and hence sustainable, solution as it could be easily configured and its capacities scaled up or down depending on the real needs. We can expand this notion to almost all the technology systems that are required to support the broadcast of the Games.

“Moving to the cloud allows a rather inefficient consumption of technical resources, mostly power but as well HVAC, built enclosed areas etc. to be exchanged with a far more efficient one within the cloud. We will always build our technology in such a way that it offers efficiency, sustainability, and reduces our footprint, while at the same time offering the broadcasters the chance to do the same.”

Instead of highly expensive dedicated international telecommunication optical circuits, OBS is delivering all the live multilateral content, in contribution quality and in extra-high availability over public cloud.

“Just a few years ago this would have seemed simply impossible to ever happen,” says Salamouris “The more extraordinary aspects of this service is that it can already meet the transmission qualities often related to satellite distribution, in terms of latency and resilience, while it is already able to outperform it when it comes to expandability, flexibility, and consequently, cost.

“What really surprised us was the fact that we can use live cloud not only to transmit our multilateral signals in HD, but in UHD as well, with the same resilience levels.”

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