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IBC Wrap: IP Lifts Media Into a Phase of Experimentation
IP and IT are transforming the broadcast industry, causing seismic shifts in both technological and business strategies, say execs from EBU, ITV, IABM, and Ericsson in this look at the most important trends coming out of IBC 2016

The IBC 2016 show will be seen as a watermark for IP/IT networks in content production as TV executives began to see its potential beyond cost savings and toward new creative possibilities.

"Before IBC the use of IP in a programme environment was theoretical, but what we've learnt is that IP is working," said David Wood, deputy director of EBU Technology & Innovation's technology and development, in a summary of the event. "This makes all the difference to programme makers since they can see how flexible it is to create new forms of content. IP is now at a tipping point, no doubt."

At previous broadcast kit trade events the only discussion seemed to be about picture quality and the latest video format. The industry has been trending away from this in recent years, but it's now clear that IP/IT is transformational across all aspects of the business. It is not just about changing one set of standards for another, or new kit replacing an older set with substantively the same workflows. This change impacts skills and workflow, and fundamentally how the media industry does business.

"We are in a multi-format world in which SD, HD, [and] UHD, as well as elements like high frame rates, high dynamic range, and 360° video can be acquired and need managing," said John Ive, consultant, technologist for the IABM (the international trade association for suppliers of broadcast and media technology). "Quite simply the traditional video production system can't cope. Something new is needed which is format agnostic, and this is a key driver to IT and IP."

"IT/IP should enable a future where you can add UHD to a plant without having to rebuild it," said Simon Fell, director of technology and innovation, EBU.  "More than that, it means we can plan for the next 30 years. IP/IT is more than just moving video and audio from A to B but about new opportunities to deliver content and services in ways we have yet to think of."

Tom Griffith, director of broadcast and distribution technology at UK broadcaster ITV, summarised the plethora of new technologies as one of "digital disruption." "There are a whole range of opportunities out there and the question is how we take advantage of them, blend them into the media creation process, without losing the best of what we have at the moment," he said.

"The industry is going through a period of experimentation," said Ive. "Nobody has all the answers but we need to scale up what works well and turn off what doesn't. Having IT, TV, and telco people in one place is creating a very important dialogue about the sorts of creative applications we need to go to market."

The underlying technologies of faster bandwidth, higher-resolution sensors, greater storage capacities and incoming internet protocols enables this agility. "Often in the past you had to be pretty sure about what you are going to do because it was very expensive and it took time to set up," says Griffith. "Now you can launch and try something out and if it doesn't work you can simply dump it and move on."

There are also warnings to the industry about GAFA—the Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon tech giants which should be seen, according to WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, as media companies. He highlighted Amazon in particular—a retailer—as the key player to watch who will treat content as product and viewers as consumers. But what all have in common is the use of analytics to feedback customer behaviour in a way that broadcasters have barely tapped.

"Companies like Amazon and [Chinese retailer and net portal] Alibaba and Tencent have big aspirations in media. They think about the way they move assets around in a very different way," noted Lindsay-Davies.

"It's all about moving away from the mindset of a production chain—which is linear—and toward managing digital assets," said Ted Malone, VP products, strategy planning and management, Ericsson. "Your job is to help monetise these assets by delivering to the right customer. This means that technology does not set agenda but technology is an enabler for lot of options and either end users or consumers will be the ones choosing between options and determining success or failure."

IP Interop Shows Consolidation

IP networks are destined to replace to SDI, and there was evidence of this consolidation at IBC. The Interop Zone featured nearly 40 suppliers collaborating to make IP/IT systems work together and capable of reproducing everything done in a broadcast chain from acquisition to distribution. Issues around the synchronisation of AV signals over IP seem to have been resolved, although there are questions over standardising the process which are outstanding.

A new IABM survey released in Amsterdam, revealed that 85% of media organisations—the customers of kit vendors—believe it vital that suppliers provide them with interoperable product. Yet more than 90% of them also indicate they will adopt cloud technology in 2-3 years or are already doing do.

"The transition is massive and it's as much a cultural as a business thing," said IABM CEO Peter White. "This is changing the face of this industry. We are going to have to work together. We need to agree on standards."

"Traditionally our industry is about selling expensive black boxes on premises, but that capex model appears broken," added Ive. "We are now moving toward a revenue based model based on opex."

In other words media organisations are being encouraged to rent or subscribe to services—playout for example—running "virtually" in a data centre.

Ericsson—owner of playout service provider Red Bee—has in fact signed up UKTV for the UK's first virtualised live event broadcast. Meanwhile, Sony is working with Swiss telco Swisscom to perform live switching entirely on Swisscom's data centres.

Although Sony calls this a pilot, it is the customer not the tech it is testing. "The technology works," says Michael Harrit, Marketing Director, Sony Europe. "The discussions we are having are around how much customers are willing to pay for this service."

These SaaS models need working out. "I get told by lots of vendors that I can pop-up a channel in 5 minutes but when I ask whether I can pay for that for 24 hours or by the minute they always want to sell me perpetual licences or rental for a year," observed Griffith.

Aside from the near-term transactional aspects of moving to IT/IP the industry is also looking upon the technology as an enabler for whole new ways of going to market.

VR Standardisation Bodies Form

There is particular enthusiasm about the creative possibilities and revenue generating potential of VR, AR, and mixed reality—the main challenge now being to work out exactly what to do with it.

"The onus on making this work passes back up to the creatives in terms of giving us new storytelling experiences," said the EBU's Fell.

Interoperability of VR systems from headsets to compression is an issue which the industry is scrabbling to resolve.

Richard Lindsay-Davies, CEO of the UK's Digital TV Group, revealed that the DTG would participate in a global VR/AR alliance.

There are other moves in this regard too—and perhaps they are all talking of the same thing or will merge.  For example, the DVB is heading an investigation into whether or what standards are needed. The study consists of 30 members including the BBC, Qualcomm, and Ericsson.

"Right now we have two systems, one based on mobile phones and another based on headsets, and there could be more," said David Wood, who is heading the investigation. "Will it be commercially successful? Absolutely, but there's also motion sickness, and we need to know the type of technology that will be most suited."

Germany's Fraunhofer IIS is also pressing for standardisation of VR and its possible successor, light field.

"Before professionals can tap into all that this technology has to offer, strides must be made," said Fraunhofer's Dr. Siegfried Foessel. "This includes simplifying and enhancing any workflow for processes that combine the real world and CGI, such as 3D or VR."

Several technologies are necessary for VR, including image stitching, metadata enrichment, and video coding, he said. This leads to an array of different types of formats, coding, delivery mechanisms, 3D projection, metadata or signalling. The result is market fragmentation. "Each of these components must be standardised for optimal interoperability," he said.