COVID-19 gave a boost to the use of the cloud for media production. For post-produced content this is relatively straightforward. For live production it is a serious challenge.
While office workers and families at home have become reasonably used to working, teaching and learning via Google Meet, Zoom and the like, professional live productions are much more difficult to ‘cloudify’ because they require more real-time interaction with strict timing constraints. Indeed, a survey performed by the EBU Hybrid & Cloud Production (HCP) group last September confirmed cloud production workflows to be the number one challenge for broadcasters.
To address the need for cloud production best practices, the EBU HCP group adopted a multi-perspective approach: exchanging the latest user experiences, identifying market solutions and organizing hands-on testing.
Since September 2020, EBU Members have regularly exchanged cloud production experiences in biweekly group calls and dedicated roundtable sessions. In the latter, frontrunners present their latest learnings, triggering a subsequent conversation between the participating Members. The presentations are recorded, so those who missed a session can watch it later on. So far, experiences from BR, RTBF, RTÉ, VRT and Yle have been shared, providing insights into innovative production approaches for both television and radio.
Several areas emerged quickly as requiring further exploration:
- The first one is the choice of interconnect, including decisions on bandwidth, video stream codec (and settings), and bitrate. SRT is a popular choice for many current operations, but interoperability between applications and even between dedicated SRT encoders and decoders can be tricky to get right.
- Minimizing latency is a key aim. Depending on the combination of tools and interconnects this can easily go up to seconds (for the round-trip), which would rule out remote camera control and complicate two-way communication.
- Mix-minus audio is high on the list as another point to check. In practice, mix-minus returns for remote contributors can be created relatively easily with audio matrices and mixers, but for ease of use it is important to know how much of this functionality is present and directly usable in the cloud-based tools.
- A related topic that should not be underestimated in terms of importance is intercom. Complex productions require a robust back-channel for team communication. Intercoms nowadays span the whole space from dedicated (robust) hardware devices to virtual phone apps. It is a question of picking the right tools and understanding what dependencies are introduced.
- Maybe the most important feature that users are asking for is being able to create and recall set-ups easily. Given the potential complexity of the complete cloud-based set-up, it is essential to easily be able to go (back) to tested and trusted configurations.
A second series of roundtables has put solution providers at the centre. In Q4 2020, the HCP group hosted sessions on Grabyo, Grass Valley’s AMPP, Kiswe Studio, Microsoft Azure, Simplylive, Sony’s Virtual Production, and VizRT’s Vectar Plus.
Solution providers can currently be divided into two main groups: cloud infrastructure providers and providers of ‘applications’ that run on top of the cloud infrastructure. A further subset of the latter are companies with strong broadcast expertise, that are effectively creating the cloud equivalent of what used to be hardware products (like video switchers). At the other end of the spectrum we find ‘digital services’ companies, where the emphasis is more on interfaces and workflows. The business model for all of them is a subscription and/or pay-as-you-use-it model.
The third activity of the HCP group consists of a number of hands-on trials in which Members and vendors test cloud-based live production set-ups. The first one was organized last month, for the Biathlon World Championships 2020 in Antholz. The EBU, Eurovision Media Services, Finnish broadcaster Yle, Italian broadcaster Rai, Grass Valley, and Simplylive worked together to test cloud-based live production technology during the Biathlon World Championships in Antholz (Italy). For this test, the focus was on the backhaul of six feeds: three different main programme feeds and three additional remote-controlled PTZ cameras at the shooting range and an interview location.
The signals were received in Geneva, Helsinki and Turin, with Yle and Rai staff validating the reception in their broadcast centres using, respectively, Simplylive and Grass Valley’s AMPP production tools. The set-up was intended as the precursor to a larger trial where special attention will be paid to remote control of the cameras, audio, remote commentaries, and graphics integration.
More tests are being planned for 2021.
This article was first published in issue 47 of tech-i magazine.