As a leading broadcaster with worldwide viewership, the BBC has been at the forefront of developing new TV technology. Much of this innovation takes place in the BBC's Research and Development (R&D) group, created to help understand new technologies and what they could offer BBC audiences.
BBC R&D's job is to develop an end-to-end perspective of technology requirements and performance, from editorial decisions and their impact through production, distribution and viewership.
In the area of virtual reality (VR), the BBC has been focused on how this new technology can complement the kinds of content it produces. According to the broadcaster, VR is at a very early stage and so a focus on end users and how their TV experience would benefit from a 360-degree experience is most important.
Previous statements from the BBC have cautioned that 360/VR production is still fraught with technical problems, and that no one is really an expert in this field yet. Broadcasters, OTT providers and pay-TV operators all need to develop a better understanding of how to create the right user experiences and understand what the real benefit is that this technology can provide.
David Butler, senior engineer at BBC R&D, has been in the broadcast industry for 25 years, from the days of analog design, to current efforts in virtualization and using SDN for automated TV production. He has also contributed to ETSI and IEEE standards and been a part of industry working groups, such as the DVB and EBU. Most importantly, he is a member of Telco Transformation's Video Transformation Advisory Board (VTAB), providing perspective on emerging digital video technologies and their adoption. (See BBC's David Butler on IP Video R&D & Virtualization.)
He recently joined Telco Transformation for a discussion about the BBC's broadcast of the world's first 360-degree video show, and current initiatives in this area.
Telco Transformation: Earlier this year, the BBC produced an entire episode of the technology news show Click in 360-degrees. Can you tell us more about that?
David Butler: In March this year, my BBC production colleagues produced the world's first fully 360-degree edition of the BBC's Click TV program.
There have been previous TV shows with 360-degree content, such as the BBC children's show Blue Peter in 2011. But the Blue Peter episode was a studio show broadcast in 360-degree video, while Click was the first program to be produced as an entire episode in 360-degrees, including all the features and reports. The program contains some never-before-broadcast views from inside CERN's Large Hadron Collider -- the production team were given access to the collider during a maintenance period.
The program was broadcast on the BBC News Channel as a terrestrial broadcast of views from within the 360-degree experience, with a 360-degree version available online that can be experienced via virtual reality headsets.
The program also discusses how the 360-degree production was made and some of the issues they experienced. The terrestrial broadcast version of the show is available on YouTube. (Click on the image below to launch the video.)
TT: What is the current focus for BBC R&D in this area?
DB: We are still exploring 360-degree content and trying to understand what our viewers want from a more immersive experience.
My colleagues in R&D have commissioned various pieces of content and are working with different parts of the BBC to try out ideas in different genres -- from news to drama and interactive CGI experiences.
On the R&D side, there is a lot of effort going into object-based 3D audio production. How the audio changes with the 360-degree view is important for making the experience more immersive.
During the interview, Butler also pointed out that BBC R&D had conducted a number of prior initiatives in this area. These include:
Tests with 360-degree journalism in conjunction with BBC Newslabs, including pieces like Paris Attacks -- Place de la Republique.
The Resistance of Honey, an attempt to explore the right approaches to filming in 360-degree video.
Ring. an audio-only interactive binaural experience.
The Turning Forest, a CGI audio-led experience that also brought interactive elements into a narrative-led piece. This was built heavily on BBC R&D's work in 3D audio.
We Wait, a fictional depiction of migrants traveling from Turkey to Greece on smugglers boats, based on accounts gathered by BBC News from migrants.
BBC R&D has also provided advice for 360/VR productions led by other parts of the BBC, including Rome's Invisible City, and BBC Click's visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, as described by Butler.
In this Telco Transformation Radio show, Rob Koenen, President of the VRIF, joins us to discuss key developments, remaining challenges in VR, and the role of the VRIF in helping the development of an incredibly exciting technology.
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