Hi-Def on the High Seas

Round-the-world yacht race embraces HDV format, immersive coverage 9/28/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Get ready to splash around the world in high-definition. The Volvo Ocean Race, which pits a fleet of high-performance 70-foot sailboats in a race around the globe, has stepped up to high-definition for the 2008-2009 edition of the event, which starts Oct. 4 in Alicante, Spain.

Volvo Open Cutaway ViewTo deliver high-quality footage from the boats and achieve maximum value for sponsors of the eight race teams, race organizers are taking advantage of advances in small-format (HDV) high-definition cameras, video compression and IP-based satellite transmission technology. (To listen to a podcast about hi-def coverage of the race, click here.)

Volvo is also placing a dedicated on-board reporter on each yacht, known as the “media crew member,” whose job is not to help sail the boat but instead to document the race, which ends next June in St. Petersburg, Russia, through video, audio and text reports.

Most of the media crew members are world-class sailors trained to use a camcorder for the race, but some have legitimate professional video experience. For example, Ericsson 3's Gustav Morin is an America's Cup veteran who has spent the past year reporting for TV 8 in Stockholm.

And Puma Ocean Racing's Rick Deppe is perhaps the prototype media crew member: a two-time Volvo veteran who first picked up a MiniDV camcorder to capture onboard video during the 1997-1998 race and then went on to a full-time TV career, working as an editor, camera operator and studio supervisor for Discovery Channel and serving as a cameraman and producer for Discovery's Deadliest Catch and TLC's Trading Spaces.

Puma Ocean Racing Shows Off Its Tech from Broadcasting & Cable on Vimeo.

To attract fresh interest in the race from new markets, organizers have changed the traditional course, which circled most of the world in the Southern Ocean, to a more roundabout path with more segments, or legs—10 in all—and stopovers in new ports like Kochi, India; Singapore; Qingdao, China; Boston; and Galway, Ireland.

There will also be short-course, in-port racing at seven of the stops, which will be covered in both standard-def and HD using larger-format Sony XDCAM and Panasonic P2 camcorders and conventional microwave gear mounted on chase boats and helicopters.

While sailing is not a mainstream sport in the U.S., it is a big draw internationally, particularly in Europe. Organizers say the coverage of the 2005-2006 race, which was carried by major international networks and the Versus channel in the U.S., reached a cumulative global TV audience of 1.8 billion.

That explains why the 10th edition of the Volvo Race features multiple boats sponsored by communications concerns Ericsson of Sweden and Telefonica of Spain, as well as a U.S. entry underwritten by German athletic shoe giant Puma. Race sponsors also include satellite firm Inmarsat, which is providing broadband satellite capacity to transmit video, audio and data from the boats; and Thrane & Thrane, which makes the multiple satellite transponders mounted on each yacht.

The high-definition TV coverage is being packaged in weekly 30-minute programs and monthly hour-long shows by U.K. production firm Sunset+Vine for international distribution.

In the U.S., PBS is carrying the 39 weekly half-hour shows while Versus will air the monthly one-hour programs. The 2008-2009 race will also offer extensive online coverage, including streaming SD video from the competing yachts and live streaming coverage of the in-port races through the Web portal Volvo Ocean Race TV.

The Volvo 70-class yachts, which can reach speeds of over 40 mph while surfing huge ocean waves and carry a crew of 11 (10 sailors, plus the media crew member), are being outfitted with specialized waterproof cameras, wind-blocking microphones and server-based production and transmission systems designed and integrated by U.K.-based remote production specialist Livewire Digital, which demonstrated some of the Volvo Race camera systems at the IBC show earlier this month. It is mounting five Sony HDV pan-tilt-zoom cameras in rugged waterproof housings at strategic locations on each yacht.

“Doing the first [Volvo] race in HD is a very big technical challenge, particularly on these boats,” says Livewire managing director Tristan Wood.

The cameras have roll-compensation to deal with the constant heel and jarring motion of the Volvo 70s as they crash through the waves, as well as night-vision capability. One camera looks forward from the stern, one looks backward from the mast, two are mounted under the mast's spreaders (appendages that lend structural support to the rig) to give a bird's-eye view of the action on deck; and one is mounted below-decks next to the navigator's station, to give an up-close look at potentially race-winning—or race-losing—decisions as they are made.

The video and audio feeds from the cameras and onboard mics (three fixed and two wireless), which will be supplemented by handheld HDV cameras operated by the media crew member, are fed into Livewire's Media Desk HD.

The disk-based system both stores the HDV video and compresses it with H.264 encoding for store-and-forward satellite delivery, as well as live streaming, from the yachts.

The Media Desk HD, which is integrated into a carbon-fiber chassis to save weight on these highly tuned yachts, links to the yacht's satellite transponders as well as a microwave uplink that is used to transmit video during in-port racing, and also serves as the hub for radio interviews and e-mail communications. The system is operated via a small control console with a joystick that lets the media crew member control the on-deck cameras from his media station down below in the cabin.

The Media Desk HD also has a unique feature designed to automatically capture the most dramatic events during the race, such as a capsize, dismasting or even just an epic ride down a Southern Ocean wave. The system maintains a two-minute rolling buffer that records all camera feeds, and those two minutes can be permanently stored by pressing one of three “panic buttons,” located on both steering pedestals (port and starboard) as well as near the hatch. Once a crew member, most likely the helmsman, presses one of the buttons (also known as crash buttons) the Media Desk HD saves the previous two minutes as well as the next six minutes of video.

Video from the yacht will make its way back to shore via Inmarsat's Fleet Broadband, a maritime version of the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) IP-based satellite service that is already relied on by large news organizations like CNN for remote field reports from Iraq and other challenging environments where full-scale satellite newsgathering isn't feasible.

The new Fleet Broadband service more than doubles the data rates (64 and 128 Kbps) of the Inmarsat-B technology used in the 2005-06 race, providing a 432 Kbps “background service” for store-and-forward applications and a guaranteed 256 Kbps streaming class service that can be used for live video.

“It's a great platform for demonstrating the technology in really about the worst conditions,” says Frank August, Inmarsat North American business director. “If it works in this environment, you know it will work in a rather mundane environment like aboard a tugboat.”

For store-and-forward delivery, the 1080i HD video will be compressed to about 4 megabits per second (Mbps) for HD and 1.5 Mbps for SD, says Livewire's Wood. For live SD streaming, video will be compressed down to bitrates of 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) or 256 Kbps.

A minute of store-and-forward HD video will take about 18 minutes to transmit from a yacht, a vast improvement over the hour and 12 minutes it would have taken using Inmarsat's original 64 Kbps service. A minute of standard-def video encoded at 1.5 Mbps will take less than seven minutes.

With those upload times from the yachts, video from the yachts will still consist mainly of short segments. So traditional “sneaker-net” transmission will play an important role in the production, as media crew members will hand off a bundle of HDV tapes to Sunset+Vine producers when the race stops at each port.

Deppe figures he can fit about three days' worth of quality action on each HDV tape, and will bring around 12 tapes for the race's longest leg, the 40 days or so it will take to sail from Qingdao, China to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Besides the leap to HD and faster satellite transmission, the addition of the media crew member should greatly improve race coverage, says Livewire's Wood. While sailors have shot video in previous races, there has never been an embedded reporter focused solely on that job.

Deppe thinks the increased coverage generated by the media crew member position may open up the event to a broader array of sponsors including more retail brands like Puma.

He notes that Puma is using the Volvo Race to launch a new line of shoes and clothes. While winning would be nice, and his team is projected as one of the favorites, it's not the ultimate goal.

“To me, that's one of the most exciting things,” Deppe says. “I can do a good job if Puma comes last, as long as I can get the images off the boat and tell the story.”