Tokyo Olympics: OBS CTO Sotiris Salamouris Discusses the Technical Leaps as Games Go All UHD/HDR
SVG’s coverage of the production of the Tokyo Olympics begins in earnest this week and we kick things off with a series of OBS executive interviews that have been provided by OBS to the media (our team will be on site next week and will interview them in the coming weeks). Below is an interview with OBS CTO Sotiris Salamouri.
Salamouris oversees all the technical operations of OBS, including managing the planning group responsible for the design and delivery of the technical facilities and services of the host broadcasting operations for the Olympic Games. He is also responsible for introducing the technological roadmap for OBS and the mid- to long-term planning regarding the adoption of new technologies and manages the international team of broadcast engineers and operational personnel that has planned and operated the broadcast technical facilities for the past five Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as all editions of the Youth Olympic Games.
How do you view the effects of the coronavirus crisis on technology development? Will it stall progress or provide an unexpected opportunity?
Clearly, this will be an opportunity. A major hurdle in the fast adoption of digital workflows in the media industry has not been the lack of technology or digital tools per se; on the contrary, we have long realized within OBS that the existing technology is already quite advanced and reliable and could already be used for more efficient planning and in actual production workflows. Probably the biggest hurdle has been the level of inertia of others to adopt something that is so different from what has been used in the past, and such inertia is quite an important factor that should never be underestimated. We realize again and again the adoption of new technologies takes a long time, despite them being already available and mature enough. In the end, it comes down to demonstrating the value of the technological advances to people and emphasizing that it should make their day-to-day tasks easier. The early tangible benefits of technology is there to help gain buy-in and gather momentum for further adoption and advances. Then, there needs to be widespread training to familiarize large numbers of future users with the new capabilities and possibilities. In this sense, the coronavirus pandemic has been a supremely disruptive experience; it has made the advantages of digitization even more obvious and provided a ‘super accelerated’ training to millions of media professionals on digital workflows and tools that otherwise would have taken years to be completed. Following the pandemic, we will enter a very different era in the methodologies and workflows that will be followed in content production, management and distribution − and OBS is more than ready to accept the challenge.
How significant is the change to Ultra High Definition (UHD) and how is it changing how the industry works?
It is very big change, a substantial change to what we have done before. We have transitioned between technologies at previous Games, notably at Beijing 2008 when we went from standard definition coverage to High Definition (HD). The change now is similar in terms of breadth, but the challenge is greater because the step between HD and UHD is much more demanding than between standard and HD. There is also the additional element of the transition from SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) to HDR (High Dynamic Range) and WCG (Wide Color Gamut) which comes with its own unique difficulties.
Technologically, it is a big step and made even more substantial because of the size of the broadcast operation at an Olympics. We need to support more than 40 venues and this means a comparable number of available production units. There are more than 50 outside broadcast vans and fly-pack systems that we need to assemble to cover the Games, and all of them need to transition to UHD and HDR/WCG.
It is a tremendous change and requires a lot of attention to how it is being engineered. Everyone in the industry knows that it has been coming, and while they may have expected it to take place over a number of years, the reality is that it has recently been speeding up, especially in the world of sports content. Most of the equipment that is reaching the broadcast market now is UHD ready and works on UHD workflows. The technology has reached a maturity level such that we are all confident that it is ready for the broadcast coverage of the Tokyo 2020 Games. However, this is not something that you can take lightly, especially in our own production environment since there are so many moving parts that need to be brought together.
We have done our homework and we are confident that the transition will be successful and the Olympic UHD HDR content will be stunning and delivered as per the strict quality expectations our RHBs have. Of course, we understand that there is a lot of attention on us and on what we are doing in Tokyo. It has a major impact on the broadcast industry because if we weren’t to introduce it for the Olympics, it would probably take even longer to be widely adopted. We offer a service to the RHBs to satisfy their needs and, by doing this, we believe that we are also helping the industry move forward and transition faster and easier.
Few industries have such requirements in terms of number and size of data flows, combined with ultra-low latency and zero tolerance for data loss. How is Internet Protocol (IP) technology supporting your operations?
IP has been making its way to broadcast operations for a long time now. Twenty years ago, we were using tapes and broadcast production and distribution were dominated by bespoke hardware-based systems. Migrating to IP means changing the workflow environment from being hardware-based to rely more on software. Non-live workflows, such as highlights editing, were the first to migrate IP with the adoption of file-based broadcast systems. This transition dates back to the early 2000s and nowadays we don’t even remember the days of tape-based editing or archiving.
So, what is happening now is the last part of the transition to IP, with highly reliable IP-enabled solutions for live transmission. For Tokyo 2020, all our UHD overlay design, on top of our HD broadcast systems, is based on IP, with IP being used for all our UHD contribution and distribution. It was even more demanding as we implemented a full ST-2110 platform to carry, route and distribute UHD content, with its extremely high bandwidth requirements. But for us, it was a step that made sense. In our environment and with our own very extensive and complex requirements, when it comes to signal contribution, processing and then distribution, IP, and in particular the SMPTE ST-2110 standard, was probably the only technology that could scale with all our needs.
The reason behind this is not a surprise. For many years since its inception, the broadcast industry had to develop its own bespoke technology. Broadcast scientists and engineers have been developing all the technology, the standards and the tools necessary to make the television and media industry work. But then, when IP-based systems became mainstream in other major industries, especially in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), we were able to benefit from these developments also in broadcast and media production in general, enabling us to progress through the phases of IP adoption much faster, easier and in a relatively cost-effective manner. We no longer needed to develop all the technology by ourselves. That’s a considerable advantage. Using IP offers us more flexibility and a far higher scalability than the legacy technological stack.
OBS has been developing cloud technologies. How will it benefit OBS and the RHBs?
There was a time, not many years ago, when there were many doubts within the broadcast industry over the value of using the cloud, but that doubt is finally gone now. We are talking about a logical step that sits alongside the ongoing progress in digital transformation and dematerialization of processes that we have been experiencing in broadcasting.
However, although cloud technology has gradually been considered more and more adequate for the implementation of digital distribution workflows, there has still been certain reluctance amongst broadcast professionals to be used for intensive content production workflows, especially in the context of live sports events. While this hesitation is understandable up to a point, due to the known demands of our workflows for high bandwidths, large storage and low latency, we can see again that there is also an inertia factor. Cloud technology is already adequate for several of our demanding post-production workflows. Not only that, the cloud may be the best option available to address some of the unique challenges that we are facing when trying to implement complex workflows, especially in an unforgiving environment such as the broadcast of large sports events where the most scarce resource is actually time.
We continue growing from Games to Games, generating more content, covering more hours and distributing an ever-increasing volume of additional footage. As a result, the size and complexity of the broadcast systems that we have to install and operate locally in our facilities in the host city and cities, both in the IBC and in the venues, has continued increasing. The time available, however, to build our technology systems in the host city or cities is on average eight to 10 weeks, and that isn’t going to increase. So, though we have an expectation to continually increase our production output, the timespan available to build all the necessary infrastructure will always be the same, or may even have to be further reduced in the future.
Of course, we can see that there is a hard limit approaching if this trend continues as such, which is expected to happen. We are building in these 10 weeks the equivalent of multiple permanent production and broadcasting facilities that in other circumstances would have taken months or even years to be completed. We have been achieving that by constantly improving our planning processes and aggregating important experience and knowhow in doing so, Games after Games. However, we all recognize that it is impossible to maintain such an increase while the time available for installations and commissioning will have to remain limited. This is precisely where cloud technology helps. It provides us with the opportunity to implement our systems much earlier and without any dependency with the local infrastructure in the actual Olympic venues, including the IBC. You can build systems on the cloud, test them properly, switch them around and do all your preparation well in advance, all before setting foot in the host city or cities. Then you can fire it up, just before the Games, with all the systems already configured, tested and ready for operation. So now that you can disassociate yourself from being local in the venue or the IBC and being able to operate off-site in the cloud, it means that you can continue increasing the size, the complexity of your systems, and consequently, the volume of your output, without further increasing your infrastructure in the host location. This is great news regarding our strong commitment, as part of the Olympic movement, to contain the total footprint of the Games.
IP, cloud, 5G and AI are all breaking the conventional frame of broadcast production and transforming the fundamentals of content delivery and viewers’ experience. At OBS, we believe there is tremendous potential in the convergence of these technologies.
To what extent is OBS going to experiment with 5G technology in Tokyo?
We see 5G as a much welcome technological change. It will create a lot of advancements in broadcast, especially for the live coverage of the Olympic Games. It has some features that make it different from what we were doing with previous generations of the technology of mobile networks, and ultimately it is much more powerful and relevant to our needs.
We conducted our first 5G trial in PyeongChang where we used 5G to produce part of the multilateral coverage in Bobsleigh. Tiny, fixed lens cameras were fitted to the front of the bobsleighs to offer a driver’s eye view of the descent down the twisting Alpensia track where the pictures were transmitted over 5G and then cut into the live HD production.
We have been working with our partner Intel to further explore different options of how we can use 5G in our future operations. There are many applications available. The most obvious is using 5G as a further enhancement to the existing solutions that rely on bonding technology for live wireless transmissions from locations which are covered by a mobile network, but are difficult or expensive to connect by other means. Broadcasters have been using bonding and 4G to provide live streams back to their studio and, with 5G, it will be higher in quality because it offers more bandwidth and even less latency.
These are the first obvious applications where 5G can and will be used in broadcast operations, and this is also one of the applications that we have prepared ourselves, together with our partner Intel, to implement during the Tokyo 2020 Games. Part of our coverage within specific areas inside the Olympic Stadium will be done in that way.
5G has, first of all, great potential to help us enhance the options for wireless and mobile video coverage without a further increase in our needs for temporary assigned frequencies and that is something that has always been one of the major challenges in an event the size of the Olympic Games.
However, video coverage is not the only application that can be interesting for the broadcasters. 5G can also be used in conjunction with Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are connected with sensors able to receive signals from athletes during the competition.
5G’s low latency, fast speeds and higher bandwidth capacity is pushing to new heights, not only content distribution to mobile devices, but also has the potential to transform contribution links in the near future.
Broadcasters are very interested in the use of real-time performance data that can become available through 5G. Such data can help them significantly enhance their storytelling. Of course, data from sensors can also be received through other types of wireless technologies but, again, 5G is a much more efficient and powerful technology that can offer ultra-high data collection speeds with very low latency. Further, it would remove the need for setting up overlay or temporary systems which always come with a certain impact on infrastructure requirements that tend to increase the overall size of the Games.
How far has OBS gone with developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology?
AI is certainly exciting. It has opened up promising opportunities, especially when it comes to video and audio recognition. The use of AI allows you to analyze, classify and, eventually, start understanding what is “inside” your pictures. Tagging, or logging as it is usually known in the broadcast industry, is a first important step for a wide number of important processes in video and audio.
AI comes with the promise to automate and enrich the tagging process, which, up to now, could only be performed by people. Video and audio recognition (which is the equivalent of effective tagging) can be the starting point of many interesting applications that can be extremely useful in the world of sports content production: from live automated video switching (and thus automated live production), which is already happening in some sports that are simpler to cover, to fully automated highlights, which again is already available to some extent and for some of the most popular sports.
For many years at OBS, we have tagged our footage, relying on our Broadcast Training Program (BTP) which trains students from the host city(ies) in online, real-time tagging. We employ approximately 120 people just to tag our video sources, however even with that many human resources, it isn’t enough. They can only do so much, and it is not possible to tag everything. AI takes tagging to the next level.
Also, we only do logging and tagging of our live coverage, simply because we don’t have the capacity to do it for the other types of content we produce during the Games, for example, the content from our Electronic News Gathering (ENG) coverage. During the Tokyo 2020 Games, we expect to produce more than 9,500 hours of content, out of which approximately 3,800-4,000 hours come from our live coverage. For all the non-live content, our tagging scope is, out of necessity, quite limited.
In Tokyo and subsequently Beijing, OBS will run Proof of Concepts (PoCs) of AI technology, where we will try, as a start, to identify which athletes are appearing where and when. Broadcasters want to use the footage that feature their national athletes, but searching specific content through hundreds of hours of footage is a laborious task if the content is not densely logged, which is exactly the case with our ENG material.