Ericsson Hits the Open Seas With Mobile Ocean Race Coverage

By Carolyn Braff
Once every four years, oceans around the globe host one of sailing’s biggest challenges, the Volvo Ocean Race. Now that the offshore yachts have set sail for this year’s edition, fans around the world are able to go with them, thanks to Ericsson-powered IPTV and mobile channels that carry feeds from on-board cameras to race fans everywhere, no matter which high sea the boats are battling.
When the race was previously run, in 2005-06, video-capable handsets were much harder to come by. Still, as Ericsson director of innovation Geoff Hollingworth explains, fans found a way to access the mobile offerings, setting the stage for this year’s mobile coverage.
“In the last edition of the race, we were very surprised by the popularity of video on mobile phones because there weren’t that many video handsets out there,” Hollingworth explains. “Three years later, I think we’ve gone to another level. People want to be able to stay in touch and follow the 24/7 sporting event from wherever they are on whatever device they’re on.”
With that in mind, Hollingworth enhanced the mobile offerings for this year’s race and developed a high-definition IPTV channel, as well.
Sony cameras built into each of the boats support Ericsson’s live mobile-TV channel. Ten Sony Block cameras — basically, the innards of the camera, without the consumer-friendly plastic shell — are embedded into the racing yachts at weight-friendly locations. The HDV 25-Mbps 1440x1080i cameras and PDW-700 XDCAM 422 handhelds send the offshore images to race headquarters, located in the south of
England, via satellite link.
The cameras on the race yachts are always rolling, but not for all-access reasons.
“Whenever you light up the satellite, it involves fuel, and weight on these boats is very sensitive,” Hollingworth explains. “In the race agreement, the boats are committed to a certain media transfer per day.”
Users have the ability to choose by UHF which boat’s angle to follow and, with a 3GPP standard in place, can switch quickly and seamlessly between channels.
“You don’t rip down the stream; there’s a server in the backend that manages the switching,” Hollingworth says. “That server manages the different streams from the different channel providers. The buffers are maintained because the stream is maintained, so there is no buffering from a user-experience point of view.”
Adaptive-bitrate streaming also allows Ericsson to maintain its streams in the face of harsh winds or rain storms during the off-shore portions of the race.
To ensure that the sailors on each boat are heard as well as seen, Livewire Digital is supplying each yacht with two Talkback Systems, each comprising an Audio Technica wireless transmitter, a lavalier microphone, and a Sennheiser in-ear monitor and earpiece. The on-board media system allows video conferencing with the race office via the Fleet Broadband satellite terminal and enables the audio to be routed via an F33 satellite terminal for interviews, including possible three-way interviews with a telephone endpoint on shore. The system also records the audio to local tape alongside video from each of the fixed cameras.
Each boat is equipped with a sealed, waterproof switching station and navigator that receives all of the camera feeds, and all of the mobile content will originate in HD.
“When people go back to look at previous editions of the race, they want to make sure it’s available in HD,” Hollingworth says. “Each of the boats broadcasts only a little bit of what’s captured, but when the boat’s coming into shore, they get out the tape deck that records in HDV, and that goes into postproduction.”
Tandberg provides the encoding technology required to turn each of those raw media files into the 20-30 different forms the file must assume to accommodate a growing number of viewing devices.
“All of those devices support different requirements: screen size, codecs, bitrate,” Hollingworth explains. “We have to profile the different devices to make sure that they get the right encoding for the optimum experience on that device.”
Seven in-port races — in
Alicante, Spain; Singapore;
Qingdao, China; Rio de Janeiro; Boston; Galway, Ireland; and
Stockholm — bring the boats closer to the fans while providing additional broadcast challenges and opportunities.
“For the in-port races, they have to change the technology that they use,” Hollingworth says. “They’re using the same cameras, but rather than going by satellite, they go by a microwave link back to an encoding station that delivers the media.”
The on-board Talkback Systems also route the audio via microwave for the in-port races, and a production team cleans up the in-port feeds, syncs the HD channels, and broadcasts the best postproduction for both mobile and IPTV.
“We have a challenge with the IPTV, because it hasn’t gotten to where mobile is yet,” Hollingworth says. “People haven’t got HD networks that align so the IPTV will be available inside the pavilion at each of the port stops.”
For Ericsson, the Volvo Ocean Race is just as much a broadcast opportunity as a sales pitch to other sporting events.
“Everything that we’re doing is using parts of our portfolio that we can sell,” Hollingworth explains. “We’re keen on any other sporting platform that’s interested. If they’re not interested in immediately deploying something like this, we’d have an interest in having a dialog.”