The long-awaited F1 streaming service is just the first of many breakthroughs in broadcasting which motor sport fans will soon benefit from. But how long will innovations like 360-degree viewing and augmented reality take to become part of how we watch the sport? @DieterRencken spoke to the company in charge of satisfying our craving for real-time F1 content.
That Liberty Media, owner of the now-NASDAQ-listed Formula One Group (FWONK), intends dragging motor racing’s premier category into the digital age is well-documented, and about time too. Somehow it seems strange – to all but its former tsar, octogenarian Bernie Ecclestone – that this high-tech sport stayed stuck in the analogue era while global sports embraced 4K, Netflix and Over-The-Top broadcasting.
Give or take a fortnight, it was a year ago that Liberty completed the purchase of the controlling rights to F1, then simultaneously relaxed previously stringent restrictions on usage of footage on social media platforms by teams. Think about that for a moment: Until February last year, teams were not permitted to upload video of their own cars and drivers on their own Twitter feeds – the word ‘incredible’ springs to mind.
Twelve months on the buzz-phrases in the paddock are no longer Facebook or Instagram but 360, Over-The-Top, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, which shows how far F1 has come in a year. But the bigger Liberty’s plans the more F1 will be reliant upon infrastructure. To understand this, rewind 30 or so years to times when TV signals were analogue and feeds carried by satellites.
For countries to broadcast F1 they needed, first and foremost, a national TV broadcaster. Don’t laugh: such institutions were in short supply in developing countries. Second on the ‘must’ list were dual (or more) stream satellite receiving facilities – during live grand prix transmissions one channel was fully occupied, leaving no bandwidth for news feeds, etc. Next, broadcasters needed multi-channel, or were forced to face the wrath of non-F1 viewers.
Hence, until the advent of (relatively cheap) digital technology, live F1 broadcasts were restricted mainly to developed nations with access to multi-channels. Still, broadcasts were carried by ‘signals’ – analogue or digital as each case may be – with all the resultant risks of interference due to weather, satellite interruptions, and latency (the delay between a live event and its on-screen appearance).
The advent of cable TV reduced some inherent risks, but the nature of the technology meant cables were restricted mainly to urban areas in developed countries, leaving vast swathes of fans dependant on airborne signals. As F1 moved from standard definition to HD, so bandwidth requirements multiplied, with increasingly sophisticated graphics and sound channels requiring ever more bits and bytes.
That is where F1 was stuck last year: restricted social media channels and HD in selected territories serviced mainly by satellites carrying signals generated under challenging conditions. That it worked as well as it did is a tribute to the ‘show-must-go-on’ attitude of the grey-clothed men and women in F1’s broadcast village.
None of this is, though, conducive to 360, 4K, OTT, VR or AR – certainly not at the speed and reliability demanded by modern consumers – many of whom have become known as ‘cord cutters’ after ditching cable in favour of streaming. So, out with satellites, out with cables and in with Netflix-type viewing. Enter Tata Communications.
A subsidiary of the giant India conglomerate that produces cars, trucks and buses, owns Jaguar-Land Rover, manufactures Tetley tea, has interests in steel, chemicals and hotels, and operates one of the world’s foremost consultancy services, active mainly in mobile communications, Tata Communications first entered into its “Transformation of the sport through technology” partnership with F1 six years ago.
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During the Tata Innovation Awards ceremony held during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend (below), the company’s global marketing vice president Mehul Kapadia spoke not only about their present activities but provided F1 Fanatic with an exclusive insight into the crucial role Tata’s technologies will play as Liberty ups F1’s digital game.
We open with the 360-degree camera trialled both on-track and within the Singapore Grand Prix paddock last September. One of the ball-like devices was camouflaged by a bush at the paddock entrance, another mounted atop Anderson Bridge out on the circuit, as they unobtrusively recorded 360-degree views via three 120° lenses, the visuals of which were then “stitched” to provide the full spectrum after being streamed from Tata’s computer cloud.
“There are multiple components,” Kapadia explained. “One component is the camera infrastructure itself, which we do not play a role in. But the key role that we play is that once [visuals] are shot at a race track, [they] can it be delivered to any part of the world in a way that people using different devices, whether a second screen or a large screen.”
“The technology is there. It’s available now to deploy as and when commercially it becomes logical to do [so].” If the technology is ready for immediate use, why aren’t we watching F1 this way already? Mehul believes this where commercial considerations come into play given that Liberty, as a listed company, needs to make the technology pay.
“It could be brought by the people who own the rights [Formula One Management] to the broadcasters [directly] who will then take it to fans, or it could be [taken to] other OTT players, who may want to take it to fans. I think the ecosystem needs to develop the commercial mechanism in the way they would like to do it. But we would be very happy to support that evolution.”
The definition of the three lenses (a move to four 90-degree lenses is likely eventually) is to 4K standard but F1 broadcast technology is not yet at that level. However Tata, which operates massive optical fibre cables that transmit signals to broadcasters across the globe, is confident it has the bandwidth to carry F1’s future requirements, including live data streams.
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“You can do things on satellite as well, but fibre is better because you don’t want the latencies of satellite to come in. So we’ve tested it on fibre, and I would mostly say it should be done on fibre,” he says.
If you’re talking fibre, does it not make more sense to have some form of live streaming? “Yes, and that’s the beauty of 360, as we tested, that it was live. 360 just shot, then shown to you later is one way to do it. But the joy of it I would feel is that you can actually live-look at it.”
The next step is obviously OTT. Some fans have been clamouring for this, particularly younger viewers who are accustomed to music and video streaming and are delighted F1 is at last embracing the 21st century. But others are concerned it might spell the end of free-to-air broadcasts as FOM takes up the opportunity to broadcast direct to fans’ devices – at a fee, of course.
OTT F1-style is likely to be a hybrid product – certainly in the early stages – in that streaming will complement traditional footage. Thus broadcasters will transmit race and “front of house” footage, with behind-the-scenes visuals carried by internet-based feeds. Once that takes off, Liberty could stream directly to consumers, completely bypassing broadcasters. The big question is, of course: how close is F1 to OTT
“If you say it in terms of technology, over the last three years we’ve tested three components of that,” says Kapadia. “One is we tested doing 4K and Formula One. Then we did live OTT. Live OTT is when your second screen can be synchronised with your television feed. Because especially when you want to look at different angles or different data feeds…”
Does that include stuff like timing feeds or pit lane channels? If so, what about latencies between screens?
“Everything. That synchronisation is important, because what you’re getting off the internet into your second screen matches what you’re getting on your television screen, which comes via probably a satellite hub. So that is something that we have tested. We’ve basically synchronised the latencies for them to come to you at the same time.”
Again, the obvious questions are: what’s stopping OTT from becoming a reality in 2018 (which F1 commercial chief Sean Bratches has said will arrive this year), and has Tata been in discussions with Liberty about introduction?
“That’s probably not for us to answer,” laughs Kapadia, “because we’re more in the space of ensuring that technology can be put together. I‘m sure different rights holders and different broadcasters will have their own product route maps, depending on where it fits in for them.”
“With Liberty we’ve done proof of concept [in 2017]. So conversations have been with Formula One Group in terms of how we can test our things. But the road map is not something we have spoken with them about.”
The only conclusion that can be drawn from the foregoing is that OTT technology is ready and waiting – certainly for some territories – and will be introduced once Liberty is confident of monetising it. That, in turn, is a combined function of fans’ wallets and their willingness to open them. That theorem applies equally to much-vaunted VR and AR. How close are we to these?
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“We’ve started delivering three-times-one-gigabyte circuits at each race track, which is a lot of bandwidth,” say Kapadia. “The absolute number differs, depending on race location, but that capability is there that we’ve scaled it up to have a lot of bandwidth coming in. But actually there are two other big components in there, so it’s not only about raw fibre or bandwidth capacity.
“The first component is that as it goes to different race locations, can it then be taken out locally? Because it’s not just about the race-track. How do you ensure seamless distribution of that globally? More importantly, a lot of services that are needed to make this happen, like the 360 I spoke of, are essentially in the cloud.
“How do you process it, compile it, encode it and then decode it the way it needs to be done? So I think that is another capability experience that we bring in. Connectivity is one part of it, but there is the entire media platform of a range of services that can help them bring it alive.”
Aren’t AR and VR basically two-way streets, though, in that you need responsive broadcasters at the other end, able to feed messages back and forth?
“Yes. If you look at 360, it was sort of interactive, and two-way. Because what you could do even without having to wear headgear, you could just move your phone get views from that side. So you go like this (turns phone), and you’re seeing what’s on top. That’s already the two-way capability, which is what I keep saying, that cloud component, that ability to process there, is extremely crucial for these kind of services.”
How would the average fan use VR or AR? Here Kapadia sees AR being introduced earlier than VR, which is aimed more at gaming and eSports.
“If you look at it, a typical broadcast has been what happens on the television screen. Now, you could say I can have augmented content, even on the television screen. But your handset can let you do AR. So for argument’s sake, use a case of augmented reality at the circuit.
“You’re, let’s say, in grandstand seven, you’re seeing probably cars going every one-and-a-half minutes, so ideally, if I could have an augmented reality experience on my phone, as the car goes by, I can probably then choose the car that I really am interested to follow. So as it goes by, I can pick up that driver and follow the driver around? That could be one augmented reality.
“But more important, apart from the video feed – because a video feed is one part – can it start pulling out the relevant statistics about that driver? Can I zoom in and actually see what is happening to the tyre temperatures, the fuel load? Or when the pit stop is happening, can I quickly at that time again be able to see a 360-degree view of the pit stop?”
Kapadia sees virtual reality as “probably a little different dimension” which will mostly “land more into the gaming space.”
“Virtual reality could actually bring a lot on gaming, where a race is going on and people are racing [Lewis Hamilton} during the race time. That’s where I think VR will play a big role. VR could play a role in creating experiences, maybe in the Paddock Club, but personally I don’t know whether people will be able to sit and watch a race in VR for 90 minutes. It will be just too much.”
Inevitably, Kapadia has one eye on the next Big Thing after AR and VR: “Whether it’s through 360 or AR or VR, it really doesn’t matter. Tomorrow there will be a new one. Mixed Reality is already making a lot of noise…”
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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