How the BBC achieved a world’s first in live event VR streaming

The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there’s a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We’re going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this.

But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game …..

Also sprach Zuckerberg (sorry, couldn’t resist; blame the evening wine) on March 25th, the day on which Facebook acquired Oculus VR amidst much wailing and gashing of teeth. At the time, it seemed his vision of this VR utopia of court side seats for all at Wimbledon and all these other fine things was perhaps a decade away. Indeed, given some of the areas where technology still needs time to mature, it may well still prove to be up to a decade away; but that hasn’t stopped the BBC from seeing how it all might work.

As many from the Commonwealth nations will likely know, we’ve just seen Scotland host the XX Commonwealth Games (for those who don’t know, and keeping it to a nutshell, think Olympics with fewer nations, and you’ll get the idea). The BBC were the primary broadcaster for the Games, and they used the opportunity to make Zuckerberg’s vision a reality, if only on an experimental scale, by transmitting elements of the gymnastics events at the Games in real-time as a VR experience – the very first time anywhere in the world that such a feat has been undertaken. The results of this effort were recently reported by the BBC’s digital magazine programme, Click, broadcast on the BBC News channel, and from which this article is largely drawn.

The experiment comprised three parts. First, a 360-degree, 7-lens video camera pod (6 lenses to record the view around the pod, the 7th to capture the overhead view) and a spatial microphone were set-up in front of the SSE Hydro Arena seats, the camera positioned at the same eye-level as spectators.

The 360-degree cameras (l) were installed at the same eye light as people sitting in the arena seats
The 360-degree cameras (l) were installed at the same eye-level as people sitting in the arena seats

The video from all seven cameras and audio from the microphone was fed directly to the second element of the experiment, a computer system running software designed to stitch all seven video elements into a seamless whole, overlaid with the sounds from within the arena captured by the microphone. The finished film was then streamed to the third element in the experiment: a booth within the Glasgow Science Centre where members of the public could don an Oculus headset and a set of earphones and find themselves immersed in the Hydro Arena, watching the gymnastics as they happened.

The results were predictable astonishment as most of those trying the system were exposed to immersive VR for the first time. “That’s amazing!  … You can see everything!” was the reaction of one gentleman, a bright smile visible below the goggled-eyed goggles as he turned slowly around, taking-in the entire arena. A young boy referred to it as both “cool” and “weird!”, while an older lady found herself responding to the roar of the spectators and looking around in surprise to see what had just happened.

"That's amazing!" was one man's verdict as he found himself sitting inside the SSE Hydro Arena witnessing the Commonwealth Games gymnastics event as they happened - while actually located half-a-mile from the arena
“That’s amazing!” was one man’s verdict as he found himself sitting inside the SSE Hydro Arena witnessing the Commonwealth Games gymnastics event as it happened – while actually located half-a-mile from the arena

As noted, this effort was very much an early experiment by the BBC’s R&D people into what might be possible with VR. While the film was only transmitted to a single location just half-a-mile from the Hydro Arena, it could have just as easily been transmitted anywhere given a fast enough and stable enough internet connection. The distance in this case was simply a matter of convenience, the VR experiment being just one of a number of potential new broadcasting technologies the “Beeb” is investigating as a part of its multi-platform approach to television and which were being showcased alongside the Games. In particular, the BBC  wanted to poke at potential issues this type of streaming will have to overcome if it is to become practical in the future.

One of the problems they hit was quality of processing versus speed of delivery. In order to try to keep the transmission as close to real-time as possible (remembering that the same events were being simultaneously broadcast via “traditional” methods as well as via other technologies being showcased at the Science Centre), BBC wanted to avoid undue lag occurring in the VR feed when compared to other mediums on display. This meant that the video / audio processing needed to produce the finished film for streaming had to be kept to around three or four seconds in order to achieve a smooth, continuous stream to the headset.

To achieve this, engineers had to downgrade the video quality being received by the processing software in order to reduce the amount of data the software had to handle in stitching the 7 elements of film together. This resulted in a loss of image definition which was noticeable when wearing the Oculus headset, as the video appeared somewhat grainy to the eye. The hope is that an increase in processing power may allow faster processing at a higher definition in the future. Obviously, had the “real-time” aspect of the experiment been removed from the equation, then the video could have been processed at its full quality for later streaming.

In order for the software to stitch the video images together and add the sound and then stream the finished
in order to stitch the video elements and the audio all together and continuously stream it smoothly as a live event, the BBC found they had to reduce video quality being received by the processing software, resulting in a vision loss of resolution in the finished VR stream. So heftier processing power is going to be required if events are to be streamed in real-time like this in the future

Another issue the BBC found was that if they positioned the camera pod so that it was effectively looking down on the arena floor at an angle, rather than looking directly out at it at eye level, or if they placed the camera in the middle of the floor so that the action was going on all around the observer, people reported increased bouts of dizziness, something which didn’t seem to occur with the cameras positioned at a natural eye-level.

Certainly, it’s an interesting experiment, and this kind of use of VR which may well prove far more attractive to a mainstream, mass audience than video games and virtual world style environments. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a (reasonably priced) seat at their favourite sporting event or concert or something like it, without all that tedious mucking about in cars or trains in order to get to a venue and then dealing with the crowds, etc.,  – and can even pause the show / event to refresh their beverages, etc?

For those able to access it, the entire Click programme featuring the use of VR at the Commonwealth Games can be seen on the BBC iPlayer. This is worth watching not only for the coverage of the VR streaming experiment, but because it also features the work of Nonny dela Penna, whose work was featured in the Drax Files Radio Hour #24 (and which I somehow managed to miss reviewing at the time).

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Images courtesy of the BBC.