BCi Digital at the Tommy Flowers Institute

By Alex Snell

BT’s Adastral Park has just played host to BCi Digital and the 4th Tommy Flowers Institute conference, this time with the theme being “The Future of TV”. The event showcased 16 insightful speakers across two days, covering everything from the state of viewer habits, to the applications of artificial intelligence. In addition, many demonstrations took place featuring VR, streaming technologies, user data gathering, and machine learning. The first half covers trends, and the second half covers technology.


Paying Attention

Storythings’ director Matt Lock gave an extremely insightful talk on the habits and trends of media consumers, with audiences in the traditional linear space, as well as OTT and the wider media sphere.  In the last 100 years, he explained how “The Schedule” became a key pillar in media distribution. The broadcast nature of traditional media – a one to many model – meant that schedules were required for users to be engaged in regular content. This is obvious in the way that radio and TV started, and have continued to work, by having scheduled programming and regular features, such as hourly news updates. For a schedule-based system to maintain users, this is essential. However, the general public have been served an overwhelming variety of choices for media and entertainment with the advent of the Internet, which means that people’s time is more precious and valuable than ever before. If a user doesn’t like something, they will find an alternative very quickly. The new model is “The Stream” – a many to many model. This is true of “TV” but social media is the biggest and best example of the stream. The non-linearity of social media also only aids the change of public behaviours which are reflected in the TV and media industry.

A surprising trend was also revealed: people are watching more short form and more long form content. This is pulling viewers away from traditional TV which occupies the middle ground between the extremes. Diagram 1 is a perfect illustration as it shows where the TV space is and that user attention is being pulled to the extremes on the left and right.

Figure 1 – Diagram adapted from Matt Lock’s presentation

OTT User Behaviour

Conviva’s VP, Olivier Wellman showed some fascinating micro-level user behaviour trends, gained from data collected from Conviva’s user engagement platform. The presentation covered a multitude of metrics, but it made a few things abundantly clear. The biggest theme from the data collected proved some of Matt Lock’s points extremely well: users are getting lazier, and users are watching more OTT content. The time taken for content to load and begin playing is extremely important, with comparisons showing that year on year, people seem to care less and less about what they watch, and more about the experience of viewing the content. A 1% drop in Quality of Experience can lead to loosing 18 minutes of viewing time over a given piece of content. It was also stated that there was 100% increase in OTT viewing hours on Conviva’s monitored platforms from December 2016 to December 2018, an astonishing amount of increase.

OfCom’s Take on Things

Simon Parnall of OfCom delivered an intriguing talk on some insights gained by OfCom on the state of the media and entertainment space. The dropping cost of CDN services has allowed the landslide of VoD offerings, in the same way that the falling cost of hard drives was a driver in the adoption of PVRs in the early-2000s. When coupled with the increasing quality of consumer electronics, cheaper and faster home broadband, the uptake of VoD makes commercial sense. As expected, young people continue to be pulled away from linear TV, and older generations are slowly beginning to become comfortable with OTT and VoD services, with a slow but evident uptake from this age bracket.



BT’s Platform Innovations

It would be impossible not to mention the hosts of the event, as a huge pioneer in many areas of technology. We heard about future plans from a trio of experienced professionals – Dr Simon Jones, Gabs Martens, and James Unitt. Simon Jones and James Unitt talked us through BT’s TV platform, which is beginning to move some processes into the cloud, and adopt more IP. This is not a surprising development, as work done by Discovery seems to have set in motion a pathway to “the cloud”. Gabs Martens showed how BT is adapting its network infrastructure into a tool that can be used and interfaced with APIs, for moving content from point A to B. BT already operates an extensive broadcast network that stretches the length of the country for distribution for the BBC, but are now looking to open this up to more customers. A controller will be able to route traffic through the network, and use telemetry measurements to gauge network performance. This also allows for granular monitoring, down to the device and component level. Other features of BT’s talk were containerisation of services such as encoding, and also looking for an alternative to HEVC to avoid the associated royalty costs.

Video over IP

To lead neatly on from BT’s work, video over IP was covered both in talks, and in demonstrations. Nevion’s Andy Rayner gave a brilliant presentation/whistle stop tour of SMPTE’s 2110 standards suite. 2110 has made some significant ground in the past year, to move it from an extension of the VSR TR-03 work, to a draft standard, and now to a published and demonstrated technology. BT mentioned that 2110 would play a part in their broadcast service network – particularly for live sport distribution. More on this can be found in the previous blog post all about SMPTE 2110 here.

There was also a demonstration by Huawei, a relative newcomer to the broadcast and media space, but showing valid contributions to research in the field. A demo showed intelligent traffic shaping to increase video quality in sub-optimal networks.

BBC R&D’s Developments in Object Based Broadcast

Representatives from BBC R&D were present, with Vinoba Vinayagamoorthy showcasing the excellent work she is doing with the BBC to make television better for people with disabilities, and also extending capabilities for richer viewer experiences. Mentioned in Vinoba’s presentation was the DVB-CSS standard, and the HbbTV2.0 specification. For object based broadcast and 2nd screen experiences to work across multiple platforms, these two frameworks will be crucial. There was good evidence of AR being used for the hard of hearing. It may be possible in the next few years to be able to watch a standard TV programme, and use an AR headset to show a British Sign language presenter either on the TV image, or adjacent to the TV screen. In addition, by using DVB-CSS, it may be possible to offer extended EPG and TV content on a second screen for the viewer to read around a subject further, or see song lyrics. This is welcome and useful development for aiding those with disabilities and enhancing the experience for everyone else.

BT Sport and VR

BT Sport is a living exemplar of the London 2012 Olympics “get inspired” philosophy, rising from nothing to become one of the biggest dedicated sports broadcasters in the world in a matter of years. Jamie Hindhaugh told his interesting and entertaining story of how BT sport came to be, after winning rights to football games yet not having any infrastructure or facilities. It is fitting that the studio complex that they came to inhabit (the largest TV studio facility in Europe), is at the Olympic park.

Not only have BT sport excelled commercially, but they have become pioneers in the VR broadcast space since their first experiments in the field a couple of years ago. Since then they have broadcast football matches in VR, and have made significant gains towards realising a consumer solution. They were demonstrating a VR experience of the 2017 Champions League final, which put the viewer pitch-side and was extremely immersive, as well as a compelling boxing demo that put you ringside. Another great development was in streaming tailored content to a VR headset, and using predictions to decide what should be sent next. It is not possible to deliver an entire 360° video stream at a low bit rate and maintain the source video resolution, so BT have got around this by only sending the viewer the clip of the video they are looking at. They update the vectors 30 times per second to change which part of the video is sent to headset next, making enormous bandwidth savings.

Pixsellar and BCi Digital

Video analytics partner of BCi Digital – Pixsellar – was demonstrating the cutting edge technology developed by Dr. Sepi Chakaveh and her team. Facial-emotion Analysis in Live Connected Observational Networks, or “Falcon”, is a product that uses machine learning algorithms to categorise facial features and infer emotions in people based on this. The product uses computer vision to place 61 points on the human face, and then compares these to data sets that reside in the cloud to determine what it sees. The software has applications that span multiple industries, but was demonstrated at the Tommy Flowers Institute as a proof of concept, and to show what can be done with machine learning on the fly.  Pixsellar machine learning demonstrations can be found here, and for more information, can be contacted at info@pixsellar.com.


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BCi Digital is a highly experienced and flexible systems integrator with worldwide deployment experience across a number of key technologies and operators.  The company is owned and managed by a dedicated core team of industry specialists drawn from the broadcast, broadband and telecommunications industries.

Through a thorough programme of industry research, BCi Digital has an in depth understanding of new and emerging technology and its expertise can be applied to deliver innovative solutions to a client’s requirements.