Live from London: Ultra HD Olympics set for debut
Tonight’s opening ceremonies are shaping up to be every bit as compelling as the 2008 Beijing ceremony, thanks to an artistic vision courtesy of Danny Boyle. But, for TV-technology geeks, the ceremony will be compelling for a different reason: it will be the first time a live event has been produced and distributed around the world in Ultra HD, a format that offers eight times the resolution of HD, 22.2 channels of surround sound, and a hint at what many believe will be broadcasting’s future beyond 2020. And the system will be up and running for the next three weeks, capturing a wide variety of sports action thanks to the efforts of OBS, NHK, and the BBC.
“We are running it as a channel with all of the kit in the BBC TV center, and most of it is is brand-new technology that was developed by NHK for this,” says Tim Plyming, BBC, project executive, digital and editor live sites, 2012.
Plyming says the efforts began shortly after London won the bid for the 2012 Games in 2005. BBC research and development and NHK have worked closely on other projects over the years, and that spirit of collaboration was extended to include OBS, which is working closely with the BBC and NHK to help with platform accreditation and the ability to move freely from venue to venue. Large fibre pipes that can handle the large amount of data required for Ultra HD are already in place.
“Tonight, we will have three cameras that are locked off,” says Plyming. And, while the creative portion of the ceremony, directed by Hamish Hamilton, will be as close to a cinematic experience as any ceremony has been for TV viewers, the Ultra HD experience will put the focus on making viewers feel as if they are in the stands.
There will be two small production trucks on site at the Olympic Stadium, one that will handle the 22.2 channels of audio and another that handles the video portion of the programme. The Ultra HD cameras, developed in cooperation with Ikegami and featuring proprietary lenses developed by NHK, will capture signals at an astounding 88 Gbps, requiring a transmission technical feat that involves splitting the signal into nine signals that can be passed over 10 Ethernet feeds with 10 Gbps of bandwidth each. Those signals are then multiplexed down a single fibre from the camera to the production truck. Once mixed with the audio, the signal is then sent to the Ultra HD Production Centre at BBC Television Centre at 25 Gbps, uncompressed (the signal will also be viewable in the IBC on a 145-inch plasma at the uncompressed rate).
Once at the Production Centre, the live signals will be compressed for live playout via multiplexed H.264 encoders to theaters in London, Bradford, and Glasgow, as well as Washington, DC, and three sites in Japan at 350 Mbps. Signals will also be recorded on 17 Panasonic P2 decks, with the signal split amongst 16 P2 decks that each have 64 GB P2 cards. An additional deck will be used to record a master-reference file for timing as well as an HD proxy that can be used on two nonlinear editing systems. Those systems will then build highlight reels of the action using a compressed signal that is “only” 1.4 Gbps.
Richard Salmon, BBC lead research engineer, HDTV and display specialist, was involved with many of the HD projects the BBC undertook in the early 1990s and the fact that the Ultra HD Production Centre brings together NHK and BBC staffers is already a big step up on the early days of HD, when he says competing analogue standards had national broadcasters working on proprietary technologies. And then there is simply the size of the equipment now compared with then.
“The Ultra HD recorder takes up one half rack of equipment, and, when we had the first digital HD recorder, it was five times the size and was built into a van,” he says. “And with Moore’s Law, we know that, in two years, we will be able to record this on four or eight P2 decks.”
While the production equipment sounds like it would be the biggest challenge, it is actually compressing and moving the signals from one location to the next that is pushing the limits. To be distribute the feed to Japan, the U.S., and across the UK, everyone from BT to Cable & Wireless to Level 3 and then domestic academic Internet networks were enlisted.
“Getting the network robust enough was a huge part of the challenge,” says Plyming. “And we’re using Internet 2 [in the U.S.] and Janet (the Joint Academic Network] here in the UK and combining them together.”
Adds Salmon: “[Executives] at Janet were keen to be involved with this because they wanted the bits to challenge their network. Carrying another 20,000 emails isn’t exciting, so this helps push the technology forward so they can understand how the routers need to operate so it doesn’t fail.”
The viewing theaters will feature 350-inch screens and JVC digital projectors as well as 85-inch Sharp 8K LCD displays and 145-inch plasma displays.
As in 1984, when HD made its Olympic debut in Los Angeles, the current effort is as much a learning experience as it is a viewing experience. But given the speed of technological development and future compression technologies like High Efficiency Advanced Video Coding (HEAVC), the move to 100 Gbps infrastructures, and the work NHK is doing on doubling the amount of bandwidth available for a terrestrial broadcast channel, the road map is fairly clear.
“This is all about experience,” adds Salmon. “Early HD efforts gave us really great test signals to develop digital broadcasting. And these efforts will yield really good test signals to stretch 4K, just like 4K helps get the best HD, and HD helps get the best SD.”
But tonight and throughout the Games, the goal will be to wow viewers who enter the theater with an immersive experience unlike anything ever seen or heard.
“This is part of the role of the BBC and our reason for being,” adds Plyming. “And I’m quite interested in using this to someday deliver things like the Proms. This would be great for that environment.”