Remote Sports Production Engineering Report 2012: Baseband’s Last Hurrah?

The state of remote-production–truck engineering continues in an evolutionary phase as the transition to IT-based signal transport, embedded audio, and the ability to push and pull content from the field to a broadcast center via fiber continue to make advances.

But the beginning of a revolutionary phase is also taking place.

Trucks will continue to move beyond baseband infrastructures and become central hubs where content comes and goes as files, IP signals, and, of course, live camera feeds. And, as viewers demand more super-slow-motion shots, there is a need to expand the super-slow-motion camera beyond one or two cameras on a show.

The Super-Slow-Motion Market
Companies like Inertia Unlimited, Fletcher Chicago, and NAC Imaging dominate the super-slow-motion–camera market, thanks to cameras that can shoot well above 600 frames per second and continue to offer improved performance in night-game situations. Meanwhile, the more traditional camera manufacturers — Sony, Grass Valley, Ikegami — offer cameras that can shoot only upwards of 180 frames per second. But Phil Garvin, president/founder/co-owner, Mobile TV Group, foresees a day when standard truck cameras offer ultra-slow-motion capability.

“That will make [using ultra-slow-motion] a lot easier [to maintain], and I think the way we offer ultra-slo-mo to the customer is going to change dramatically over the next few years,” he explains. “Someday, the manufacturers of cameras will make new features available simply through software upgrades. The customer is going to be able to request features via these upgrades on a game-by-game basis.”

One company looking to fulfill that promise is Grass Valley. The company’s newest cameras, the LDX series, will eventually offer the ability to add features to the camera and turn them off as needed.

So the ability for remote-production companies to pay for the ultra-slow-motion feature only when it is needed could drastically change the marketplace.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see a client ask us to provide them with all high-frame-rate cameras at every position,” says Game Creek Video President Pat Sullivan. “That would significantly change the dynamic of how we buy cameras. And, to use a term that our engineers use, there is a certain science-project element to these projects that still needs to be figured out.”

The Future of 4K Is Not Yet Here
The potential demand for more high-frame-rate cameras is not the only area of acquisition that is beginning to impact the remote-production world. One of the hottest phrases on the lips of industry professionals is Ultra HD, or 4K.

Fox Sports, for example, is using a 4K camera to capture images that can be zoomed in, providing HD-quality close-up extractions of things like a foot touching an end line in football.

“I hear more about 4K than 1080p these days,” says Garvin. “Nobody gets too excited about 1080p because it’s not a huge difference [in quality] by the time it gets to the home. And, while I think 4K is interesting, I don’t think that I have to worry about it right now. Initially, it will be used for a portion of the HD production, and then we’ll see where we go from there.”

Scott West, president/partner of Corplex, says 4K is certainly something he is aware of and investigating: “The question is, when will the technology shake out to a point where the networks will be able to transmit or will they just archive? There also has to be a business model that makes that work. Is that the next step, like SD to HD? Maybe. We are not willing to spend money tomorrow, but we have our engineering staff keeping apprised of the developments in that.”

The good news for all truck companies is that, outside of the cameras, there is still another year or two of product development before other equipment — production switchers, EVS servers, camera-control gear — becomes truly 4K-friendly. Right now, for example, it is impossible to cut a multicamera 4K production from a production switcher.

That ability to wait is important for another reason: it allows the rest of the TV industry to attempt to figure out where it wants to go.

“When it comes to moving images to the home, there is no clear focus as to where the industry is going,” says NEP Broadcasting CTO George Hoover. “And these are not decisions that any one network or organization can make on their own.”

Product development for the manufacturers is not cheap, and making 3D- or 4K-capable products when it is unclear if or when the market will develop carries risk. The same goes for a production truck that is meant to have a life cycle of at least seven years. Does 1080p become a real service delivered by cable and satellite operators? Can 3D gain traction courtesy of glasses-free displays? And how about 4K and, eventually, Super Hi-Vision (8K)? NHK says it will have complete 8K production workflows developed by 2016.

The Importance of IP in Signal Transport
If a truck rolled out in 2013 is expected to be on the road until 2020, how can it be future-proofed when the equipment does not yet exist? That is one reason signal transport within the truck and outside the truck is becoming so important. A prodigious shift toward IP-centric routing and distribution infrastructures is just beyond the horizon, and NEP’s latest trucks to hit the road — ND6 and Entourage — represent what may be the company’s final generation of traditional baseband-video trucks.

The next generation of trucks will really change the way that routing and distribution is done,” says Hoover. “We will move to more IP-centric infrastructures, which are not quite out there just yet, but they are right around the corner. Some of the technical standards that will allow that evolution to happen are getting ready to be certified by the various standards organizations, like IEEE, SMPTE, and AES. There are some radical advances just around the corner next year.”

The move to IP-centric infrastructures also will open up more and more opportunities for production personnel — graphics operators, even those on the front bench — to remain home and control camera feeds and other aspects of production from a production-control room tied to the venue and truck via fiber.

The problem now is that the level of connectivity needed to make those workflows applicable on a wide scale is not quite in place. More important, by the time the new production-control room is constructed and outfitted with equipment and fulltime personnel, the cost savings may prove negligible.

And not only do cameras and microphones still need to be placed and maintained, but there are the additional risks of connectivity problems and also of being unable to solve technical problems or react to a breaking story.

“Compromise is not something that can be done [on a grade-A event],” notes Hoover.

Of all the next-generation options on the table, 1080p is closest to becoming reality. The vast majority of trucks built in the past three years are capable of 1080p production, and Game Creek Video, for example, now has nearly half its fleet capable of 1080p work.

“When we started building these trucks — the first was for YES Network — it was in the midst of all the 3D hype,” says Sullivan. “My discussions with Paul Boner and Jason Taubman [VP of engineering and VP of design/new technology, respectively, at Game Creek Video] centered around the concept that, if we made our trucks 3G-capable, then 3D would not be a huge leap to take if that is the way the industry ended up going. At the same time, the network gurus are always saying that 1080p is ultimately where they want to be, so why not just build a truck that way?”

West says Corplex has also taken steps to be 1080p/3D-capable via 3G routing and signal distribution: “Our last truck was built with 1080p cameras, and, as soon as Grass Valley brings out the frame for the [necessary] switcher, we have an agreement to purchase that already. We are trying to get to that level.”

But all the steps taken by the production-truck community to future-proof the trucks mean nothing if there is no clear understanding of what clients need. During the HD transition, five or six companies were able to lay out a vision and gain consensus that HD was the way forward.

“But now the decision-makers are in the hundreds,” says Hoover of a continually expanding cable, broadcast, and online universe. “Content producers and distributors need to guide manufacturers, as we cannot sustain false starts like 1080p and 3D. They need a roadmap for 2025: no one can afford to flip technology every two years.”