For the BBC the 2012 Olympics presented one of the biggest technological challenges in the corporation's history of sports coverage - so what were the key lessons the broadcaster learn from the experience?
The 2012 London Olympics heralded a new era of maturity for online video streaming and stimulated further growth in viewing on screens other than conventional 'dumb' TVs. For the major broadcasters such as the BBC, NBC, and France Television that owned exclusive rights, the event was both a huge challenge and opportunity, given the massive demand for online streams and the potential to establish a platform that provided a learning curve for future events where they will compete for hearts, eyes - and ears.
It demonstrated the value both of competition and clear goals for major ICT projects. Just about all the major broadcasters succeeded in delivering multiple simultaneous streams integrated with live real-time information about athletes and events at a level of quality/scale beyond that of previous events, introducing technologies untried and untested.
Although the Corporation was not directly responsible for shooting the primary video of the actual events (done by Olympic Broadcasting Services), for the BBC the Games was particularly successful, enhancing its reputation as a global leader in online video established by its iPlayer 'catch-up' - and now also live - platform. Perhaps more importantly, its whole online delivery platform whose development was accelerated by the Olympics, will play a key role in future efforts to generate advertising and subscription revenues outside the UK to compensate for inevitable real-term decline in license fee income.
Its Olympic legacy has already permeated beyond the BBC organisation itself, with the whole project being studied within the wider IT development community as a casebook example of successful project management. It did not baulk at employing novel technologies, and yet delivered on time with only minor hiccups.
It was also (more or less) on budget, although that may partly have been because it over-provisioned resources, such as the bandwidth it would need in order to provide headroom for the possibility of heavier than predicted traffic during peak events such as the 100 metres final.
There were also one or two instances when the project first toyed with and then rejected technologies that will become widely deployed in future, certainly by Rio 2016, but which were deemed too risky or as yet unready. An example of this occurred during the design of the dataflow combining real-time information about events taking place with the live online video.
Yet while avoiding unnecessary risks, the BBC did take some calculated ones in order to deliver the best overall experience possible, according to its head of product Cait O'Riordan, responsible for the BBC's digital streaming development as a whole. "We did everything people tell us not to do in a big project," O'Riordan says. "We had new video technology, new technology for controlling that video, and a new data backend. That's risky - but it was a calculated risk in that we were really robust in terms of delivery."
The use of new technology meant that testing had to be even more rigorous and lengthy than usual, especially as there was an absolute deadline and low tolerance of bugs emerging during the Games.
"We had an enormous testing regime, with eight streams of work and testing teams running alongside each," O'Riordan says. The BBC was fortunate in that there were several big events occurring just before the Olympics, including the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Wimbledon, and Formula One racing, which offered the technical teams a dry run. The platform was delivered early in May to allow as much time for heavy load testing as possible.
Although important in themselves, the pre-Olympic events did not impose anywhere near such a big load on the infrastructure and there was more tolerance for errors. In fact, a number of significant bugs were found and fixed during this testing phase, which would have been embarrassing had they occurred during the Games.
"We found serious problems in testing outside of the Olympics which, if we had found in the middle of the Games, would have been a big issue," says O'Riordan. These were found not during the pre-Olympic events, but during 'cloud testing' involving the use of a cloud environment to simulate a real event, in this case generating large fake audiences requesting and manipulating live and on-demand streams. "We threw all this at the real suite and gave it a real pounding and as a result found problems we fixed prior to the games," O'Riordan adds. "These were really about the robustness of the code not behaving as expected when you threw data at it under end-to-end testing."
When the testing was over and the resulting changes made, the BBC imposed an absolute code freeze two weeks before the Games - good practice because edits to one software component can have unanticipated consequences elsewhere, and that close the games there might not be time to eradicate all the knock on effects. As O'Riordan notes: "People weren't digging up the roads during the Olympics, and we weren't making any software changes."
Despite all these precautions, human nature being what it is, O'Riordan and her team were in a high state of anxiety as the first weekend of the Games approached. "I really thought the first weekend would be massively hairy," she recalls; but there was immense relief all round when events passed smoothly with only minor hiccups. "I remember saying to somebody at the end of day one that if I had been told two years ago that we would have only one bit of trouble starting one stream on the first day, I would have bitten my hand off for it."
24 simultaneous streams
Fortunately that sacrifice was not necessary, and this success highlighted not just the importance of rigorous and comprehensive testing, but also how the challenge for the BBC had changed in the years before the Games. The requirement to run 24 simultaneous streams was set early on in the project and was then thought to be the greatest challenge, but over time as technology matured and the cost of bandwidth and storage plummeted, a new issue became predominant, which was the need to support not one but four target platforms - PCs, connected TVs, tablet PCs, and mobile devices such as smartphones.
This had not been envisaged at the outset, says O'Riordan: "We are in a completely different media landscape than we were even four years ago, and the massive take away for me was our mobile and tablet coverage. During the week around 33 per cent of the traffic went to a mobile or tablet device, rising to almost half at weekends. This is only going to become more popular and more important in terms of how we deliver stuff."
With connected TVs also likely to become more popular as premium content is delivered increasingly over IP networks rather than traditional satellite, cable, or terrestrial video delivery infrastructures, multi-channel broadcasters like the BBC are seeking to serve all these outlets from a single converged platform.
Catering for different platforms
O'Riordan pointed out that the same content and data was sent to all the platforms, with the differences lying in the formatting and the extent of the graphics. People use the screens in different ways, with the emphasis on the video on the big screen, veering perhaps towards graphics on PCs and tablets, and statistics on the small screen, but these are generalisations.
The BBC does though, like other broadcasters, see the potential for differentiating more 'between screens' to exploit the full potential of each while meeting varying viewer expectations. This will be done partly by harnessing Big Data models - a major priority for O'Riordan now that 2012 is past, requiring if nothing else a change in job title for her. "We did a fantastic job in terms of getting people around those streams, but if we had had better data about how different people were using them, then perhaps we could change what we promoted to them," she reflects. "There are interesting opportunities."
In terms of video quality, the goal is to improve the viewing experience, particularly on big connected TV screens, on which viewer expectations are the same as for traditional screens, with glitches such as pixelation and waiting for buffering much less acceptable than on PCs, tablets, and mobiles. "It can drift away from live," O'Riordan admits. "It is all about the quality of the pipe and the server. I would hope that will get better."
Even so the connected TV picture quality during the Olympic Games was much better than some had anticipated, so the case for online streaming for delivering premium TV is proven, even if further enhancements are needed before it can match the three traditional transmission types.
It seems hard to believe that overall online delivery capability will make as big a leap forward between 2013 and 2016 as 2008-2012, even though O'Riordan believes that Big Data has some interesting tricks up its sleeve that can only be guessed at for now.