Blog

The OBE blog

At Open Broadcast Systems, we have a lot of repetitive business processes that essentially involve the same simple tasks every day or every week. We like to follow the famous Japanese continuous improvement process of Kaizen, made famous by Toyota, where every employee from the factory floor worker to the CEO can suggest and enact improvements to their work to improve efficiency. But in the era of automation, we want to do more - we want to improve processes by several orders of magnitude and then have them done automatically. This lets us run with a much lower administrative headcount compared to similar companies, as well as move more quickly.

One of the hardest processes to improve was our ordering processes for Blackmagic cards. Owing to recent GBP currency fluctuations, our supply chain has had regular price changes, most of which we automatically calculate from USD or EUR and pull into spreadsheets.

However, all Blackmagic equipment from the UK distributor is priced using a master PDF price list pictured below:

It is, of course, easy for humans to read this datasheet but for a machine, it has a confusing mix of pictures, description, and a large number of subcategories of device. Note how there could be a single heading to list the subcategories or just a single device type. None of this is easy for a computer to understand.

Initially we tried basic PDF extraction tools like pdfextract but they struggled with the complex table structure. But then we found Tabula, software used by journalists to parse released documents. It was able to understand the document structure very well as we can see:

From there it was some very simple python scripting to extract prices and loading all this data into our supply chain spreadsheets. We can now run this as a batch job every day and have nicely updated prices.

We want to do this for as many business processes, from the simple to the complicated. However, we lack a lot of things to really make the most of automation:

  • • Banking APIs, we want to automate these processes. There’s lots of innovation in the consumer space here, but in the business world, we are still stuck with generating CSV files and all the problems that entail, and then manually uploading these
  • • Automated Language Processing in emails. The success of Google Inbox shows that it is possible to intelligently sort and suggest responses to emails. In our case, we get a lot of emails saying “Can I have a quote for X”. We’d like software that would understand this and create a quote (and send to a human to confirm). This is obviously a nontrivial problem (perhaps IBM Watson could solve it).

Most of this week involved visiting FOSDEM, the Free and Open Source European Developers Meeting, where we were organising the Open Media track in conjunction with colleagues from the EBU and OpenHeadend.

We had an all-hands company meeting in Brussels on the Friday hosted at the lovely Radisson Red Brussels complete with crocodile meat for lunch nearby. Interestingly, the hotel was solar powered from a Tesla PowerPack.

 

During the week, we spent a long time chasing and bisecting a Blackmagic playback bug on very long-running streams that occurred between two driver versions. We also started the number crunching to produce various reports. 

FOSDEM itself had many interesting speakers, but for us the highlight was Gerolf Ziegenhain from the DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH. This was an incredible insight into how DFS manages Linux and other software that is safety-of-life critical. You would (understandably) think this is a very bureaucratic process but the speaker was able to eloquently explain the mix between the business requirements and the heavy technical knowledge DFS has. For example, they desolder and replace diodes on NVIDIA Graphics cards to improve reliability. Yet at the same time, it takes years of testing to roll out a new software release.

The broadcast industry has a lot to learn from this, many still think that IT hardware can’t be used for mission-critical purposes, yet as I fly to my weekend break in Berlin, it is IT equipment keeping me safe in the skies:

 

So, that didn’t last long...we’ve merged weeks three and four owing to various trips abroad.

We were pleased to attend the European Broadcasting Union Production Technology Seminar (EBU PTS) to hear about how broadcasters are looking forward to Ultra-HD and High Dynamic Range productions in the future, something we are also working on with a number of clients. Day Two culminated in the unique opportunity to watch Planet Earth II in UHD, WCG and HDR using a state of the art projector:

Day three was also very interesting since it was about IP production. We had a standards update about SMPTE 2110 from Wim Vermost. His key point was it must be implementable in software, unlike the current proposals which are heavily skewed to hardware implementations.

In a later session, we also heard from Sky UK about its plans to move its News and Sport MCRs to IP, in what appears to be the first public outing of this project. This ambitious project is something we have been working on with Sky for a while and our encoders/decoders form a significant proportion of the IP connected devices on the network.

The presenter described a workflow we are closely involved in, a reporter speaks at Downing Street, that feed is encoded and transported over IP, it’s then decoded to SMPTE 2022-6 uncompressed IP at the studio and routed as pure-IP.  Furthermore, this is a workflow that is entirely based on standard IT hardware, something industry “commentators” claim to be many years away.

In an unrelated development Sky also announced that it was planning to deliver its channels over IP, a major move for a nearly 30-year old satellite platform. We’ve been working with IPTV pioneers such as Free in France for many years delivering major channels to millions over IP. The technical decisions that Sky take remain to be seen, whether they take a traditional managed IPTV approach or an OTT approach and how this affects the viewer’s experience. Interestingly, the move to IP means that a number of our team can become Sky subscribers for the first time since they aren’t able to have satellite dishes at home.

 

Things we’ve been reading/watching:

Like any New Year’s resolution the difficult part is keeping going especially during London’s freezing wind and rain this week. But nonetheless, here is our Week 2 in review blog:

We believe that over the coming months, we will see more and more broadcasters adopting an IP approach. You can read our opinion on this, and why actually you should be going IT, in CSI Magazine: http://www.csimagazine.com/csi/broadcast-moves-to-IT.php

We started working on our paper and presentation for the NAB Broadcast Engineering and Information Technology Conference (BEITC), which will offer our insights into this field.

We’ve also fulfilled one of our customers’ biggest requests: branded server stickers. These are now available free-of-charge for existing customers and our products will now ship with these.

 

Technical work:

  • • Continued multivendor interoperability testing for SMPTE 2022-6, now extended to testing SD and 720p resolutions. When this will be complete it will be the most detailed analysis of a software based implementation of this standard and its real-world interoperability with numerous hardware implementations.
  • • Continued automated testing of version 1.3 and 1.4 of our decoder
  • • Started evaluating Kaby Lake CPUs from Intel

Things we’ve been reading/watching:

We were pleased to also be retweeted and liked by some famous British entertainers.