How lockdown lessons have helped plans for F1's 8K TV future
Watching Formula 1 at home is all too often taken for granted, as we turn on the television, click on a streaming service, or open an app and we expect the action to come at us live and uninterrupted.
But what many don’t realise is that before these images reach us, they have travelled many thousands of miles in a near instant. And this involves quite a bit of technology.
Television production of a Formula 1 race is a huge undertaking. For each grand prix event, there are 90 cameras and 147 microphones installed, plus around 80 kilometres of cable have to be laid.
In the past, everything was produced on location at the F1 Broadcast Centre, after which the world feed was provided to the broadcasters. Individual rights holders then added their own commentary to the international feed, and forwarded the images to the viewers at home.
Since 2020, however, and earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 enforced pandemic, footage from all the cameras at the track has been directly sent to Biggin Hill in England, where TV production takes place at Formula 1's Remote Operations Centre. It is from here, rather than the track, that the international feed is delivered to the broadcasters.
The fact that production now takes place in England has several major advantages. Firstly, 36% fewer people are needed at the track for production purposes. Secondly, they have been able to replace the bulky F1 Broadcast Centre with an Event Technical Centre, which is about half the size. It means 70 tonnes less freight needs to be transported to each race. This is a reduction of 34%, which is a significant contribution to F1's goal of hitting net zero carbon by 2030. In addition, it also saves a lot of time as there is no need to construct and deconstruct a huge and complex control room at each venue.
But sending more than 100 video feeds and 250 audio feeds from the track to England is no mean feat. This is why F1 turned to Tata Communications, the championship's official broadcast connectivity provider, to help ensure things run without a hitch.
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Dhaval Ponda, Vice President and Global Head, Media & Entertainment Services at Tata Communications, told Autosport that there were some hidden challenges involved in making the remote operations work properly.
“We’ve been working with Formula 1 technology teams over a period of time, to ensure that if an event is taking places thousands of miles away, the raw video footage is going from the track to London in a matter of milliseconds – in fact under two hundred milliseconds,” he said. “Then production is taking place and, from there, it is being distributed to hundreds of millions of households globally. All of this is happening in less of a second.”
He added: “The level of agility is just remarkable. When you and I watch the sport on a screen, we don’t realise that this is the journey of raw video footage, going from a track somewhere in the world, to a production hub in London where it is getting produced, before it’s being distributed to millions and millions of households globally. But that is the technology complexity that we are a part of. We absolutely love technology challenges and ensuring the future of the sports keeps getting better every single year.”
The COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 made F1 rethink how it put together its broadcast
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
In order to enable remote production, Tata Communications had to overcome a number of engineering challenges.
Ponda: “People had done this before across cities, but doing this across continents was a significant engineering challenge. So a couple of things went into that. One was that the underlying technology, in order to support this, had to be video first and extremely agile.
“That’s what we did by investing into a 100Gb video backbone, which was deployed globally. We also invested significantly in our media cloud edge infrastructure, so that we are able to do significant amounts of video processing.”
Obsession over detail
Once Tata Communication established that it had found a solution that worked, it was stable and could support the growth of video over the next four to five years, it had to ensure it could be executed for all the races on the F1 calendar.
And that meant digging deep into the actual journey video data would take from race track to people’s homes.
As Ponda pointed out: “Not all locations are as easy when it comes to the underlying technology and infrastructure. You’ve got locations like Baku, the Middle East, Singapore and so on, so we had to work with individual partners to ensure that the technology that was required at a particular venue, was of the same high quality. We did this by working with regional partners and investing significantly in local venues, to achieve that level of stability and repeatability.
Going deeper into how thorough the whole process has been, Ponda explained: “We made detailed engineering diagrams of how every venue is connected and then we traced the parts from that particular venue across the oceans and across the continents all the way to where it is supposed to go, which is the production hub in London.
“We obsess over the level of detail that goes into this, because the last thing we want is that there is a particular engineer in a particular data centre, maybe in the south of Italy, north of Egypt or some part of South America, that is doing some unscheduled maintenance work coinciding with a F1 weekend.”
The F1 TV production goes on behind the scenes seamlessly with the live action
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Beyond making sure the infrastructure is in place, Tata sends a small team to each race to ensure things run smoothly.
“We have got between three and five highly-skilled broadcast engineers who visit a particular venue and ensure that things are done in the way that they should be,” added Ponda. “But the majority of focus and attention goes into tweaking the solution for an entire year, and this requires teams of solution architects, broadcast engineers, IP engineers and media cloud specialists.
“They are looking at all of the cable systems across the world, all of the media cloud edge computers that are deployed, and ensure that the system is tweaked and ready for the complexity of a particular weekend.”
Tata Communications is also always looking at ways to further improve its services.
“A very interesting area that we are looking at now is leveraging private LTE networks and 5G based technology, which could provide a unique answer to some of these local challenges,” continued Ponda.
“And that is something we are doing a lot of POCs [Proof of Concepts] on. So if we were to deploy a private LTE network, if were to leverage 5G, can we actually bring a greater level of consistency across all of the venues?”
Looking at the future, Tata Communications expects the number of video feeds needed to satisfy consumers to increase in the coming years – which means it has to lift its own game.
“A very important driver for the world of sport is the fact that there are more people consuming increasing amounts of content every day,” said Ponda. “They are also consuming the content across a number of digital platforms.
“In the same household, you could have somebody watching the race on a primary screen which is the living room TV, and you could have somebody else watching a different feed on a second screen like an iPad or a mobile. Or the same person trying to track through social media interactions as well.
“What used to be a unique offering has now become a standard expectation. Even for you and me, the very average individual consumer expects video to work across all digital platforms.
“What happens for this is that a lot of organisations are now producing unique content for digital platforms. So this increases the number of video feeds coming out of a particular venue. And that has a direct impact on partners like us.
F1 TV technology is constantly developing
Photo by: Mark Sutton
“We are not only looking at more video feeds coming out of a specific venue, we are also looking at complex workflows where some of the video feeds are delivered to specific digital platforms. These could be additional feeds or driver specific feeds. And they all have to be at a certain level of latency, so that the viewing experience does not get broken at all. We are constantly absorbing this complexity, which is good. It keeps us on our toes.”
F1 in 8K
Another development Tata Communications is watching closely is the arrival of 8K television and Ponda thinks that the transition will provide some big challengers for data suppliers.
“4K screens themselves already give so much detail on that particular screen, and now we’ve got 8K television screens coming up,” he said. “So what that means is that whatever is the level of detail that a camera at a particular racetrack is capturing, we have to find a way to reliably encode that, transport it and then deliver it to that TV screen.
“Even though individuals will go from a 4K to an 8K TV screen, the internet connectivity is not going to jump up necessarily. So it still has to leverage the lowest common denominator across all of the countries and then deliver a high-quality output.
“This is where video engineering plays a very important role. And this is something that our teams obsess over almost on a weekly basis; how are we able to improve the richness and the detail involved in video feeds that are being delivered globally?
“We helped a number of organisations transition from standard definition to high definition, which was a big jump on its own, and then from high definition to 4K, which improved the quality substantially. Now we are doing a number of POCs with organisations to see what an 8K video feed would look like. And with that level of detail, sport is just magnificent.
“If you watch a Formula 1 race in 8K detail, the amount of richness that you can see in that video, is going to be definitely worth it. We are involved in the very early stages of these conversations with specific organisations to see how we can actually tackle the technology complexity involved.”
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