Olympic Diary: The First Cellular Games

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Much has been made of London 2012 being the “Connected Olympics.” Indeed, given that the Olympics has, over the past four or five decades, become the regular pinnacle of a four-year cycle of broadcast technology innovation, the BBC's drive to be the first broadcaster to cover everything and deliver to all platforms has really pushed a number of boundaries. With the “unique funding model” behind the BBC, they are also not drawn to only innovate around high-margin ROI focussed on ad placement; instead they are focussed on ensuring that the license payer is satisfied.

And clearly satisfied they are with numbers significantly up on both broadcast and online and both on 'normal' viewing audiences, but also up on the engagement stats focussing on the previous Olympics.

We presented some of these statistics with analysis in another article, but I also wanted to focus  attention on something else that has been unique, connected us in a different way to the live action, and something that I have been covering closely in these pages for a little while: This has been the first Olympics that has benefitted from cellular newsgathering techniques with cellular video multiplexers (cellmuxes as i call them) being used widely by not only the BBC but many other broadcasters as well.

I’m guessing that if you watched any coverage using the cellmuxes, unless you are a geek like me (yeah - right audience ;) you probably just got caught up in the action and didn't notice the ground shift in production that the widespread proliferation of these devices has caused. Watching events like the marathons and other events out in the streets of London and the wider UK you may have simply enjoyed the continuous coverage of the leader packs. Following the cycling action closely you may have simply enjoyed the editor’s choice of camera angles of each of the key racers.

But think back to  previous Olympics. Events like this were only covered from specific locations and showed only the leader packs passing from a static camera point of view. Occasionally a flaky broken signal would settle out, and the editor would give it a few moments live, and we would have a few shots from the chase car as it managed to get a stable CODFM radio or microwave link back to a base hook up in a nearby sat truck and over a range of a few hundred yards. You may even have seen the leaders followed by helicopter in a very big budget event, but again with that familiar sudden break up image.

However what we have seen this week, from so many events, is live follow-cams. And not only following leaders but following fellow teammates further down the pack, or covering particular athletes as they pass specific goals of their own. The engagement has been so much deeper, and this is because of a technology change that has been directly enabled by streaming media in general and the cellular multiplexer more specifically.

Without IP packet-encoded video we would have struggled to get video over multiple cellular links. Multiplexing is certainly trivial on IP compared to other networks that have been traditionally used for the high-bandwidth demands of live broadcast video. The bonding effect of the demultiplexer at the remote end means that the "perfect storm" of H.264 encoding (suited to circa 1.4Mbps of bandwidth) and the fact that most areas are covered with multiple cellular networks has led to a tipping point in production. But quite a sublime one. Have you really appreciated it? As StreamingMedia readers I would imagine all your focus has been on the distribution issues—the CDN work, the video formats encoded for what devices, and all the great new markets that our technology have created. But often its an adjunct to broadcast; broadcasters on the whole are typically cynical about internet video, citing it as inferior and accessory video, with the "real" technology being the expensive non-IP broadcast kit.

Well the cellmuxers are turning that on its head. More and more of the content we will see live on our broadcast tv channels is actually generated by H.264/IP encoders connected to the internet, a lot further up the chain than the Broadcast network.

So these mission critical links have proven their capability this last fortnight. I think that StreamingMedia has come of age, and the traditional broadcast industry is about to fully migrate to IP—pretty much end to end.

I caught up with two of the vendors operating over the Olympics: Mobile Viewpoint – who I covered in depth a week or two ago – and LiveU.

Mobile Viewpoint has been busy with several units being used by the BBC as their unit of choice for key events, and also with NBC and a list of about 8 other broadcasters ranging from Canadian to Thai.

LiveU has had a large number of units in the field over the fortnight—more than 100 units are out and about for a wide variety of broadcasters. They claim that typically more than 20 of these units are broadcasting at any time during the day.

Obviously the systems are most commonly used for ad-hoc interviews with families and athletes, but for the main productions, the technology’s revolutionary effect is best highlighted for me with the following events that the vendors I spoke to mentioned they were involved with a few in particular:

  • Rowing at Eton Downey (followed on the bank with a bicycle!)(Live-U)
  • Olympic Cycling at Box Hill (Live-U)
  • Sailing at Weymouth and Portland (Live-U),
  • BBC (in general) (Mobile Viewpoint)
  • NBC's marathon coverage (Mobile Viewpoint).

All of these would have been covered so so differently in previous Olympics, and yet now viewers are "right there" with the athletes closely engaged in the race.

As these technologies commoditise over the next four years, I can see that the challenge for Brazil will be to go one step deeper again, and instead of a promise of every event to every device we will see Brazil up the ante, targeting every contestant to every device.

Having said that, sharp eyes among you may have seen the reports about the cellular networks being locally overloaded around the cycling events on the first Sunday. Network operators blamed people tweeting and sending pictures. That amused me.

They obviously missed the point that there were dozens of CellMux devices in the area saturating the cellular internet services. Compared to a 140-character Tweet, or even a few hundred kilobyte picture, a 1.4Mbps video stream is a relative tsunami of data, and with many units in the area providing coverage it was clear (to me at least) that the idea of asking a network's subscribers to "take it easy with tweeting"on the network they pay for because a few broadcasters want some prime quality broadcast contribution feed for very little cost is a little bit cheeky. This will end up needing some regulation in the long run im afraid, and I see that potentially becoming a challenge for this technology and industry sector.

However if the rare occasion where it is a problem is during peak viewing of an Olympic contest it’s not going to build much of a lobby for regulation anytime soon, and in the meanwhile I look forward to the transformational effect that this proliferation of live outside broadcast is bringing at the front.

Isn’t it cool what we can do with streaming media?

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