Technology advances at a rapid pace offering new ways to deliver content and devices on which to enjoy it. Before we all had a plethora of devices at our disposal, there was little opportunity to see programmes anywhere other than on TV. Now, with our smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, consoles, 360-degree views and VR headsets, broadcasters are aware these new platforms mean viewers expect their programming to match their device's capabilities. As well as the evolution of end-user tech, how broadcasters create and move their programming data also advances. Internet standards will soon offer programme-makers new ways to deliver content to the audience and their viewing device of choice.
A broadcaster with a world-class reputation like the BBC has to keep ahead of all of these technology streams and like any large technology-based organisation behind the scenes sits a very important team finding new ways to exploit that tech, a team who almost need a crystal ball to keep on top of their game, the Research & Development Department. R&D look beyond current techniques, platforms hardware and standards to investigate what's around the tech corner and keep their organisation one step ahead. In our interview Jon Page, Head of Operations at the BBC's R&D Dept, tells us about the important role his team plays.
What's the purpose of the BBC's R&D dept?
Since the 1930s BBC Research & Development has been at the forefront of developing innovative technology, from the first transatlantic television broadcast to high definition and the challenges of today brought about by the internet and interactive media.
We are funded by the licence fee and work with the wider industry for the greater interest of our audiences and broadcasting, whether that be the electronic distribution of audio, visual or audio-visual material.
While the age of the internet continues to affect the broadcast industry, reinterpreting the very term “broadcasting” and providing new ways of watching and listening, BBC R&D remains at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to innovate, and its mission to inform, educate and entertain.
What are the roles of the R&D team?
Our teams are based in labs in the north and south of the UK and are made up of highly specialist research engineers, scientists, ethnographers, designers and producers. They work on every aspect of the broadcast chain, from audiences, production and distribution right through to the programmes themselves.
How do you decide which technologies to focus on?
All of the work we do is to enable us to better serve our audiences and support the wider industry. Our role is to envisage the capabilities the BBC will need in the future, and so we focus on working with technology we believe will have a direct impact on viewers and the industry at large. High definition is an example of this from recent history, and our current work on broadcasting over IP is another.
What are the criteria for a successful technology to make a move to mainstream?
Our general principles dictate that the work we do must make people’s lives easier, more convenient or provides something truly compelling, both for audiences and for storytellers. The BBC reaches hundreds of millions of people via the internet, television and radio, so we focus much of our attention on these mediums and the most popular ways in which they are accessed.
There are a range of factors that affect consumer adoption, from industry support for our approaches, to infrastructure and manufacturers. And it goes without saying that to reach the mainstream a technology must be accessible to all.
How long does it take from R&D testing to see that tech available for use by the public?
This really depends on the project. Some, such as IP Studio, rely on the industry integrating our findings, and subsequently making changes to nationwide infrastructure, which can take years or decades to change. Think of the roll out of HD television and the repercussions for broadcasters, consumers and everyone in-between. New production processes, new broadcast systems, new televisions. It’s not a quick turnaround. In cases such as this we are already looking 15 to 20 years in to the future, whilst continuing to deliver innovation today which we’ve already been working on for 10 plus years.
"Our role is to envisage the capabilities the BBC will need in the future" On the other hand, some of our projects are much smaller and easier to bring to life. A number of the pilots on BBC Taster are conceived and published in a matter of weeks or months.
When and how do you decide a technology is not worth further investment?
Audiences are at the heart of what we do. We encourage and listen to feedback and test pilots with audiences as much as we can before determining their long-term future. The work that goes into all of our projects and the feedback they receive helps future research.
You're currently looking at 4K iPlayer broadcasts, what have been the challenges to introduce this?
At the end of 2016 BBC iPlayer streamed footage of Planet Earth II in the highest quality ever broadcast on the BBC. The experiment was an early but important step towards streaming high-quality Ultra HD programmes on BBC iPlayer in the future. Central to the trial was the inclusion of HLG, which we see as an integral part of future Ultra HD programming. This trial has allowed us to better understand how the technology affects existing infrastructure and workflows, and identify the various obstacles and challenges to streaming full length programmes.
VR is another prominent R&D project, how do you see the BBC using this for programming?
There is already a huge amount of activity in the wider industry on 360 and VR, our focus is on experimenting with the technology to establish how we can use it to add to the content that we already produce, whether that be journalism, storytelling or educational content. Across various genres we have created content which complements existing shows and programmes including Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur for Factual programming, We Wait for Current Affairs and a Strictly Come Dancing pilot for Entertainment. These examples have taught us a great deal about the unique grammar of content production for VR and the technical and storytelling challenges that need to be addressed to create a great experience for the audience.
What do you see for the future of broadcast tech?
Every day we are seeing new and exciting ways of making and distributing media which bring about new opportunities for programme makers. It’s our job to figure out how we at the BBC and the wider industry can take advantage of these opportunities.
With IP Studio we are building a model for end-to-end broadcasting that will allow a live studio to run entirely on IP networks. Many of the broadcast chains used today rely on computers and networks extensively but real-time operations still often rely on traditional methods. However, the industry is realising that IP networks can provide a cost-effective alternative.
Our approach is to treat video, audio and data created during production as a collection of objects that are sent out over the network and assembled as required. This process of Object-Based Broadcasting opens up a world of opportunity to programme makers, allowing them to deliver richer, more customisable experiences for our audiences, across a range of platforms.
Both IP Studio and Object Based Broadcasting are central to BBC R&D's vision of a New Broadcasting System and our long term strategy is to work towards building systems and standards which support these.
What exciting projects are on the horizon for BBC R&D?
As mentioned we have been exploring the value and feasibility of object based media approaches for engaging with audiences. To test our ideas we have created a number of pilots to work out how these could work in real life.
These pilots include the Nearly Live Production system which shows how an IP based system can allow content to be edited whilst still being recorded, in a way that allows edit decisions to be refined later, as all captured media objects and edit decisions are retained.
Squeezebox allows the duration of programme segments to be changed based on metadata captured during editing to allow easy re-versioning for applications like news highlights or omnibus programmes.
Two examples of our work in this area reaching audiences are Visual Perceptive Media, a world where the narrative, background music, colour grade and feel of a drama is shaped in real time to suit the personality of the viewer and CAKE, a personalised cook-along-kitchen-programme that works with the viewer to create meals based on dietary preferences, number of guests and timings.
The BBC R&D website: www.bbc.co.uk/rd
All images © BBC and used with permission.
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