BT Sport Ultra HD has been live for a month and a half; it’s showing live Premier League football and MotoGP in scintillating detail. But what’s next?
We got to go behind the scenes at Silverstone to see BT’s coverage of the British MotoGP Grand Prix in action, find out how a 4K TV programme comes to life, as well as talk to BT Sport personnel about future plans.
As soon as we stepped off the bus at Silverstone, we were greeted by the scent of benzene; thousands of MotoGP fans turned up to witness the British Grand Prix. We could smell the columns of superbikes lined up in the car park before we would see them.
Related: Sky Sports 4K Ultra HD demo and When is 4K coming to Freeview?The heady chemical fug only served to hammer home the other immediately obvious sensory overload; sound. MotoGP, as you might have guessed, is loud. Noise levels at the starting grid average at 400 decibels which is enough to permanently screw with your hearing. We were handed a set of foam earplugs by one of the pit crew, who insisted we put them in.
Given that everyone was wearing fully padded radio headsets, we took their advice. The combined roar of 25 performance bikes taking off is something you feel as well as hear, like standing next to a speaker at a Sunn 0))) gig.
It just so happens that part of BT’s mission to be ‘your ticket to the game’ involves dramatically overhauling how live TV sounds in your living room. While attention has obviously been paid to 4K TV’s visuals, Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer of BT TV and BT Sport argues that now is the time to talk about audio.
We caught up with Hindhaugh and Andy Beale, chief engineer at BT Sport, to talk about the technical challenges their teams have faced, as well as plans for the future.
Sound plans: Beyond 5.1 surround
While the duo didn’t avoid questions about HDR (High Dynamic Range) and frame rates beyond 50fps (the former’s in the pipeline and the latter’s still to be confirmed) they were keener to talk about the work they’ve been doing with Dolby on bringing 5.1.4 to the BT Sport platform.
“We’re doing a lot of work with Dolby. We think the next big generational thing in TV, believe it or not, is probably going to be sound,” Hindhaugh said.
“Sound has become sort of a forgotten part of the whole production chain. You get better and better pictures, but if you don’t get that sound right…”
Support for 5.1.4 surround sound, an evolution of the older 5.1 set up we’re familiar with, will let sound come from you from above as well as the sides. As well as the now-standard front left, right, centre, two surround and subwoofer channels, the extra four channels will blare audio out of ceiling-mounted or upwards-facing speakers.
Dolby’s site has a better explanation of how this works as well giving you an idea of the kind of floorspace you’ll need. Admittedly, this might not be in everyone’s price range (especially if you opt for the ceiling-mounted speakers) but Beale argues it’s still more space-efficient than 7.1 and therefore more likely to be adopted by viewers.
BT Sport will let you change commentaries
As well as baking in support for 5.1.4, Hindhaugh and Beale talk a lot about personalising the audio experience. This could entail giving the viewer the ability to fade out crowd noise or turn down studio commentary, even swapping out one set of pundits for another.
“We know for a fact that some fans prefer to hear commentary and others prefer the sound of the crowd. The ability to give fans a subtle control over that balance… is a really interesting thing,” said Beale.
“You can turn the crowd up, you can have no commentary, you can have local radio commentary so you’ve got that bias,” Hindhaugh added.
“Commentary is so subjective. People’s enjoyment of that game… I mean I used to, many years ago, turn down the volume and put [BBC Radio] 5Live on.
“But [if you did that now] you’ve got that digital delay going on, so you can’t quite work out which is live and which isn’t! We’ve already done some trials and the fact that we also have a TV platform enables us to roll that sort of personalisation out.”
This feature might be particularly pleasing to any non-fans of Michael Owen’s commentary out there.
Beale says another plan is for BT Sport to match the object-based video made possible by the multiple camera feeds to be matched with object-based sound. In a nutshell, this means that the direction of crowd noise, vehicles and players, traveling from left to right on the screen for example, can be synced to the on-screen action.
As they talk about object-based sound, our conversation is routinely interrupted by the high pitched TIE Fighter whine of passing bikes. We imagine how this experience could translate to living rooms of the future, where speaker set ups project the Doppler effect around your room.
Breaking records: The world’s biggest 4K TV event
For the MotoGP race, BT fielded 19 4K cameras. This is not only the largest Ultra HD camera crew the company has deployed to date – BT’s 4K OB (Outside Broadcast) truck (above) usually supports up to 16 cameras – it also makes the British Grand Prix the most filmed-in-4K live TV event so far.
“It’s the biggest 4K ever being filmed in the world,” said Hindhaugh. “It’s also the whole MotoGP event with the HD and 4K platform with 160 cameras [in total]. So it’s also the biggest MotoGP event, ever.”
In another first, the race marked BT’s debut of wireless 4K cameras, which will allow operators to get up close and personal and explore angles not possible with units that are tethered to cable links.
As sports stadiums typically have high capacity fibre optic links built in, BT also tested out a satellite link that’ll beam images back to BT TV’s studios in Stratford. This is another first, tested out to see how BT will be able to bring the 4K experience to viewers from less well-equipped venues.
Excitingly, this paves the way for BT’s truck to hit the road and deliver 4K coverage of Champions League games from the continent, although no such plans are in the pipeline at present.
To date, BT’s filmed four other events in Ultra HD – the Community Shield match plus three Premier League games. Every live event for BT is a new challenge for the 4K team, who are keen to try out new things and refuse to sit still.
Is live 4K TV really that good?
The results speak for themselves. It’s hard to put into words just how detailed the footage is. We know that you get four times the number of pixels as Full HD and you can picture that in your head as much as you like, but seeing it in action really is another thing. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.
Race conditions aside, it was a good thing that it rained on the Saturday. While the gloomy, overcast skies robbed us of a chance to see a nice range of colours and contrasts, we were able to see rivulets of rainwater leaping off of tyres and how the riding leathers folded and changed when the riders leaned into corners. Slow motion replays looked particularly gorgeous. The MotoGP in 4K took us back to the first time we saw The Matrix in the pictures.
It sounds weird to go off on things like rain, tyre treads, riding leathers and so on, but you really do start to pick up on the details with 4K, details that you may have not spotted when watching SD or Full HD content. If, like this writer, you have rubbish eyesight, the experience is not unlike putting in a fresh pair of contact lenses after you’ve had a long spell wearing glasses.
What’s more, 4K TV stands to get even better. BT currently films 4K content at 50fps (frames per second), the same frame rate at which Sky shot test footage back in 2013.
We’ve seen early-days test footage of 50fps 4K video as well as a live demonstration using the digital terrestrial spectrum. While these were impressive, it was clear that there was still room for improvement, particularly with regard to cameras quickly panning to capture the action, which has often resulted in an unpleasant blurring effect.
It’s something that BT appears to have knocked on the head – we notice it at all. While there’s still a learning curve in terms of production, everything already looks pretty amazing.
When is BT Sport adding 5.1.4, HDR, and 100fps support?
As for when we’ll be able to enjoy new features like expanded audio controls and 5.1.4, not to mention HDR and other things, BT said that more testing needs to be done and said that an ETA couldn’t be given for anything just yet.
In terms of what’s coming up in the immediate future, this month BT Sport Ultra HD will show three Premier League matches as well as an FA Women’s Super League game in September. There will also be two Rugby Union specials and PSA Squash semi-finals and finals. Hindhaugh joked that “you’ll actually be able to see the ball” for the first time in TV history.
To recap, BT Sport Ultra HD will soon sound as good as it looks. Now all you’ll need to do is start saving up for a 5.1.4 stereo system as well as pay for a 4K TV.
BT Sport Ultra HD is available now as part of the BT Ultra HD Entertainment pack. This costs £15/month, comes with a 1TB Humax DTR-T4000 and requires a BT Infinity broadband package. For full details of the minimum requirements for BT Sport Ultra HD, check out our feature here.