Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wimbledon driving IPTV convergence

It's Wimbledon time again, and our office has gone absolutely crazy with tennis fever. I work at a financial services company, and as all finance companies, our trading floors are chock-a-block with 60" plasma and LCD screens, which are tuned either to Bloomberg, CNBC, or sports, depending on what's going on (for example, anytime England is playing Cricket, they're all tuned to the Cricket). Right now the obsession is Wimbledon.

The BBC here has provided some amazing coverage. You get BBC1 (the main broadcaster) all day broadcasting Wimbledon, and through the magic of our digital TV, they also provide an additional 4 channels of coverage over any of the digital services, covering basically the top 4 courts (you want to watch Mixed Doubles? Hah!). They also provide streaming video online at a pretty low bit-rate, if you're in the UK.

This has thrown our bandwidth utilization for a complete loop. Basically, by 12:30pm (first match starts at noon, all courts in action by 1pm) we've pegged our network connection for the rest of the day, saturating it completely. The problem is that although there are lots of TVs around, there aren't any where any of the pure technologists are, and there's maybe the BBC1 footage (so if you want so see one of the Williams sisters open a can of whoop-ass, you're SOOL). So everybody goes online.

Our TV infrastructure at work is pretty serious. We have our own satellite dish on the roof with a full commercial feed. That feeds into a variety of tuners (we can handle more than 10 simultaneous channels), which then output their signals over Some Crazy Protocol (SCP hereon) to a video switch. The video switch then feeds out over SCP to all the various set-top boxes around the building over our normal wiring and then outputs to the TVs. It's a pretty sweet setup, because you can software control what's showing on any TV if you know the name of the TV (which is conveniently labeled on the bezel of the TV).

The problem is SCP. It's not IPTV. More importantly, it's not IP at all. It's some crazy proprietary protocol that just happens to run over Cat 5e cabling. How horrible! I think it's some type of industry standard, if I find out more I'll post it. Ideally, you'd really want an IP multicast approach (we use multicast for a lot, so our core network is fully multicast aware), so that any person, whether they're in line-of-sight of the TV they want to watch, can see any of the channels tuned in.

So what we're hoping to do in technology as a little pilot to save our precious, precious internet bandwidth is to grab one of our unused computers, throw several Pinnacle MovieBoard video capture cards into it, install VLC onto it, and use that for streaming out using an H.264 IP multicast stream. Input will be from one of the set-top boxes configured for SCP running to the machine.

We thought about using Apple's QuickTime Broadcaster on someone's laptop, except for two things. It doesn't run on Windows (and getting our Security team to allow a non-standard OS for something so silly is impossible), and it only supports one stream per machine. One stream? WTF? They don't even have a solution for transcoding multiple streams, so it's not like they're trying to get you to pay for something extra, they're just lame.

If anybody has any advice before we get the first MovieBoard, let me know. We're hoping it'll Just Work, but I'm doubtful that we'll be able to support more than one feed. I'll have updates as we go along no matter what though.

I'm more than anything shocked that if you want something that will just do this natively (take input video in analog format, transcode it, and send it out H.264 over IP Multicast), you basically have to buy a Very Expensive Product that seems designed for commercial IPTV providers. Surely someone will tackle this for the home market. Surely!

Help me lazyweb!
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