Formula One: VR & 4K, the future of F1 Broadcasting?

FCIP prize image with Lewis Hamilton
Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, United States of America. Thursday 30 October 2014. World Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic. ref: Digital Image _L4R7573

Mehul Kapadia Managing Director of Formula One for Tata Communications took time out from preparations for the opening round of the 2016 Formula One World Championship to talk to JWGP about the Tata Communications partnership in Formula One give insight into the work that goes into an F1 weekend. discuss how the partnership has developed over time and share his thoughts on  possible future  developments in  Formula One  broadcasting alongside the plans Tata communications have in place to enhance fans enjoyment of the sport.

  • What is it that attracted Tata Communications to Formula One initially?

Formula 1 is a sport of extremes. It’s the fastest, most technically advanced, and the world’s most popular annual sporting series with over half a billion people watching the action each season. With around 20 races each season – from the streets of Monaco to the deserts of Bahrain – it is one of the most challenging environments from a connectivity point of view. And since becoming the Official Connectivity Provider for F1 in 2012, we’ve relished this challenge.

Underpinned by the key message ‘Speed to lead’, our work with F1 is not a sponsorship deal but a technology partnership and a showcase of our reach and capabilities to current and prospective enterprise customers. The underlying message is “if we can do it for F1, we can do it for anyone”. There is absolutely no room for error. With our fifth F1 season getting soon underway, I’m proud to say that our team has excelled in this high pressure environment. This successful partnership with Formula One Management (FOM) has also opened doors for us to the wider F1 ecosystem. In 2013, we signed a deal with the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team to bring the team three times faster track connectivity from the Silver Arrow cars to the team’s UK headquarters. This allows engineers to make data-led decisions, ultimately helping the team perform better on track. In 2014, made a deal with the Official F1 licensee/broadcaster Chello DMC for Sport1 to deliver high-quality video feeds of all Grand Prix coverage via our fibre network. And, in 2015, we were appointed by Formula One Management as a broadcast supplier for GP2, GP3 and Porsche Supercup racing series, delivering an end-to-end fibre and satellite solution to broadcasters from across the globe at the 12 race locations. Ultimately, it’s all about ensuring a great F1 experience for fans, wherever they might be, or whatever device they might be using to follow the action.

  • Where do Tata Communications see F1 viewing 5 years from now?

Five years is an eternity in technology terms! Innovations such as virtual and augmented reality, wearable devices and Internet of Things, for example, have the potential to take sports broadcasting – not just F1 – to a new level in the not-too-distant future. What all these innovations have in common is that they rely on superfast, reliable fibre connectivity on a global scale, which is what we excel in.  We provide the underlying foundations – the global superfast network – which will enable Formula One Management and the whole F1 ecosystem to explore VR and other cutting edge technologies to bring fans closer to the sport.

We’re committed to ensuring that our network is ready for whatever the future might bring, which is why each season we undertake different proof-of-concepts, testing the latest innovations together with FOM, pushing technology to its limits. One of our proof-of-concepts involved broadcasting the first ever F1 race in 4K. To help bring the race to people’s living rooms, we undertook a trial at the 2014 Singapore Grand Prix practice session delivering live footage in 4K quality over our network to FOM’s Technical HQ in Biggin Hill. That’s a distance of over 10,000 kilometres and multiple time zones. Although this first ever live 4K feed of an F1 event over fibre was not broadcast to viewers at home, our proof-of-concept demonstrated the capability to provide fans the best possible viewing experience in the comfort of their own homes. The critical factor here is connectivity and the ability to transmit broadcast content seamlessly worldwide and manage it in ways that is just not possible via satellite link. In the not-too-distant future, Formula One Management may be able to select specific live video feeds on the fly to share with fans.

For more information on Tata Communications 4K trials in Formula One follow this link.

  • Can you walk me through the F1 Tata Communications onsite/race weekend set up?

There is an enormous technical set-up that enables F1 races to take place and be delivered to millions of racing fans at home. And, as data, real-time communication and high-bandwidth video become increasingly critical for each Grand Prix, superfast fibre connectivity lies at the heart of this set-up.

We connect each of the around 20 Grand Prix locations to our global superfast fibre-optic network. There is about 20 kilometres of fibre distributed in ducts at each track– and then decommissioned after the race weekend. This means setting up the equivalent of an entire town’s network infrastructure in three to four days and dismantling it all in just three hours. This process would traditionally take two to four weeks. Race-goers might not see the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, but there really is no room for error. With millions of racing fans keen to keep up to speed with each moment in real time, any loss of connectivity – even for a nanosecond – is simply not an option.

  • Would streaming services allow viewers more freedom in giving viewers freedom in reviewing F1 content live?

Our work in F1 has innovation at its core – we’re constantly looking for new ways to bring fans closer to the sport and make them part of the action. Streaming, and specifically live over-the-top (OTT) broadcasting, might change how fans are able to enjoy F1 in the future. We undertook a trial at last year’s Singapore GP practice session to test this technology in action. Traditional OTT content delivery results in a lag of up to several minutes between the live TV broadcast and the online feed of an F1 race viewed on a tablet or smartphone, for example. This prevents real-time social media interaction between viewers. So, a person watching the action on TV can see a crucial overtake first and tweet about it, potentially ruining the race experience for those watching the race on a tablet.

  • Will Tata continue its fan engagement projects/competition in 2016? To what extent have these influenced the F1 product?

We introduced the Formula 1 Connectivity Innovation Prize  in 2014, together with Formula One Management and the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team, with the aim of spurring innovation in the sport. And, after two years and hundreds of entries, I feel that we have really helped move the needle in driving bold thinking in the sport in two areas: fan engagement and the use of data in the sport.

The Grand Prize winner of 2014 demonstrated how social networks could be harnessed for the indexing of over 60,000 hours of F1 video footage archived in Biggin Hill since 1981. The winning idea not only supported FOM’s ambition to digitally index the footage with audio and text commentary so it can be used in a meaningful way and enhanced for fans to consume in the future – it would also give fans a whole new channel to engage in the sport, enabling them to add their own photos, anecdotes, travelogues and memorabilia to the archive footage, essentially making them part of F1 history.  And, last year’s winner highlights the growing role of data in the sport. The winning idea demonstrated a new approach for displaying critical race car telemetry and data collected via on-board sensors to enable engineers at the race track and at the factory to make faster decisions through real-time visualisation of data. As the volume of data that teams gather and analyse continues to grow each season, this type of tool would enable engineers to make sense of it and adjust their race strategy as needed much more quickly.

We look forward to the launch of the 2016 Prize, and invite the brightest minds and biggest F1 fans around the world to harness their ingenuity, technical know-how and passion for F1 racing through this competition.

  • You can keep up to date with Tata Communications through their Twitter feed here.
  • To hear all the latest from Mehul Kapadia himself you can follow him on Twitter through this link
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