PixelPower

The New World Of Playout

Consumers know what they expect from a television channel. They expect programmes, of course, but  they  also  know  they  are  going  to  get  commercials,  trailers,  station  idents,  graphics,  break bumpers, squeezebacks and hot starts, bugs and brand identities, and more.

Significantly, they expect these to arrive smoothly and seamlessly, in consistent high quality, and with no embarrassing freezes, black or silence. When playout suites had a staff member to deliver each  channel  they  set  the  quality  bar  high  and  if  you  want  to  be  taken  seriously  now –  as  a broadcaster or as a live streaming service – then you have to match those expectations.

The key point is that we are moving to a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-delivery world where broadcasters have to support many channels not just one; where digital broadcasters are fighting for a share of the audience; and where new content companies are looking to add to the choice by streaming content. So those standards have to be maintained in a highly competitive environment.

The solution, of course, lies in our move from realtime video and audio over SDI to digital files and delivery over IP. It means we can achieve the scale we need by virtualising all the processes and running them as virtual machines, either on premise, in a data centre or in the cloud.

If that sounds familiar it is because a lot of people are saying it and, indeed, it is the obvious way to go. The problem is that, just because plenty of people are saying it, it is assumed that it is easy to do. It is still a real challenge.

Which  is  why  I  want  to  talk  about  the demonstration  on  our  booth at  NAB  this  year  (we will  be doing the same and more at IBC in September). We staged then what we firmly believe to be an industry  first:  true  live  playout  in  the  cloud,  with  all  the  functionality  that  you  expect  for  a premium  channel,  using  our  StreamMaster  virtualised  playout  software  and  Gallium  scheduling, asset management and automation system.

All the software was hosted by Amazon Web Services, including content servers, master control, switching and – this is important – realtime 3D graphics. But this was a live, premium channel, so it  needed monitoring and control  in  the broadcast control  room,  or  NAB booth  in  this  case.  That included a manual presentation switcher so we could show a real premium channel going into and out of live events, with minimal latency.

The  StreamMaster  cloud  software  incorporated  the  Pixel  Power  Clarity  graphics  engine  and  did what a physical Clarity does at the many broadcast playout centres around the world where it is installed:  it  inserts  live  3D  graphics  and  DVE  moves  in  real  time.  It  draws  on  templates  to automatically  generate  marketing  and  branding  content,  and  it  provides  squeezebacks  and transitions where they are required. But in the demonstration it was doing it in the cloud.

What is the significance of the demonstration? It proved that StreamMaster can provide real-time, full  functionality  playout  facilities  from  within  the  cloud.  Whether that  is  to  provide  disaster recovery  for  tier  one  channels  or  to  create  professional  and  seamless  delivery  for  new  pop-up streaming  services,  it  is  practical  today  and already  running  right  now.  In  the  couple  of  months since NAB we have put proof of concept systems in place for real users.

StreamMaster is a genuinely transformative solution. All the elements are software,  which allows for  a  capex  or  opex  business  model.  For a  week’s  worth  of  AWS  storage and processing  for  the NAB  demonstration  we  paid  only  a  few  hundred  dollars.  That  is  for  a  premium  channel  with  no compromises  on  functionality.  So  any  broadcaster  or  content  provider  that  wants  to  be  taken seriously can achieve it with low opex too.

I am sure that other vendors will be developing comparable solutions, although none will be able to provide the same single source solution which incorporates full broadcast-quality graphics. We have done it, not just for show but in the real world, and demonstrated that the future of cloud playout is real (not virtual) and is ready to roll.

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