BBC set to trial Ultra HD at World Cup

In a series of closed trials, BBC R&D will work closely with strategic research partners Arqiva and BT, major consumer electronics vendors and technology providers to explore the delivery of live UHD content over broadcast and broadband networks. The trials will cover three matches from the Maracanã stadium in Rio – one from the last 16, a quarter-final and the final – marking the first time live UHD coverage will have been delivered simultaneously over Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and Internet Protocol (IP) technologies to the home.

The live Ultra HD streams will be transported from Brazil by satellite to the UK where they will be decoded and distributed, via existing broadcast and super-fast broadband infrastructure, to a number of compatible consumer UHD TV sets in BBC, BT and other partner R&D facilities in London and Salford.

The aim is to better understand the latest UHD distribution technologies and standards in a live outside broadcast, helping to inform future development, best practices and, ultimately, to ensure any future UHD TV services can make a real impact when they launch.

“We believe in increasing definition which offers a tangible, real benefit for audiences and our ability to tell stories,” said Matthew Postgate, Controller, BBC Research & Development. “In doing this development work we are starting to piece together 4K distribution for UK audiences and over the next 12-18 months how a strategy might manifest itself.”

A chief area of research will be compatibility of Ultra HD delivery with existing broadcast and broadband distribution capacities. Consequently, the trial will examine the use of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) for distribution over both DTT and over the top IP networks.

“By experimenting with both [IP and DTT] we can bring to life our vision of a hybrid distribution infrastructure,” he explained. “By understanding what roll DTT can play in Ultra HD, alongside the role of IP in Ultra HD, we are hoping to end up with some view of what the distribution system of the future will be.”

The workflow

The FIFA-supplied 4K 59.94p feed of three matches, including the final, will be linked via satellite direct from Rio’s Maracanã stadium to London datacentre Telehouse and onto BBC R&D in Shepherd’s Bush for encoding in HEVC using adaptive bitrate technology MPEG-DASH.

Arqiva will then take the feed through its fibre network Arqnet for DTT transmission over three transmitters while BT will handle IP routing through its content delivery network.

According to the BBC, much of the research can also be applied to existing services and technology to provide near-term benefits to the BBC and the wider industry. It will also help to inform BBC R&D’s contributions to the international standardisation of Ultra HD TV, and its ongoing work exploring video and audio technologies that may be relevant to future UHD enhancements.

“We’ve already learned individual lessons about 4K in the labs and from our participation on standards bodies but as always when you integrate all these disparate pieces you find problems you’ve otherwise not encountered,” said Postgate. “With such a high profile international event working across the piece from production to final screen in 4K it gives us that learning.”

Last July the BBC conducted a closed test of 4K from the Wimbledon tennis tournament using recorded footage. The BBC has also made a set of 8K Ultra HD (a.k.a Super Hi-Vision) live broadcasts to giant screens in Glasgow, Bradford and Broadcasting House in conjunction with Japanese broadcaster NHK during the London Olympics in 2012.

“The Olympics was a really great opportunity to share our research on 8K more widely but 8K it is still a long way to being ready and remains a big challenge,” said Postgate. “This [4K] piece of work is tending toward a deliverable solution in that there is real kit available in retail and for professional organisations to use.

“Having said that, 4K is less stable initially than using bespoke kit specially arranged for one event. In terms of trying to make 4K work with production-ready equipment it’s not quite the same as with 8K. We are trying to make use of normal consumer equipment, much of which is still very new, and trying to integrate it into an end-to-end solution.”

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