What's the Best IP Video Path Forward?
By Michael Goldman
With 2015's arrival, the work being done to drive the broadcast industry toward IP-based foundations for broadcast and studio facilities was accelerating, suggests longtime industry consultant Wes Simpson, who works with SMPTE to help produce its Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition and online courseware regarding IP video. Simpson argues that the industry has now arrived at a place where the IP video debate has been comfortably settled as it relates to the transition to IP for delivering video to consumers, now that the new ATSC 3.0 specification, which is based on IP, is close to being finalized. That means, according to Simpson, that the switchover of core network infrastructures at studios into the IP world remains "the last holdout," but he suggests movement in that direction is rapidly picking up steam.
"The delivery of IP video to consumers--that ship has sailed, so to speak," Simpson says. "There are lots of things going on in terms of how we are going to do that. A lot of viewers already have migrated to IP-based viewing, and a lot more will soon do so. The new broadcast standard [ATSC 3.0] defines how 4K video to consumers will go over the air. No one today is broadcasting live 4K over satellite channels--all major schemes involve delivering files to consumer devices."
"So what is then driving, on the other side, the whole contribution network of gathering video signals from remote stadiums or locations, and then processing them? That is not quite yet dominated by IP, but maybe it is now about to rapidly migrate that way, as well. Maybe not via the public Internet, but the circuits to transmit all that material are increasingly IP-based, certainly. So the last portion of the end-to-end link that isn't IP is within the studio facility. But I think that time is now coming because of the economics of the IP infrastructure--people are getting tired of rebuilding their facilities each time a new format comes out. So the core infrastructure should be capable of transporting those forward-looking signals. You would have to upgrade interfaces and software and some hardware to handle 4K and 8K, but the idea is that the 'core network' in your facility would be IP-based and remain the same whether the content of the future is UHD or 8K or whatever. You will need faster connections, but you won't have to rip out old connections and put in new ones each time. That is what had to happen when we transitioned from SD to HD; we had to take out SD video circuits and routers and replace them with HD ones.
The issue in moving this ball forward is about how best to get it implemented, and to do that, the industry needs to make some decisions regarding competing approaches about how to move uncompressed video over IP around broadcast plants. In this regard, Simpson says he "has an expectation that the standards will be a lot better known and well defined by the end of this year. We already have some pioneering installations that are IP-based, such as the ESPN DC2 facility, and others are making a fairly strong push for it. So I would imagine that by the end of the year, you would have a pretty good idea of what the standards are, and a fairly good idea of a migration strategy out of the SDI world and into the Ethernet world. But that is when we will have a better idea--most major facilities will just be starting down the actual path for deploying equipment. I do not expect a lot of them will be at the point of finishing the transition by then. But we will have a better idea about the path by the end of the year."
Thus, as discussed in the November 2013 issue of SMPTE Newswatch, the industry's march to catch up with other industries in building out Ethernet infrastructures at broadcast facilities is something that is inevitably going to happen, while at the same time, as discussed in the July 2013 and the November 2014 issues of SMPTE Newswatch regarding how best content creators can push facilities into the IP world, a big-picture cultural barrier exists regarding the industry's ability to make the transition smoothly. This is a big reason why a host of educational programs are ongoing across the industry, including the online courseware project Simpson is developing with SMPTE. Still,at the root level, it is the standardization process for ensuring the best way to transport raw media data over IP networks that is the centerpiece issue to be clarified in the coming months, Simpson says.
He points out that there are several groups across the industry, "trying to flesh out the details of this issue, and it is not a trivial process because there are lots of competing requirements. There are some existing standards that have applicability, but there are also groups that are looking to make changes or clarifications or possibly enhancements to those standards. Plus, there are completely new standards that are still in the works that need to be finished."
Central among these groups, of course, is the Joint Task Force on Networked Media (JT-NM), tasked with proposing IT-based network strategies to the broadcast industry, which recently published its Phase 2 Interim Report. The task force is now gathering industry feedback and working toward delivering a completed reference architecture by the end of 2015. Simpson says, at the basic level, the central debate that the industry is grappling with revolves around different approaches for standardizing video over IP. One would involve transporting media over IP networks while first going through an SDI layer. The other involves doing away with the SDI layer altogether. Both of them, Simpson suggests, have certain advantages and drawbacks.
The notion of pushing media through an SDI layer, Simpson says, is built upon the SMPTE 2022-6 protocol--a unidirectional, IP-based spec for moving uncompressed HD-SDI signals in realtime.
"SMPTE 2022-6 is focused on how to take an SDI signal and put it into an IP format," Simpson explains. "There are some changes that may be required for this standard to make the signal more suitable for use within the four walls of a studio or broadcast facility, and that is being examined right now in a group sponsored by the Video Services Forum. The second effort says OK, rather than putting pixels and audio samples into SDI and then putting SDI into IP, why not put the pixels right into IP and skip the SDI layer completely? One of the determining factors may be that the responsibilities of the end devices are different in the two scenarios. In the case of SMPTE 2022-6, with some modifications, basically you could take your existing hardware and implement a different front end, such as adding an IP adapter to an existing SDI device, and everything would probably work fine. The other approach in which you don't go into the SDI layer, it can be argued that you would need an entirely new device at the sending and receiving locations because it is a significantly different [process]."
"However, that said, the pure IP approach offers some attractive benefits in terms of workflow and how well signals can be managed within a facility, and it can significantly improve flexibility of a studio network. With an adapter, you can send or receive SDI signals over an IP network with the 2022 approach. That is already being done today, of course. On the other hand, if you want to do things like independently route audio and video signals, and have them synchronized, and do frame-accurate switching from one feed to another within the IP network, having the SDI layer present gets in the way, so to speak. So, in terms of existing SDI equipment, that is a bigger change."
Even as state-of-the-art facilities such as ESPN2 start to emerge with the next generation of broadcast plants, SDI will not be replaced completely by Ethernet in the thousands of facilities that already exist and function in the SDI world, or in a hybrid state. Simpson expects the transition will eventually resemble the industry's transition from standard-definition to high-definition in that, what starts out dominant--in that case, originally, SD, and in this case, SDI--will eventually flip and become subservient, but still have a small niche for some time to come in certain arenas.
"My expectation is that we will see islands of SDI," Simpson suggests. "Look at how the standard def to high def transition worked. First, HD was an island in an SD world. Then, it flipped and SD was an island in an HD world, and now, almost everybody building new plants today is at a minimum building them to handle HD content. So it would not surprise me to see a similar transition as we move from SDI to IP. In other words, we'll start with islands of IP where it makes sense, particularly for audio. Then, SDI will become the island in an IP world, and then, eventually, in the longterm, it will probably become all IP."
"Still, make no mistake, Simpson declares, the change to IP-based facilities "is definitely coming," if for no other reason than almighty Ethernet cannot be resisted, much like certain ultra-powerful aliens from the Star Trek universe or, if you prefer, a particularly well-known metaphor from the world of Hobbits and Orcs.
"Ethernet is like the Borg--it has already assimilated the rest of the world [other industries], and now it will assimilate our industry. It is too proven and flexible and accessible, and has handled everything that has been thrown at it. Ethernet is the one ring that rules us all, in that sense," Simpson affirms.
Here Come the Drones
In recent months, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been taking incremental steps toward relaxing the rules prohibiting the use of lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV's, better known as drones, for commercial purposes. The October 2014 issue of Newswatch reports on how some aerial production companies have been granted operator exemptions. Also, check out this article for a recent update on the FAA's ongoing process of determining rules for small commercial drones, and granting limited exceptions in the meantime. A consensus is building that the trend is inevitable. This CNN Money article suggests that as many as 100,000 new jobs will be created in the U.S. in the coming decade in the drone space, including engineer and pilot positions. This reminds us that Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all launched drone-related programs recently. In the broadcast space, the trend also appears to be continuing unabated. CNN, in fact, was cleared by the FAA in January to begin testing camera-equipped drones for newsgathering purposes in the U.S. Those tests, in partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, are expected to produce data that the FAA says it will use to help it develop rules for how drones should be used in newsgathering. Meanwhile, ESPN recently said it would use a drone to capture extreme sports coverage at the Winter X-Games in January. Reportedly, this was the first time drones were used to cover a live sporting event in this country. One of the aerial production companies given an exemption by the FCC, Vortex Aerial of Los Angeles, was slated to handle that work for ESPN.
And Here Comes HoloLens
Microsoft caused a stir in the virtual reality community recently with the introduction of its HoloLens hologram system, which might be described as a hybrid between VR goggles and 3D holographic technology. The key difference from high-end VR approaches such as Oculus Rift, now owned by Facebook, is that rather than offering a technology to allow users to interact with a virtual world via goggles and other tools that link them to specially configured screens or entire rooms, HoloLens overlays holographic 3D imagery over real-world images that users routinely see and interact with, essentially adding computer-generated images and data to the real world. This is a fusion of sorts between what is real and what is virtual. Some recent industry analysis has suggested that, in addition to obvious implications for gaming and entertainment, the technology will have scientific implications for research, engineering, and development. For instance, a column on the Pro Video Coalition site discusses software that Microsoft and NASA have co-developed called OnSight, which could allow scientists to essentially work virtually on a 3D reproduction of the actual Martian landscape using HoloLens. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is expected to test OnSight later this year to investigate whether it might be feasible to apply the technology to a future Mars rover mission so that scientists could could "enter" video images sent directly from Mars. Here is CNET's rundown of how HoloLens works, and here is a recent Wired article on the magazine's experience trying out a HoloLens prototype system.