At IBC2012, broadcast waits for the future to become clear

It has been a little less than two weeks since the sport-production community descended on Amsterdam for IBC2012, arguably the broadcast-technology conference that has the most-global feel: unlike the NAB Show, it isn’t dominated by khaki pants and polo shirts. Even better for attendees, it features more actual working prototypes than concepts.

But there was one striking similarity to the 2012 NAB Show: the general lack of clear direction for the industry, as digital workflows increasingly make the move from simply replacing tape with bits to helping end users develop more-customised operations that involve some cloud, nearline storage systems, a healthy dose of metadata and ingest protocols, and the ability to publish to multiple platforms (TV, Internet, tablets, etc.) with the click of a single button.

The lack of clear direction made for an exhibition space that was not particularly easy for end users to navigate — and not just the physical space. Once upon a time, a shopping list for a sport broadcaster or production-service provider would consist of a list of hardware components. But hardware is increasingly part of an infrastructure that goes well beyond simple router interconnects. So visits to a stand quickly lead to complex discussion of not only a given component but how that component will sit within the complete facility and whether a company’s “ecosystem” is the right fit for one’s needs.

That said, some topics of discussion came up consistently during the course of the show.

1) Clouds ahead
There is a certain irony that nearly every conversation about cloud-based workflow quickly becomes a haze of jargon and concepts that seem ethereal and can leave one’s brain feeling a bit foggy.

At IBC2012, there was plenty of talk that could leave one confused: what exactly the value proposition is, how it works, and what is involved technically. But occasionally, there was some clarity, and the best examples of advances in cloud-based workflow were courtesy of Avid and Adobe.

The former rolled out Sphere, Avid’s concept of unified long-distance editing and content creation (or “distributed production”) that can allow users of a Media Composer or NewsCutter editing system full access to content on an Avid ISIS storage system via the Internet. Users can browse and access clips and add content from the ISIS server into story packages created locally on the laptop editing system.

Adobe unveiled Adobe Anywhere, a similar concept and new platform that allows production teams using Adobe video tools (Premiere Pro, After Effects, Prelude) to work together remotely across any network using centralised media. Adobe Anywhere does not require heavy file transfers or the creation of proxy files and is capable of operating even on standard Ethernet and WiFi networks, according to the company.

This is made possible by Adobe’s Mercury Streaming Engine, which is powered by NVIDIA GPU processing. The high-octane Mercury server takes care of most of the work, allowing remote editors to simply send edit instructions to the server, which completes the actual file manipulation and playback.

2) Resolution-independent systems
There was plenty of discussion about next-generation broadcast formats like 1080p, 4K, and 8K acquisition and distribution. But there is still plenty of uncertainty. 1080p, for example, was fairly ubiquitous at this year’s show among vendors exhibiting cameras, monitors, routing equipment (and other signal-transport gear), and vision mixers. The question now is, what is the point? 1080p has been on the TV roadmap for live sport for nearly a decade but has yet to become a deliverable service to homes. Some of the advances in 1080p on exhibit at IBC point to a production environment that can move to 1080p, making deployment of 1080p consumer sets in 2013 much more likely.

And then there was the talk of 4K and even 8K. A demonstration by NHK of both Ultra HD Olympics coverage and how 120-fps broadcasting will greatly enhance the viewing experience over current 60-fps workflows attracted solid crowds. Those “future” demos were matched by displays by Sony, Canon, and RED emphasising 4K productions.

But the mix of 1080p, 4K, and 8K led to a larger discussion among exhibitors and sport-production professionals: resolution-independent systems.

As pointed out at the SVG Europe pre-IBC Production Summit, the industry is, without a doubt, making the transition from baseband video to file-based workflow centered on transport of IP-delivered video. That requires an increasing reliance on IT-based systems, whether an IP router, video server, or larger transport pipes that can easily move large files and live streams between OB units, broadcast facilities, and consumers.

Historically, however, engineering staffers still think in terms of formats like 1080p, 720p, 1080i, 50 Hz, 60 Hz, etc. But there is already a shift toward facilities’ being defined not by the formats they support but by their bandwidth capabilities: a 3-Gbps OB unit, a 10-Gbps broadcast facility. And those facilities will need to handle as many types of formats (1080p, 4K, 8K, 3D) as possible as the number of delivery products (and the uncertainty about how quickly next-generation formats may become market reality) impact facility design.

The end result of those developments at IBC was increased chatter about the need for fibre infrastructures that provide the necessary bandwidth to future-proof a facility.

3) Whither 3D?
After three years of broadcast-convention hype in 3D production tools, this year’s IBC saw a reversal. The 3D movement has settled into a bit of a waiting game: those currently producing 3D content have made their technology purchases, and those who are not producing content wait for glasses-free 3D before embracing the format.

The good news is that Sony demonstrated a few glasses-free prototypes that served as a proof of a concept that could be ready for real-world deployment in 18-24 months. And the Dolby 3D demo showed how Dolby algorithms could help improve the quality of the signal distributed to consumers. The latter issue, maximising the quality of the 3D experience at home, seems to be the gating factor.

But there was reason to be optimistic about the future of 3D sport coverage. CAMERON PACE Group’s recent deal to bring thousands of hours of 3D content to the China market, for example, will give the company (and, most likely, others) a business opportunity that can bridge the gap between today and the arrival of glasses-free 3D sets. And company Co-Chairmen Jim Cameron and Vince Pace were on hand at IBC2012 to discuss the 3D format and meet with broadcasters and others about on-going developments related to 3D production.

They also had the opportunity to discuss the Ryder Cup in 3D, an important milestone for BSkyB that takes place next week outside Chicago.

4) The inbetweeners
So overall, IBC2012, with its record attendance, delivered for exhibitors and gave attendees ample opportunity to look at new kit. The challenge now is how the show, and the industry, will be transformed in the coming years as IT-based technologies change the nature of the exhibits and technical tracks, the needs of the attendees continue to shift from delivering one signal to delivering many, and the consumer experience prepares to make a leap (eventually) to a higher-resolution experience. It creates an awkward moment: one can see the potential but still needs to grapple with today’s business and production realities. Next year’s NAB Show in April and IBC in September will once again take the industry forward.

The question now is where exactly forward is.

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