Beijing 2022: OBS CTO Sotiris Salamouris Discusses How 5G, Virtualized Tech, and the Cloud Are Transforming the Games
At the Tokyo Games OBS Chief Technology Officer Sotiris Salamouris and the team at Olympic Broadcasting Services embraced a number of new technologies, like IP, UHD, and HDR, at a scale never before seen. At the Beijing Winter Olympics those efforts continue but with even more innovation thanks to the use of 5G, virtualized hardware systems, and more. Salamouris laid out some of the vision in the OBS Media Guide late last week.
What is your role with OBS during the Planning phase and Games-time?
My title is Chief Technology Officer of OBS and the Olympic Channel. At an Olympic Games, OBS has a double mission. One is as a production company, which means having all the people needed to cover and produce coverage of the Olympics. The other is as a technical company to support the requirements of the Rights Holding Broadcasters (RHBs) and provide a large number of technical facilities and services to them. Because we relocate to the host city for a much longer period than they do, it means we are able to build and put in place technical systems that RHBs are either unable to do by themselves or too costly.
Therefore, the responsibilities of the OBS technical teams are twofold: on one hand, providing support for OBS to successfully deliver the coverage of the Games; on another hand, providing RHBs with all the required facilities and infrastructure for their production objectives. We build a lot of technical systems for the RHBs, from their technical facilities inside the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) and/or the Zhangjiakou Mountain Broadcast Centre (ZBC) to TV studios, to specific technical areas in all venues. We even provide specialized cabling and technical storage services. Additionally, we deliver essentially all their broadcast telecommunications and connectivity needs to connect between the venue and the IBC and from the IBC to practically everywhere in the world. Our Directory of Services is a very thick catalogue of virtually hundreds of technical facilities and services that every RHB can select from, all made available by OBS to facilitate their production workflows for the Games. Increasingly, many of these services are also built and made available in the cloud.
What effect has the short turnaround from Tokyo 2020 and the pandemic had on your preparations?
The people who work for OBS have several Games behind them, so they know what is involved in a cycle where we start preparing at least four years before. Soon after the host city is announced, we start preparing the large projects, most notably the telecommunication network that links the venues to the IBC and the IBC itself. Of course, as we are constantly getting closer to the Games, the preparations become more intense.
The situation in Beijing is different. We followed the standard pattern, but the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was a big disruption. Normally, we would have a year and half from the end of the Olympic Games to the Olympic Winter Games when the final preparations take place. This time, it was just a few months, which made our activation plans much more complex and denser. We were still working on Tokyo 2020 when under normal circumstances we would have exclusively been focusing on Beijing 2022.
The pandemic has been a big challenge since we were also not able to visit Beijing, except in a few exceptional cases, which meant we were working almost blind in situations when we would normally be on-site and visiting the venues. Because of the deep experience of our teams, but also using effectively all the remote planning tools available, we are at the point where one way or the other, we have managed to overcome the vast majority of the difficulties we faced. We are extremely confident about our level of readiness going into these Games.
OBS made a successful transition to UHD HDR and immersive audio to offer a new level of picture and audio quality in Tokyo. How satisfying is that to see and how will this be carried out and consolidated in Beijing?
Tokyo 2020 were definitely ground-breaking Games in terms of broadcast technology as we offered a large number of firsts. The major change that we introduced at Tokyo 2020 was the full introduction of live coverage in UHD HDR, which was a breakthrough in format delivery for the Games’ live signal.
Introducing UHD and HDR was much more challenging from when we introduced HD for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. UHD isn’t a small increase in data flow, it is eight times more than HD 1080i, which has been the standard of video delivery before Tokyo. This 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, because HDR is a totally different way of presenting colors and levels of luminance and that requires a completely different kind of live production workflow.
On 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, so the introduction of UHD HDR in Tokyo had to also take this constraint into account.
In the end, we have developed one single live production workflow that was able to simultaneously deliver both UHD HDR and HD SDR, with exactly the same visual content and the only difference being the significantly enhancement in picture quality that comes from UHD together with HDR.
Surprisingly, our unified new UHD HD workflow had one unexpected but extremely welcomed side-effect: It also contributed to improve the HD picture quality, due to the way that video content was converted from the much higher quality levels of UHD HDR to those of HD. 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.
We are glad that the transition to UHD HDR went so well, and now, of course, we can count on that first experience in Tokyo when going into the Beijing 2022 Games. 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. What is important is that the broadcasters who took our feeds in UHD HDR were very satisfied.
How has OBS further moved its workflows to the cloud, and how will it benefit OBS and RHBs?
Alibaba is one of the four major public cloud providers in the world, and they have created a very powerful cloud, upon which we have built specialized services and tools for the RHBs. We have partnered with Alibaba and used their excellent support to build what we call the OBS Cloud. The OBS Cloud is essentially a framework of tools and services that we package together and offer to the RHBs to support their production and distribution workflows over public cloud.
OBS also uses it to support its own production workflows. Our content delivery platform, Content+, for instance, is fully hosted in the cloud and it is part of the OBS Cloud. RHBs can access our content, including the live sessions as they are happening, from wherever they are in the world, which helps simplify their workflows. They can create their own highlights from their home offices in a far shorter turnaround.
Another ‘revolutionary’ example is our Live Cloud service, also part of OBS Cloud. We successfully trialed such a live content delivery method in Tokyo, distributing live feeds to two RHBs on a pilot project basis. When we decided to offer it as a standard service for the Beijing 2022 Games, we were so excited to see RHBs’ interest in the service. For these Games, more than 20 RHBs will be using Live Cloud to receive directly in their countries, over OBS Cloud, all the OBS multilateral live signals.
What does our Live Cloud Video and Audio service achieve? 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. This is truly amazing and, just a few years ago, would have seemed simply impossible to ever happen.
The more extraordinary aspects of this service, which also explains its increasing popularity, 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.
Lastly, 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.
At Beijing 2022, how much of a role will 5G technology play?
In Tokyo we only used 5G-connected cameras for ENG coverage at the Ceremonies. For the Beijing 2022 operations, OBS will have nearly 30 5G-enabled cameras that will be used as part of our live coverage. We will be using these cameras for several sports, such as alpine skiing, curling and cross-country skiing. All the tests that were performed have produced extremely positive results, offering us a lot of flexibility.
For the first time, OBS will have nearly 30 5G-enabled cameras that will be used as part of the live coverage. We have closely been working with Worldwide TOP Partner, Intel, who has helped us with the selection of the proper 5G Tx and Rx technology that goes with those cameras. Notably, the different encoders and modems that will be used for live transmission, as well as the receiving equipment.
China Unicom, Beijing 2022’s telecom partner, has greatly supported this project as well, most importantly in establishing the telecom networks required to send the 5G signals back to the IBC, as well as tweaking the established network to allow us to do all this in real-time with low latency transmission from our cameras to the production units.
5G has great capacity to support low latency and high bandwidth live broadcast transmissions over a public infrastructure. This is certainly a key enabler for field production, especially considering the limitations of the legacy broadcast solutions that rely on dedicated radio frequencies that become scarcer and scarcer.
However, there are several challenges for this approach to take off, since it requires certain network configurations that the carriers should adopt to secure the necessary availability levels that broadcast requires. In that front, China Unicom, in partnership with Intel, was really instrumental to help us engineer a solution that is appropriate for our quite demanding needs.
What progress has been made towards the use of AI technology in Olympic broadcasting?
We are moving closer to being able to integrate AI technology as part of our toolsets and using it for our video tagging workflow. The way AI-powered broadcast applications are evolving, we are confident that it will give us greater flexibility in managing our content.
For Beijing 2022, we will produce more than 6,000 hours of content. If this content isn’t properly tagged, then it is very difficult to work with. For a long time, we have employed students through the OBS Broadcast Training Program (BTP) to tag our live content.
While we wouldn’t replace those students with an algorithm, AI would allow us to tag far more content. Video tagging is not a closed requirement that sometime in the future will be fully covered. Tagging needs can be essentially open ended if we consider that tagging always incorporates the particular interests and viewpoints behind the intended uses and applications.
This is why AI is so promising for addressing the tagging or logging problem in video and audio as it will offer ultimate flexibility and expandability compared to the capabilities of human-only loggers. We have our own technology, which we started developing ahead of Tokyo 2020, referred to as Automatic Media Description (AMD). It is becoming mature enough to be soon fully operational. We train the system to automatically search for specific content/video sequences, and once indexed, stitch this content together to produce quick highlights packages which are made available to OBS producers. Another potential application is to use the same technology to search and find relevant content broadcasters are after such as clips with their NOC athletes, wherever they are and whatever they are performing within our videos. Although some athletes’ tagging is currently achieved by our loggers, it is practically impossible to tag all athletes in all available video frames − but this is often what the RHBs require. AMD is also being developed to satisfy this demand.
The uses for AI and machine learning in broadcast are constantly expanding. After Beijing 2022, we will start experimenting with automatic switching, which would mean using AI in live broadcast operations.
OBS is planning to increase its use of 4D multicamera replay systems. How does its growth help RHBs tell their stories?
I am very excited by it. There will be a large increase from how much we used it at PyeongChang 2018, where it was predominantly used in figure skating. Now it will be in place in the majority of the ice venues, but also used in Genting Snow Park.
Not only is there a huge increase of using these effects but also the different kinds of technology which are used to create the final effects. In some cases, you need multiple cameras that are placed around an object and fly the cameras around, but you also have the volumetric technology that Intel has developed, which records and recreates a model of a solid object, which gives you much greater flexibility in terms of the flight camera trace that you can build around it.
In the first case, the flight camera pattern is more fixed, whereas in the second case, the flight path camera can take a wider variety of routes decided by the producer. While the volumetric approach is indeed much more flexible and richer in terms of produced results, it however comes with significant computational complexity that also leads to much higher turnaround times, compared to the more simple “stitching-based” method.
At Beijing 2022, we will deploy both technologies, both of which are supported by Alibaba and will really add to OBS’s overall production. They give the viewer far more information about how an athlete is performing and what the details around their movement are. They produce dynamic and thrilling images for the viewers.
OBS will provide 8K coverage in collaboration with China Media Group (CMG) and NHK of Japan. How will this collaboration work?
We have been developing 8K for a decade, having begun at London 2012, and we now produce it alongside standard HD and UHD. Since the start of the project, we have been partnering with Japanese public broadcaster, NHK, that has been pivotal in the development of the whole eco-system of technologies and tools that support 8K live production. Of course, in the early years, the coverage was rather simplistic in that we were only using a few cameras, and only one type of production unit. Now the whole 8K production has really matured. For these Games, OBS has collaborated with NHK and CMG as partners and content providers. We will be providing 8K coverage from selected competition venues and the National Stadium for Ceremonies, with OBS organizing the consolidation to create a unified 8K multilateral feed.
We have found that 8K coverage has matured and the technology around it is moving quickly so that it will eventually become an option for more and more broadcasters. However, for now, 4K remains more viable as the current premium content format for live coverage, with 8K being used for specific high-end cases.
Virtual Reality in 8K is transforming viewers’ experiences, how much has OBS’s plans for VR evolved?
We began producing VR at the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games and we have continued developing VR together with the RHBs. We have seen a maturation of the process in how production planning is key, while technology has developed in such a way that it can produce a much better experience for the end-user.
In the past, there wasn’t a good enough resolution from the device that VR was played on. The introduction of 8K resolution has helped sharpen the pictures VR can produce. It makes the experience as life-like as possible and much more immersive. We are excited to pursue our efforts with VR. It is one of the technologies with high potential for growth in the coming years.
The development of 5G technology can also provide very interesting scenarios for the evolution of VR. Its promise for high downstream bandwidth will “free” consumption of such content to be happening anywhere desired, and not just where Wi-Fi is available.
With VR 8K live streaming, 5G has considerably helped with the problem of resolution. A few years ago, it would have been hard to discern faces and other details while using VR, but now with 8K resolution the experience is far more lifelike. However, that increased resolution can only be available to the user if they have the network to support it. With 5G you have the necessary quality to transmit to final users, be it on a 5G enabled VR device, a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. They can play back this content in real time, and not have to worry about the quality of the resolution.
There are plans to use a virtualized Outside Broadcast van at Beijing 2022. What are your expectations?
There is a lot of excitement around this pilot project that we are planning to use for our coverage of curling. Our entire broadcast workflow has transitioned to IP and is now working well. That means we have left behind the more traditional broadcast approaches to systems and technology. Further, technology has developed to the stage where we are developing the vast majority in digital format. With this development comes lots of opportunities that we have yet to explore, but which promise major changes as systems and technology continue to migrate to digital.
Due to the unique needs of broadcasting an Olympic Games, we have been planning our virtualized OB van in a thorough manner, along with our partners, and predominantly Intel, which is our technology integrator, so we understand the technological requirements of each sport. It is not possible to use the same system for each sport with the traditional technological stack. With new technology, it is possible. We can use the same servers and systems in a standardized rack arrangement, which are very common in Information Communication Technology (ICT) data centers.
We use virtualization 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 turned into software that is placed in standardized hardware, which are then configured to the relevant sport. As such, it optimizes 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 standardized ICT architecture of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) 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 specialized configurations and overall handling.
We are ready for this set-up. All the equipment was shipped to Beijing and set up at the curling venue before the end of 2021. We have tested the system on numerous occasions and are now excited about using the virtual OB van in a live Olympic environment.
As the person responsible for OBS’ technical roadmap can you tell us where you see the future of Olympic broadcasting?
The honest answer is that we don’t know for sure, but we have to try our best to watch and review trends and developments, along with using our experience and imagination to make predictions. Then we need to take into account fast-changing technology and broadcasters’ requirements. We are in close contact with them and listen to their advice and act on their requests. To this end we organize a number of workshops, and we will have further discussions and brainstorming sessions at Beijing 2022.
The main requirement is that RHBs have access to the best content delivery and remote broadcast options for both their operations on-site and in their home countries. Above all, broadcasters want flexibility and cost efficiency in their workflows, and the move to IP and the availability of the cloud, increasingly allows them to have such options.
Each broadcaster, of course, is different, and they have different needs and concerns, but all of them expect this flexibility, and I think this is where we are going to invest more in the future. No matter if a broadcaster wants their coverage to come from the host city or their home base, they expect two things from the host broadcaster. First of all, to keep producing more content in different variations and formats because this is work that they themselves do not have to do. Secondly, it is about giving them a good selection of tools to help them efficiently deliver their final, unilateral coverage to their audiences. OBS must keep on investing time and effort for producing more and higher quality content, and also developing technical tools that help RHBs ingest and manage this content in the most efficient manner.
How do you envision future IBCs? What do you think the most significant difference with the present ones will be?
RHBs 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 CMG, there is always the need for a big presence in the IBC, because it is not possible to find the increased space in their headquarters 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.
How can the implementation of new technologies and new workflows help with the sustainability of future Games and RHBs’ operations?
We have already mentioned the changing paradigm in broadcast technology, which is all about migrating all our applications and tools to IP, piggy backing on the ICT revolution. This same transition is the best path to tremendous overall efficiencies, and thus increase sustainability, which has been a key factor behind the adoption of virtualization and, subsequently, the cloud. Both technological concepts are essentially all about high efficiency, that is one of the important ways to reduce waste and increase levels of sustainability.
Virtualization 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. Thanks to virtualization, hardware is now utilized 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 virtualized 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. The data centers that house the cloud infrastructure are huge consumers of power and other resources. However, overall and for the total number of services that they are supporting, they do so in a far more efficient manner. They offer very high incentives for that efficiency to keep on improving, compared to running all these same services in stand-alone systems on-premise.
By moving all broadcast workflows into the cloud, we can reduce our footprint further – it is one of the fantastic opportunities offered by virtualization. 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.
The typical OB vans are built as systems for hire, hence they normally carry infrastructure which has been designed with maximum capacities in mind, even if such capacities are not used that often. 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.