Stadiums and other key engineering projects needed for a smooth Brazilian World Cup will be ready just in time - literally.
A little over two years ago, back in January 2012, London was getting ready to host what eventually were declared a very successful Olympic Games. Reporting from Latin America, I was busy covering a story for E&T about the multiple engineering challenges that lay ahead for Brazil, organiser of the next two global mega sporting events: the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Games ('Brazil World Cup plans worry Fifa', E&T, vol 7, issue 1).
With the inauguration of the first of those events now less than four months away, I set out to revisit some of the then unanswered questions in search of definitive responses.
Topping the list of the most pressing engineering issues that were already setting alarm bells ringing 25 months ago was, by a wide margin, stadium construction delays. "According to Fifa requirements, the stadiums are supposed to be finished at least two years before the tournament. We are now six months away from that deadline, so they will miss that target," a German consultant, who had been involved in the previous two World Cups and was now advising organisers in Brazil, told me back then.
He was right. Brazil did miss the June 2012 deadline... and then went on to miss a few more. Even a full year later the Fifa Confederations Cup - a quadrennial event whose main purpose is to act as a test bed for each World Cup - came and went with only half of the 12 designated stadiums ready.
Move the clock forward another seven months, to early January 2014, and you discover that the official status for all six unfinished venues remained dangerously unmodified: "under construction".
Feverish work has been going on at each of the six stadiums during the past few months in an effort to have them ready by the summer. Will they be ready? That was the most critical unanswered question two years ago, and one for which now both Fifa and the Local Organising Committee (COL) insist we do have a positive answer this time around.
By the time this issue goes to print in February 2014, at least three additional stadiums (the Arena das Dunas in the city of Natal, the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba and the Arena Amazonia in Manaus) will have been officially inaugurated by Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff. Two of the remaining three unfinished venues (the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba and the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre) were also expected to be handed over to Fifa before the end of February.
That would leave only one stadium still undergoing construction work as late as March 2014. Ironically, the stadium in question is none other than Sao Paulo's Arena Corinthians - the ground where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia is scheduled for 12 June.
In November 2013, while hoisting the final 420-ton metal piece of the stadium's roof structure, a massive crane (the largest in Brazil) collapsed, damaging a section of the north stand and killing two workers. The accidental deaths triggered an investigation that partially halted construction.
The last progress report issued just before the incident by Odebrecht, the Brazilian engineering conglomerate building the Arena Corinthians, indicated that the stadium was 94 per cent complete. In December 2013, Fifa accepted that it might have to wait until mid-April, less than 60 days before the start of the tournament, to finally claim that it had all its stadiums ready for the action to begin.
Not an uncommon sentiment for a nation organising a global mega sporting event, the other intriguing question mark that was left hovering over my original reporting of Brazil 2014 was: how much will it cost?
"Money clearly is not an issue in Brazil," I was told by German consultant Thomas Jedlitschka. "I don't know where they get it from, but they are spending an incredible amount of money on the World Cup."
What a difference two years make. Money clearly not an issue? Ask any Brazilian today to pick the two things that they remember the most from last year's Confederations Cup and you will invariably get the same two answers: that Brazil won the final; and that those were the days when street rioting emerged with a force the country had not witnessed in a long time.
Chief among the vociferous complaints heard from demonstrators during the widespread social unrest of June 2013 was what they called the "immorality" of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to stage a World Cup when a large portion of the population was suffering from poor access to substandard public services.
So, how much will the World Cup cost? It's another question for which we now have, if not a definitive, certainly a more realistic answer: 25.6 billion Brazilian Reais ($10.8bn), of which only $1.6bn (less than 15 per cent of the total) will come from private investors, with the rest of the funds coming from federal and state budgets.
These figures, valid as of September 2013, have been updated on average every nine months by the Brazilian government since first publishing them in January 2010.
They include: $3.4bn on the construction and renovation of the 12 stadiums; another $3.4bn on urban mobility projects such as several bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, road corridors, stadium access improvements and integrated monitoring systems for all host cities; over $2.6bn for upgrades at 12 airports; $797m for public security and military defence forces; $249m for ports infrastructure; $171m set aside for telecommunications networks and services; $88m on complementary work required for the Confederations Cup; and $76m spent on tourism infrastructure projects.
Luis Fernandes, Brazil's Sports Ministry's executive secretary, is keen to point out that a large proportion of the money spent is going to long-term infrastructure projects that Brazilians will benefit from regardless of the World Cup: "We are talking about basic infrastructure-related work that the country had to do anyway," he says. "All the World Cup did was to accelerate the decision process behind such public infrastructure investments, which otherwise would have taken much longer to materialise."
While this might be an acceptable argument from the perspective of the average Brazilian taxpayer, it is no less true that, with every new edition of the 'Matriz de Resposabilidades' (Responsibilities Matrix, the document regularly published by the government to inform about the cost of the World Cup), the bill just keeps growing.
Take the stadiums item. Back in January 2010, the original budget stated that the 12 arenas would cost BRL 5.4 billion. By September 2013, that figure had jumped by nearly 50 per cent to BRL 8 billion. The $3.4bn figure dwarfs the $2.9bn spent on the combined 22 stadiums that were used for South Africa 2010 and Germany 2006.
The Final, live in 4K
The World Cup and the TV industry have a long history of working together to introduce technology ready for mass adoption. In 1970, the Mexican World Cup became the first to be broadcast in colour. More recently, the 2006 edition of the competition heralded the European introduction of regular HDTV broadcasts, while the last World Cup in South Africa was the first to be licensed to Internet-streaming platforms and to have some games shot in 3D.
The fact that 3D TV eventually failed to live up to its hype did not deter the television industry from seeing Brazil 2014 as the ideal showcase for its next big thing. Last September at the IBC conference in Amsterdam, Sony and Fifa confirmed that at least the final match in Rio would be produced and broadcast in 4K. Additional matches will also be shot in 4K and shown live in cinemas and other public display systems.
The race for 4K
With twice the vertical and horizontal resolution and four times as many pixels as today's top-end variation of HD technology (1080p), 4K is the first of two ultra-high-definition (UltraHD) resolutions that the television industry has agreed will drive the next generation of broadcast equipment and video entertainment. The second one will be 8K, which will be twice as powerful as 4K.
But just as with the pace of stadium construction, having even one game delivered in 4K resolution in a home-based TV environment will be a race against time.
Fifa and Sony started working on the project during the Confederations Cup, which was used to test real-time 4K video capture and distribution during three matches in Belo Horizonte. The results of'such tests were never made public. And both Sony and Telegenic (a production company that supplied the world's first purpose-built 4K outside broadcast unit during the tests) ignored repeated calls for an interview.
"They're still working out many of the end-to-end ecosystems," says Keith Wymbs, vice president of marketing with Elemental Technologies, a company that has recently made headlines for setting up some of the first public demonstrations of live 4K broadcast technology and is also involved in a number of trials leading up to Brazil 2014.
Wymbs expects there to be a fair deal of 4K production and transmission of the resulting raw video from cameras to television studios and centralised facilities. "The big challenge that we have over the next three to four months is to figure out just how deeply it goes in terms of distribution," he says.
The main hurdle is the recent - and ongoing - development of HEVC (H.265), the video compression standard that will be needed to make regular 4K broadcasts commercially viable. The first version of the specification, which is expected to bring bit-rate efficiencies that reduce bandwidth requirement by 50 per cent over the H.264/MPEG-4 codec, was completed in early 2013,'with key extensions still being developed.
HEVC is so new that, during the 4K demonstrations organised by Elemental in the latter part of 2013, the company used some of the first 4K HEVC encoders, but it was unable to find a single decoder. They simply didn't exist. Whenever a new video compression algorithm is released, building a compatible encoder is usually a more straightforward affair than launching a commercial line of decoders, given the understandable preference of chip manufacturers to wait to mass produce their first silicon until the standard is approved.
How did Elemental show what compressed and decompressed 4K video looked like without mass-produced decoders? It had to use so-called software-based decoders, which consist of very high-power computers that take the compressed video output and decode it, before rendering the processed images on a 4K TV screen.
Elemental's first demonstration of its 4K HEVC technology took place in September, also during the ICB show in Amsterdam. At the time, the company encoded and decoded a previously recorded raw video file. A month later in Japan, during the Osaka Marathon, it carried out the world's first demonstration of real-time 4K HEVC video processing during a sporting event.
"That was live, but it was only at 30 frames per second," says Wymbs. A frame rate of 30 FPS (or p30) is perfectly fine for today's HD broadcasts, which are typically watched on screens of up to 42in. But as you move up to screen sizes beyond 50in, which are expected to become the new norm, p30 is not a fast enough refresh rate for the human eye.
"Particularly for sports, heading to p60 is critical, because you have a lot of slow-motion shots and fast-movement, and if you're showing that at a lower frame rate it will tend to degrade the quality of the viewing experience," Wymbs explains.
In December in London, Elemental set up the world's first demonstration of live 4K HEVC video encoding at full frame rate (p60). "I think we're right on the cusp of having, later this year, commercially deployable chips that can decode 4K HEVC all the way up to p60 and maybe even higher," says Wymbs.
Without such chips fitted onto the motherboard of a set-top box connected to a 4K TV - or, alternatively, directly embedded onto a 4K smart TV - viewers won't be able to decode the first 4K HEVC broadcast signals. Even if the chips are ready, installed, and the end products shipped before the summer, we are talking about an extremely small potential audience for the World Cup final.
"There may be some specific efforts where broadcasters and pay-TV operators may view this as a valuable one-time event for which they can justify dedicating what would otherwise be a prohibitive amount of bandwidth for a single TV feed," says Wymbs.
From the final touches on the last few unfinished stadiums to the design of the final circuits of the video decoders that will power 4K TVs, engineers are rushing to have their creations ready by June.
It will all come at a price, especially for Brazilians. But boy will it be vivid.