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The Evolution Of Channel In A Box Technology

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The transition to IP is three years out: George Jarrett looks at the future for play out as software defined networks point us towards an OPEX world, more pop up channels, and a broadcast version of IMF for localisation.

A brief that read 'play out and distribution to include automation, channel-in-a-box (CIB), subtitling and captioning (which first is a huge editorial localising business), encoding and transcoding, and Ad insertion' would have been five different feature subjects even two years ago.

Now they could easily be one encompassing chain of events, depending on whom you believe, and the partnerships required. Having chaired a session on localisation at the BVE show, and trusting the EBU to have a sobering viewpoint, I started seven dialogues in the specific area of dubbing and closed captions, and loudness control.

SDI Media, with dubbing studios in 24 countries and an army of talent, is the big name in content localisation, and it has prepared strong tactics for the future.

"We don't just operate on the editorial side of localisation: we've built out a global media services division so we handle asset management, localisation, encoding and transcoding, metadata handling and digital delivery fulfillment on behalf of our clients," said business development director Andy Marshall.

"In terms of our own software development, we're focused on asset approval, automated metadata formatting, localisation scheduling systems, our proprietary GTS subtitling software, and an asset management system," he added. "It would seem that the (big vendors) do need to rely on partners or facilities who have expertise and infrastructure based around their core competences."

Frans de Jong, the EBU's subtitling guru who oversaw the advance from EBU-STL to EBU-TT, stated that IMF (the Interoperable Master Format), created by the Hollywood studios, is now a hot topic in Europe, with the EBU launching a project to assess its merits on February 25.

"It is very convenient for Netflix and other OTT providers because ideally they want a single master that they can localise automatically for different reasons," he said. "For broadcasters that do a lot of localisation it could be a very interesting format. One of the biggest issues is codecs because the current formats defined in IMF are basically J2K. The current formats broadcasters support are not supported by IMF so does it merit going to a J2K higher master at a higher bit rate, or would it be a better path to introduce the typical codecs used in broadcast? This is the biggest question on the table."

He had in mind XAVC, AVCUltra, ProRes, and AVC-I, plus specific metadata. He said: "Various EBU members have already expressed an interest in that direction. A recent EBU/RheinMain University proof-of-concept study showed it is relatively easy to extend the IMF family with a broadcast-specific version (AVC-I with EBUCore in that case), confirming the claim that IMF is a flexible format. The main question now is should broadcasters and the EBU should start more formal investigations and drive further standardisation work to specify a broadcast-specific IMF Application."

Every system will need loudness policing, so what does MC Patel, CEO of Emotion Systems see as the future?

"The need for audio processing have got bigger; loudness is one thing and it is something that needs to be done well. We have seen initial attempts where this was done in hardware on the output of master control. This meant that everything that got transmitted could be corrected and so, everything complied to the delivery spec," he said. "The problem is, content loudness is (broadly speaking) the average audio level of a show and you only know that at the end. So, what the hardware does is to steer the mix very close to the target loudness because it has no idea of when the program ends.

"As we process files, we measure them first and then apply global gain/attenuation to the whole program to bring the loudness in to spec. The end result is that the creative mix is preserved. We do have to deal with files with multiple audios and multiple audio types (mono, stereo, 5.1) and encoded audio, so our little box of tricks needs to do a lot," he added. "We also get involved in other forms of audio processing – Dolby E encode/decode, up mix, down mix, channel replace (for language versioning) etc. All this needs to be automated and so, the big vendors do come to us to solve some of these problems. Snell, Tedial, Aspera are some of the companies that have integrated to our software and there are others who have written their own interface to our API. As we are purely software and file based, we do not see an impact as we transition to software defined networks."

The big advantage of virtualisation
Steve Plunkett, CTO with Ericsson's broadcast and media services business, had plenty to contribute on the subjects of ad insertions, virtualisation, mixing and matching best components, growth by acquisition, and localisation.

Ad insertion is something of a contradiction. "What is happening now is that so much data is being collected, and more viewing is happening with devices that can deliver personalised commercials," said Plunkett.

"Targeting is fast becoming more scientific, and the inventories are becoming much more individual. That momentum is going to continue, and there is going to be a lot more innovation aimed at making targeting more precise. We are some way down that path, but for linear TV there is still a very wide gap between personalised, data driven ad substitution and the traditional buying and selling of commercials."

Moving onto the values of virtualisation, Plunkett added: "That is something we are looking to leverage for our own reasons, essentially de-coupling the app from the hardware and then you have two independent life cycles. One of the big advantages of virtualisation is you buy generic hardware and you can refresh or replace that independently of the apps that sit on it. You can also re-purpose the underlying hardware for different apps."

Hardware re-purposing would also include moments when the app requirements change in the way of increased performance.

"Ideally you would have to do that in real-time. You have that common server infrastructure, common network infrastructure, common storage, and at some points of the day you are transcoding and let's say it is re-purposed for another app like QC. It can be anything that lives within the broadcast domain; the big thing is just separating as apps the functional things that we do."

That boils down to better optimisation. What does Plunkett expect from the market's vendors?

"Where we sit in the value chain, we are a service provider. We would like to be able to mix and match the best components and the best products, as they are necessary to the services we need to offer," he said. "On the vendor side the pressure has been to offer everything, rather than being good at one particular thing."

What produced this commercial pressure? "The Channel-in-a-box is what triggered this whole move. To have a CIB you needed to provide all the functionality that would have lived separately in the past, and probably came from different vendors," said Plunkett.

"Suddenly you had to offer everything in a single box, depending where you started from. A graphics vendor would have to build an automation system and other elements of the play out chain," he added. "Doing that organically is going to take a lot of time, and there are risks associated with getting it wrong, so acquisition becomes a much more plausible way of getting where you need to be more quickly."

"We are very early in that move to software virtualisation and interoperability is still in its infancy on the software side. So you tend to find that to be able to guarantee a level of performance and interoperability across a chain, going to one vendor, and them guaranteeing that it is going work properly on a complex system, is seen as better than trying to buy lots of bits of software and doing it for yourselves."

Will the new organisation AIMS ease this problem? "We are ultimately building channels on behalf of clients, and what we would like to be doing now is using the best components we can buy from multiple vendors, so we are very much behind any initiatives that cause vendors to test, integrate and work together," said Plunkett.

SDI will live for quite a while yet
Scott Rose, Grass Valley director of product management, listened to the width of the brief and said: "Not only do we not have to wait very long, the vast majority of what you describe is shipping today inside products such as ITX from Grass Valley.

"We are talking about the play out and distribution chain, so we break that back into its component parts: we have servers, graphics and closed caption and sub titling. We also have things as basic as logos and voiceovers, and all of this chain in software is eventually what an integrated solution is," he added. "ITX has loudness correction built in as a software module, and for content localisation you can run different outputs of the same channels with alternate graphics.

"Simplification is there already inside an app, and what is happening now is the final part of that being completed, in that you are able to submit IP signals of broadcast video into that app and we are able to deliver IP transported video out of that app," he continued.

So when will we kiss goodbye to SDI then? Rose said: "We know that SDI, despite people saying it will die, will live for quite a while yet, so a hybrid world is going to be essential for the time being. Tape did not disappear over night.

"What we have found is that a subset of the broadcast market did not adopt integrated play out early on. The early adopters know it is available today, and the late majority often ask, 'Can I have an IP enabled server and an IP enabled graphics store, etc to build my chain?' They see clearly that IP is going to enable the flexible building of a transmission chain," he added. "The problem with approaching that as individual components is that you are going to get what we had with SDI – timing, latency and bandwidth issues."

The morphing of CIB into something mature and being key to all the advancements led Rose to pop up channels. He said: "Spawning a channel for a temporary event and closing it down again is interesting to many people. Like many (other vendors) we could launch a channel in hours."

Grass Valley has a 100% software version of ITX that only needs to host hardware to create pop up channels. Rose said: "If you wanted to pop up a channel you have been able to do that for quite awhile, but having the ability today is more of a software defined network or a virtualised platform. This is fundamental to starting up a channel and you have to have the blade hardware or data centre capacity.

"The block to a pop up channel is if you have not done any marketing to promote it. I am not sure that pop up channels are the saviour of linear TV," he added. "The technology has been capable for many years, and CIB technology was the name the market gave to the way we packaged it. That engine has moved on, and it is fundamentally the evolution of the CIB technology that has enabled all of this stuff."

Rose intimated that virtualisation is in the deepest DNA of Grass Valley. "It is not about technology for technology's sake. It is about using a technology that benefits the user in the way it both saves and makes money," he said.

"Like a lot of things in broadcast, we start off applying the technology because it is cool. Then we work out where it fits and adds value. Virtualisation is the ability to have a generic hardware base: COTS is really a benefit when you have something to do infrequently. You would like to own that in software to be able to spin it up, use it and shut down," he added. "I am leveraging my hardware several times a day maybe. How much kit does an average OB truck drag around consuming fuel and space that does not get used on every production?"

Virtualisation is creeping into production
Brick Eksten, VP of product strategy with Imagine, considered the commission and said: "There you go. Yes, all of that. Most people have come to consider CIB more than just convenience. They have become quite powerful systems and very highly integrated so they are quite capable in terms of all the sub steps that you reckon with, whether it is the media server aspect or graphics, or the various capabilities you would look for," he added. "They continue to evolve and we are starting to see our own CIB ability to output ADR.

"Pop up channels are starting to get more and more focussed, not so much because of the linear relationship between the event and the channel, but because of the opportunities they bring. If you can pop a number of channels around a large scale event it allows you to create inventory, and why can't you do that on a more normal basis at specific times of the day where you want to create more inventories in your standard play out? Yes, it requires planning, and the co-ordination that you might see in a traditional North American network anyway," he continued.

The migration to a data centre produces the compelling idea of running a regional channel only during the time when that region is running different ad inventories. Where does virtualisation enter the Imagine picture?

"The other half of the pop up channel is the disaster recovery channel, a check box that every broadcaster has to have. They started off with just putting it in the cloud," said Eksten. "They began testing, and over a period of a couple of months they became so enamoured with the fact they could run it out of the cloud they actually now use it for primary distribution in the European region.

"It has quickly gone from the notion that I can take a CIB, virtualise it and put it somewhere else to use it for pop up channels or disaster recovery," he added. "It is really stable and economic, and people are considering cloud for expanding reach, pop ups, and any use cases you can come up with. And if you are a smaller station trying to deliver content over satellite, virtualisation in the cloud begins to make a huge amount of sense, both from the economic and management points of view."

With no physical boxes it is easier to come up with a redundancy plan, and once you are running from a data centre it opens up a whole new world of opportunity.

On the area of ad insertion Eksten stated: "There is an intersection coming between the type of commercials that you see in social networks and online, and the opportunity for that sort of reactivity is what we call late binding – the ability to add a spot at the last second. You will see that intersecting with linear delivery (at NAB)."

Imagine has made more of its partnerships with the multinational compute and IT companies than probably any other vendor.

"As you think about how you are going to move into this brave new world of virtualisation and software data centres – big, managed compute environments – you need these big partners because they have been doing this for decades," said Eksten. "Look at a company like Microsoft: a large deployment in a broadcaster might be 1,000 pieces of gear, but a large deployment for the Microsoft cloud environment might be 30,000. They are very good at managing those systems and providing the analytical depths. We are going to use those systems in a way they were not originally intended for."

There is a cross over point now where those systems are fast enough and robust enough they can be used for broadcast applications.

"Those partnerships have helped to educate us in what we need to learn," said Eksten. "And we have also taught them a tremendous amount about what it takes to use enterprise compute and networking in a broadcast environment. They have had to learn about broadcast, and we have had to learn about enterprise. For them this is open market space. They have never been successful in selling into broadcast except for the back office. The broadcast data centre is a brand new thing for HP, CISCO and Microsoft."

The lesson for Eksten and Imagine has been to produce robust systems. How many specialist apps from other vendors does Imagine roll into its chain?

"We have worked with other vendors to get there, and we use Linear Acoustics and Dolby. We see our role moving forward as becoming a key part of the supply chain," said Eksten. "That's why we built our system as it is: at the highest level it allows us to collaborate because we are built on open standards at the API level and the virtualisation level. At the lower level where it is about technology the system allows us to work with dozens of vendors who have built a brand over the years and it is still relevant. Everything you did before, you need an equivalent for in software."

Like Ericsson, Imagine has grown the width of its capabilities, and facilitated a startling transition with a series of acquisitions.

"Acquisitions have enabled us to open new doors. We chose to focus on expanding the reach of our technologies across a market that is compressing in some ways. It is compressing from the point of view that broadcasters are becoming more OTT centric. OTT players are talking about launching linear channels but those are different worlds because they view the content differently, and they have different rights and technical hurdles they have to get past," said Eksten. "Cable companies have shifted the way that they think because virtualisation makes it easy for them."

People want to deliver via IP
Don Ash, the president of PlayBox Technology in the UK, can talk about being 100% software centric and pours scorn on vendors that have to use hardware for graphics acceleration. GPUs in the cloud though are now common, so how much of the brief does PlayBox cover?

"Within CIB yes we do it all. This is the way technology takes things forward," he said. "When I started in CIB sales, people used to wonder what does CIB entail. Most people agree that CIB meant ingest from tape, and the ability to schedule and play out a channel with graphics and subtitles in a single box. But over the years what is needed has changed a lot.

"Ingest is not quite so important because so many people now deliver files to a broadcaster. The CIB must be able to handle different file formats and even do some sort of QC to make sure those files are not going to become the weak link in the channel," he added. "Everyone wants to play out in different formats so that means coding and transcoding become a vital part of it. More and more people want to deliver via IP so we have introduced CloudAir as the next step in play outs. It is an eco system that controls many CIB elements over in the cloud."

The big partner that PlayBox has is Tata Communications, which runs hundreds of channels on the cloud eco system.

"The pop up channel concept has become very popular. In fact Tata has links to one of the F1 teams and during race weekends they play out a singular channel for that team," said Ash. "These sort of singular channels, whether they are OTT or not become almost as important play outs as ordinary TV channels. They happen from many sporting events, and although they pop up for a short period of time it is vitally important they are transmitted in different countries around the world. There are a number of companies involved in the Brazil Olympics that are talking to us about having a number of singular channels just during the period of the games.

"Bare in mind that some pop up channels can be highly financially viable thanks to subscribers," he added.

In the area of ad insertion PlayBox has AdBox, and for the rush to virtualisation it puts up Edge Box. "This was created around the fact that a large number of companies around the world have a lot of content and they want to deliver it internationally," said Ash. "But if you are a country like the UK and you want to do this there arises the need for sub titling. Edge Box can take the content plus it can take the subtitle files and initiate them live, so you create a whole new channel at a very low cost point compared with having a play out provider play out your channel to any nation, with localisation and the subtitling. Many nations do not want things dubbed. They want to subtitle because many people in local communities want to learn the foreign language by being able to read the words while hearing the dialogue," he added. "Many of the channels we have worked with have been able to localise the ads too."

This article is also available to read at BFV online here.

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