Huw Williams, head of BBC research and innovation, faces the challenge of keeping a watchful eye over almost everything that will define the future of our viewing experience. Jon Excell reports
Many readers will remember when the national anthem, a darkened living room and a blast of white noise meant that it was time for bed. It seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t really. Today’s ‘always-on’, multimedia extravaganza, with its rolling news coverage and endless invitations to ‘hit the red button now’ has arrived quickly.
And although the satellite and cable broadcasters are chiefly responsible for the sheer number of channels available to today’s viewer, many of the technologies that have made this pervasive televisual soup possible come from the team of engineers and researchers at the UK’s very own BBC.
Indeed, from the launch of colour television to the invention of telelext and the transmission of programmes by cable and satellite, the BBC’s research division has had a hand in many of broadcasting’s most significant breakthroughs.
Renamed the BBC research and Innovation team, the group is now facing perhaps its most varied and challenging time since Capt PP Eckersley was appointed the the British Broadcasting Company’s first chief engineer in 1923. It became a corporation four years later.
Its team of around 100 engineers is headed by Huw Williams, an amiable and relaxed veteran of the new media scene, who faces the considerable challenge of keeping a watchful eye over pretty much everything that will define the future of our viewing experience.
This includes the broadcaster’s work on digital and high definition TV, its investigations into new ways of managing and distributing content and the development of a variety of production technologies for enhancing our viewing experience.
Williams said he is looking forward to a world where everything is changing — ‘the old sticks on the hills will still be relevant in the future, but it’s no longer a world where we broadcast from just a transmitter on a hill.’ As part of this change, the group recently absorbed the new media innovation team, a reflection of the fact, said Williams, that the BBC is focusing its resources on the core research and working with others outside the organisation to develop the hardware.
A potent symbol of this repositioning is the planned move of the group from its spiritual home, Kingswood Warren in Surrey — a rambling gothic mansion that has come to epitomise that very English notion of boffins quietly dreaming up the future away from the pressures of the modern world.
The modern reality, argues Williams, is very different. Today, the group’s work is very clearly focused on the end-product. ‘I think we’ve got a set of engineers that really understands the needs of programme makers — that’s our key skill,’ he said.
A good example of this relationship between technology and the viewer is the work carried by the Production Magic team: the people behind the election night swingometer made famous by Peter Snow.
Using augmented reality (AR) technology — a concept which allows users to interact with virtual 3D objects in real-time using just their hands — the group transformed the swing- ometer from a cobbled-together stage prop to broadcasting milestone.
Williams explained that the team worked closely with both the election programme producers and presenters to ensure the technology was perfect for the show. ‘The election coverage is a long broadcast and you’ve got to keep the interest while illustrating some quite complex points.’
The team’s work on AR also recently found its way on to children’s TV show Bamzooki — in which children create virtual characters which then appear to do battle with each other in the studio.
The research carried out by the Production Magic team also lends itself particularly well to sporting events. For instance, as part of the DTI-funded iview project, the group is attempting to develop a free-viewpoint system that allows the capture and interactive replay of live events using multiple cameras.
Williams said that by using this system — which consists of a multi-camera capture system and algorithms for 3D reconstruction — it could soon be possible for viewers to access specially-tailored highlights packages that, for example, follow the antics of one player throughout a football match.
He believes this kind of innovation is particularly attractive to sports lovers. ‘The raw match is one thing, but the more layers you put on it the more exciting and interesting it becomes to the fans.’ He added that multiple cameras could even make it possible to pause the action, and examine it from every possible action. Although the technology is not quite ready yet, Williams said the team has already trialled a prototype system at a number of sports stadiums.
Williams and his team have developed augmented reality, which has been used to great effect on programmes as diverse as political broadcasts and the children’s show Bamzooki
Another area of technology that is particularly attractive to sports lovers is stream switching — the ability for a viewer to switch among numerous events on one channel. Williams said his group is looking at ways of moving this already-established technology to the next level.
Although the BBC is not exactly famed for its rich and varied roster of sporting events, Williams said that advances in stream switching will greatly enhance the BBC’s Olympics coverage.
Beyond the production magic team, the research group is also looking towards future viewing formats. Williams recently signed a co-operation agreement with Japanese public broadcast corporation NHK to tap into expertise gained during the development of its super high-vision system. This format, thought to be the next step on from high definition, offers a pixel resolution 16 times greater than existing HDTV.
One of the keys to being able to deliver content on these future formats, said Williams, will be ensuring that there is sufficient bandwidth available to transmit such huge amounts of information. Therefore, part of the group is investigating methods of offering greater spectrum efficiency. ‘if we want to offer things like HD on a variety of platforms it is important to offer it in as spectrally efficient way as possible,’ he said.
Another future challenge is dealing with the increasingly large amounts of viewer-generated content the BBC receives. The rise of the internet, the camera phone and digital photography have combined to create an army of amateur news gatherers who swamp the news desk whenever a big story breaks.
A perfect example of this, said Williams, followed the Buncefield oil depot explosion in 2005 when the BBC received around 6,500 images from members of the public. There is currently no efficient method of dealing with this viewer-generated content, but there is every reason to expect that broadcasters will be bombarded with ever greater amounts of it.
‘If you get thousands of images how do you deal with them? Which one do you take to air? How do you know it comes form a trusted source?’ he asked. Though there are currently few answers to this beyond the probable use of algorithms to filter photos for certain characteristics, finding a sophisticated way of managing this content is next on his list.
Whatever the likely solution, it will be focused firmly on the end result — the programme the viewer sits down and watches. ‘We are content creators first and foremost — the technical innovation allows those narrative stories to be told and we understand that the most important thing is for the programmes to get out,’ said Williams.
‘The technology is important, and always has been, but it must ensure that the stories get told.’