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Audience immersion and the 5G opportunity

Maria Cuevas, head of mobile core networks research at BT, and Matt Stagg, head of mobile video & content at BT Sport, discuss 5G’s role in audience immersion and how it will not only change the internal operations of the broadcast industry but will be a big part in enabling exciting new routes to audience engagement Audience immersion and the 5G opportunity image

Excitement about 5G’s potential has reached fever pitch. It’s been touted as a game-changer for the broadcast industry but when many consumers are still comfortable using 4G speeds and can already stream media on-the-go, can 5G live up to its hype?

Trying to understand the potential impact of 5G through today’s experiences is only half of the story. Change won’t only come through improved performance but through the technology’s ability to deliver new kinds of immersive experiences.

The differentiators at the technical level mean 5G has the potential to change an audience’s media consumption, offering new services and experiences. A critical factor within this is taking advantage of the ultra-low latency and bandwidth afforded by 5G to allow consumers to be ‘in the moment’ – bringing the live experience closer when remote, and more immersive when up close and personal.

Let’s look at two scenarios – sports and music festivals – to demonstrate how a change in infrastructure could introduce some really interesting monetisation opportunities.

The best seat in the house

Imagine the latest sporting event you might have watched. The camera angle was dictated for you by the broadcaster, with the producer choosing where to cut to and from. This experience works and, many would argue, doesn’t need fixing – but a whole new alternative can now be explored without compromising the successful status quo. And it’s something that BT Sport is working to pioneer.

Particularly exciting is the potential for the use of remote production – with 5G helping to untether cameras from both RF and cables, giving greater creative flexibility in how sport is covered.

While 4G has provided fans with new ways of viewing their favourites teams, especially in the context of a mobile-centric world, 5G will take this to another level. A 5G enabled stadium, for example, will mean much greater capacity to all users at the stadium, which will translate into increased speed and lower latency for customers, a boon when 4G continue to have operational challenges in these sorts of ultra-dense environments.

In this sense, 5G is a gateway for future development within the ‘connected stadium’ experience. Coupled with the increasingly ubiquitous wearable technology, we can imagine countless opportunities for augmented reality applications. Picture this: you arrive at the stadium, and the most direct route to your seat is shown via a pop-up map. You sit down, and the team line-ups flash up. As you watch the game, you’re treated to multiple camera options and instant replays, an experience that allows you to experience the real-world atmosphere with the best bits of watching from your sofa.

Future of VR and AR depends on user experience and education

The future of VR and AR depends on improved awareness around the technology, as well as a better experience for the users

In creating this, the broadcaster could provide a ‘best seat in the house’ experience even in sports where there is no ‘house’; a monetisation opportunity that could be offered as a limitless premium service. Through mixing the images in real-time, the AR model gives an unrivalled panoramic viewpoint from wherever the set-ups exist; at the front of the cycling peloton, behind the goal, from on top of the dugout, or from the rooftops as Mo Farah passes the marathon crowds.

The best seat in the house experience can also be enjoyed with friends and family in this “virtual world”, interactions between the audience in a “private group” would be possible as if they were all in the same living-room.

It could also be a monumental move forward for broadcasting sport that takes place outside of a single venue or stadium. From cycling’s Tour de France to the London marathon, as well as countless other motorsport races or outdoor pursuits, 5G’s wireless connectivity can provide a larger area of coverage far more easily than the usual bespoke broadcast fixed networking.

Although these ideas might sound futuristic, the starting points are not that far away. During the 2019 FA Cup Final, BT’s EE 5G network was used to enable a raft of AR and VR experiences, including a VR headset that uses 5G’s high bandwidth and low latency to allow a life-long Manchester City fan to experience the atmosphere of Wembley, without having to leave his own living room.

Similarly, the 2018 Wembley Cup Final was used by BT Sport to trial the first use of remote production broadcast over a 5G network, a move which has laid the foundations to lower the barriers in broadcasting live sport, allowing more events than ever to be shared with audiences across the world.

The 5G Festival

The opportunities afforded by 5G can also be evidenced within the live music arena. The VR set-up could be as easily constructed at stage-side, by the mixing-deck, or from the VIP area ahead of the stage.

Interestingly, while there’s a benefit in a permanent set-up such as a sports stadium, the bespoke build that is created for outside festivals could allow for more services. Festival sites could be built with 5G infrastructure at the core to underpin everything from the broadcast requirements as well as site management necessities. It’s essentially a blank canvas.

Although not yet a reality, one major benefit of 5G that is set to emerge over the next few years will be network slicing. In a nutshell, this is the ability to manage traffic across the network set-up and create private virtual networks within it. This has the potential to allow organisations to prioritise and allocate network space for a whole raft of mission-critical services. For example, this could be for emergency service and blue light support; or in providing a dedicated space for site admin, management, and logistics. It could also be used to allocate specific channels to handle mass outside broadcast requirements – all the while ensuring festival attendees enjoy a reliable mobile signal across the festival site.

Not only does this deliver a better overview of how the network is performing, it allows for the identification of problems ahead of time, so if there’s an issue appropriate action can be taken, using policies to fulfil the needs of a particular service. Working according to the needs of the network, 5G can solve problems through several means, including adding additional resources or rerouting traffic across alternative network channels.

Reality bites: VR, AR and the enterprise network

Virtual reality and augmented reality are set to be used increasingly in business operations as part of an overall digital transformation strategy. But what does this mean for the enterprise network?

For 5G, network slicing is set to become a fundamental ingredient in providing many of the 5G services that we will see emerge over the five years, helping to drive innovation in network handling, performance and optimisation.

Beyond the 5G infrastructure enhancing the on-site experience for everyone involved, the opportunity for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) is huge. Imagine a real-world overlay for the attendees; being able to hover their phone over the stage wherein the artist may further enhance their performance with an augmented spectacle with animated backdrops, virtual dancers, or fireworks. From a sales perspective, the possibilities are also attractive: consumers could use AR to see an artist’s catalogue, buy merchandise, or download tracks direct to their mobile device.

This AR engagement allows media and broadcast content providers to get into the hands of attendees and further monetise the festival experience. The sports industry, similarly, allows for event attendees to see a live-action replay in real-time, or to see stats overlaid on players as they watch from the terraces – combining the best of armchair viewing with the inimitable atmosphere of being there.

The monetisation opportunities for entertainment industries are significant. Ed Sheeran can sell-out the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium in a day; but once they’re gone, they’re gone. FA Cup Final tickets likewise. With 5G, that experience can not only be delivered – in real-time – directly to the millions of people who are unable to attend but can be done in a way that is more immersive and interactive than ever before.

And that’s really where the power of 5G shows; bringing more a qualitative change in the kinds of entertainment experiences consumers can expect – whether they’re attending a live event in person or settling down on their sofa at home.

Written by Maria Cuevas, head of mobile core networks research at BT, and Matt Stagg, head of mobile video & content at BT Sport.


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