Keiichi Kubota, Executive Director General Of Engineering, NHK
Japanese broadcaster NHK is at the cutting edge of new technologies. Its coverage of the 2012 London Olympics in Super Hi-Vision (SHV) is testament to that. This is just one of a number of ambitious projects that the broadcaster is involved in. Keiichi Kubota, executive director general of engineering, NHK talks about these key technology projects.
VIA SATELLITE: What are the main challenges facing NHK?
Kubota: This is about a longer-term project, but important objectives for the three-year period starting this year include enhancing functions in broadcast systems and developing new services that make use of the convergence of broadcasting and communications.
In reporting and program production related to the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of last year, we have dedicated all of our efforts to disaster reporting, to fulfil our mission as a public broadcaster supporting recovery in the damaged areas and protecting viewers’ life, property, safety and security. This unprecedentedly large-scale disaster demonstrated the need to enhance our broadcasting capabilities. Learning from this experience, NHK is, as a high priority, strengthening broadcasting capabilities to protect life and property in any kind of disaster, and is working on initiatives to enhance broadcasting equipment and systems. To enhance broadcasting facilities, backup systems are being established in Osaka and Fukuoka Stations in case the Broadcasting Center in Tokyo is damaged by an earthquake; in preparation for large-scale earthquakes offshore, bases for news gathering and transmission are being installed at higher locations for broadcasting stations near the coast; new remote-controlled cameras are being installed to monitor tsunamis; and power facilities for stations are being upgraded. In addition, operations and broadcasts services offered during a disaster are being re-examined as well as facility upgrades.
We are also advancing development of the Super Hi-Vision (SHV) system as the next generation of broadcasting. SHV will allow viewers to experience a strong sense of presence, as if they were actually there.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you tell us about developing ultra-HD services? What are the next steps here?
Kubota: We held SHV public screenings of the London Olympics in Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. It enabled large numbers of people to enjoy SHV video and audio with a strong sense of presence, as though they were actually at the venues. This marks a milestone towards the practical use. We have been looking to start test broadcasts in 2020. However, considering the progress of related technologies, we have been discussing the possibility of moving this target year forward. For example, we may be able to offer much more practical equipment around the time of the 2014 FIFA Brazil World Cup or the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. To achieve this, we will need to organize internal systems comprehensively, from content production to distribution and playback. It includes, for example, development of capture and recording systems, high-efficiency coders and receivers for home use.
Also, it will be important to verify methods of content production that are able to draw out the strengths of Super Hi-Vision. Producers and engineers have been reviewing captured materials and exchanging opinions on the final edited content, with the goal of establishing production methods suited to SHV’s features.
VIA SATELLITE: How did you cover the 2012 London Olympics? What was different about the coverage this time?
Kubota: The time difference between the United Kingdom and Japan is eight hours, so many of the Olympic competitions took place in the middle of the night in Japan. However, NHK made best use of various media to bring the competitions to a wide range of viewers: terrestrial, satellite, and online. A total of over 274 hours of content, mainly the most popular events, was presented through our terrestrial broadcasts. NHK’s satellite channels covered all of the 26 competitions. Both terrestrial and satellite broadcasts focused on live coverage during the evening and night time, and recorded programs were broadcasted during the day.
We set up special web sites for PCs, mobile phones and smartphones to distribute live video. We provided a live streaming service as a trial at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, covering 32 events in 7 competitions. This time, events not covered in television broadcasts were distributed, from several to 20 events each day, and all the content totalled over 913 hours.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you tell us about HybridCast?
Kubota: We are advancing R&D on Hybridcast, a new platform technology utilizing the strengths of both broadcasting and communications. Hybridcast can provide information related to broadcast programs through communications channels. By synchronizing it with broadcast on the television screen or other terminals such as a tablet, it can make broadcast programs more interesting, easier to understand and more enjoyable. We expect linking and presenting auxiliary information in this way increases the value of our programs. It also may provide possibilities of business chances to other industries, implementing a variety of services to meet viewers’ needs.
Integrating content retrieved through communications channels and synchronizing it with the broadcast program will enable us to provide a viewing experience not previously possible. For example, closed captions or computer-graphic-generated sign language could be selected in various languages for news and other programs. For sports programs, the motion of players can be tracked, overlaying explanations of the play over the real image. Hybridcast is a platform that provides integration of communications content with the broadcast program in this way, and is a technology with limitless possibilities for implementing new services for any concept.
VIA SATELLITE: How are the costs of the production changing as you develop content in multiple formats?
Kubota: I find PCs, tablets and mobile devices such as cell phones important as terminals that viewers use to enjoy content. Delivering content through various media can bring news, lifestyle and entertainment programs more efficiently to a wide ranges of generations.
Simultaneous broadcasts mean delivering content at the same time on different formats/channels. Offering the same content in a variety of formats simultaneously doesn’t change production costs much. One example is “One-Seg”, a service we deliver for mobile receivers. Basically, digital terrestrial programs are simultaneously aired for “One-Seg” though parts of the programs are specially tailored for it.
NHK has also already developed various equipment to convert formats and image resolution. These also include format conversion equipment with electronic zoom capabilities – it is able to extract HD images with arbitrary field of view from ultra-high-definition images such as Super Hi-Vision. As an example, if the entire field from a soccer game is recorded in Super Hi-Vision, events happening away from the ball can also be used as HD material.
VIA SATELLITE: Has OTT and streaming technologies made an impact on conventional broadcasting?
Kubota: It is expected that IPTV services available on broadband will develop the video content industry – they will provide content according to viewers’ personal preferences, and content will be made available on a wider range of devices. The current situation surrounding the television reception convinces us that there will still be a need for conventional over-the-air broadcasts, even if IPTV services get more common. First, Japan provides an environment where stable, high-quality HDTV services can be received at minimal cost, anywhere in the country. For example, digital terrestrial broadcasts cover 99.7 percent of households, and 29 digital satellite channels are offered nationwide. Second, conventional broadcasts can also be received by mobile receivers anywhere, anytime, without being impeded by traffic levels. It reliably provides essential information, even in times of a disaster.
VIA SATELLITE: What infrastructure projects are NHK working on?
Kubota: NHK is conducting the project to transit from video-tape-based operation to file-based operation. The large-scale file-based system we have installed in our news center includes 70 recording systems and 65 delivery systems, capable of operating a total of 116 editing circuits simultaneously. Introducing this file-based system promises fast, efficient news delivery. As for video production systems, we have built a system centering on high-capacity servers and non-linear editors and are now performing the final adjustments to begin operations. Starting in the next fiscal year, we plan to convert our system to the file-based one, proceeding to the delivery systems gradually.
How NHK’s huge volume of program assets can be used is another important issue related to the coming period of putting the file-based system into practical use. The NHK archives contain approximately 600,000 tapes. We are planning to begin converting these tapes to files soon, but due to the large number of tapes, we expect it will take over six years to complete them all.
Most of the current projects are being carried out mainly at the NHK Broadcast Center (headquarters), but we are also studying expansion of the file-based system to our local stations. We are going to build the “video file exchange network” that will enable each of our station to exchange video materials.