HD over-the-top video takes checkered flag at Indy 500

This year’s presentation of the Indianapolis 500 via the Web offered a new twist: high-definition television.

While it’s unclear exactly how many viewers had the bandwidth available to watch the high-definition video, it is certain that presentation of this event as an over-the-top video offering is gaining traction. This year, online viewership was up 250 percent compared to last year.

The company responsible for the online Web presentation of the race is WhiteBlox. IPTV Update spoke with company president Greg Demetriades about the event and the impact high definition over-the-top video is likely to have on entertainment distribution.

IPTV Update: WhiteBlox helped Indy Racing upgrade its online feed to HD this year. Could you describe the project?

Greg Demetriades: Last year, we did multi-camera Internet broadcasting distribution of the races, including the Indianapolis 500. What intrigued Indy Racing was that we could broadcast multiple camera feeds. That raises the question of how to get these feeds to the Internet and how do you get them to the truck.

There were two things going on here. If the camera feeds are long enough to get to the truck, fantastic. But what if in fact they are not long enough to get to the truck? Well, we created something called FeedMe. That’s a system we’ve designed using a laptop, connected to the camera coming in. If the encoders in the production truck aren’t close enough, you use the laptop to encode that feed and send it out to the Internet.

Indy Racing was beta testing that all the way through the 2007 season. In 2008, they’ve been using the WhiteBlox FeedMe solution for press interviews without the production expense. This was especially helpful when they had only a moment’s notice to do a press announcement. They’ve probably used FeedMe more than 100 times to provide live feeds.

Using multiple cameras led to the fact they’re putting HD cameras inside the automobiles, and those cameras rotate 360 degrees. The Indy Racing League production controls those cameras while the cars are at average speeds of 180mph to 220mph. They take the HD feed, and that signal goes into the WhiteBlox FeedMe broadcast solution or it goes into the truck, which is tied into our WhiteBlox Running Live broadcast solution. WhiteBlox Running Live 3.0 takes the HD feed and spits it out in a variety of different ways.

The WhiteBlox solution compresses the incoming HD feed (transcode) from a cable DSL speed of 300kb up to 2Mb, 3Mb, 4Mb or greater. It just depends on the bandwidth people have available to them at the time of watching the event. Like anything else, we are restricted based on basic bandwidth download speeds, but for the most part consumer download speeds average 4Mb to 6Mb, enough bandwidth to watch an HD video feed. What’s unique about WhiteBlox is that when you click on our camera, the video feeds are waiting for you by your sidewalk.

The WhiteBlox technology is written in such a way that the unwatched live video feeds are available when the viewer wants them. As an example, when you have four live video feeds coming in from the Indy Racing League player and you're viewing one of the four, the other three video feeds are waiting for you by your sidewalk. This enables you to maximize your bandwidth download speed by only using 4Mb instead of 16Mb if all four video feeds were coming to your computer directly.

IPTV Update: What’s the range of data rates available? Can you go low enough to support devices other than broadband connected computers, such as mobile phones?

Greg Demetriades: A video data rate can go down as low as 26kb similar to the days of dialup and modems in the old days back in the late '90s, although no one would prefer to go that low. Today a mobile phone can display video on average from 100kb to 300kb similar to minimum DSL download connection. Because the screen size for a cell phone is smaller than your computer or television, the video is viewable because it does not have to be “stretched” from one corner of the screen to the other. In general, the more the bandwidth, the better the picture that can be delivered. As cell phones become more powerful and can accept more bandwidth, the better the viewing experience will be.

IPTV Update: What did Indy Racing make available as the highest bit rate to support the HD effort via the Internet?

Greg Demetriades: WhiteBlox outfitted the Indy production trucks with high-end HD encoders. This complemented what Sony’s objective was when helping to design these HD trucks. The WhiteBlox systems are capable of capturing large data rates up to 10Mb (HD quality). I believe that the highest bit rate captured at the track was around 2Mb. This enabled anyone who could accept a 2Mb data feed to view very high-quality video.

IPTV Update: How do you envision the market for HD over-the-top video developing?

Greg Demetriades: The media and entertainment industry will drive the development and distribution of many new broadcast networks to be viewed directly from their own Web sites. I believe that these organizations will continue to take more control of their media agreements to retain digital rights for digital distribution. With companies like WhiteBlox enabling organizations to build, brand and broadcast simple and affordable networks while these organizations also keep a lion share of the revenue and controlling their databases, why would they want to share?

Today AT&T offers television programming over high-end broadband connections with a service called U-verse. In the near future, it may approach organizations like the Indy Racing League to carry its content within its own broadcast network programming. It may happen or not, with the ability for consumers to go directly to www.indycar.com. What motivation would the IRL have except for an exceptional advertising package? Eventually, I believe we will have thousands of broadcasting channels over broadband where you will focus on your own likes, desires and find those niche broadcasters quenching your thirst without looking up what’s on cable.

I believe even ad agencies will have to re-invent themselves away from the traditional model of being a middleman. They need to use the power of this new broadcasting environment for themselves. New broadcasting networks will and are developing their own agreements keeping Web rights, quite a difference from five to 10 years ago. The more these new broadcasters control their own destiny, the less they will need third-party services. This enables them to keep a lion’s share of the revenues.

Ad agencies and third parties like ESPN and FOX are going to have to re-invent themselves, and it is apparent that some are. Look at MLB.com. How many hundreds of millions of dollars are they generating? Three years ago, they were generating more than $300 million in just online. And this year, one of these organizations generated more money online than they did through television. CBS with its CSTV is another example.

The golf tournaments are another. They are generating 16 million viewers during finals.

IPTV Update: Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T are exploring the possibility of charging customers based on their Web usage — how much they download. If this approach gains traction, will it kill over-the-top video in its crib?

Greg Demetriades: My opinion is they will isolate their customer base. There are too many other events out there for people to watch.

For an organization like one of those you mentioned, to say they’re going to start charging based on your downloads, I don’t think that is going to fly. And that is the fly in the ointment.

At the end of the day, if you are going to start charging people incrementally based on the usage, I think people are going to walk away. Years ago, people were comfortable paying AOL $10 to $20 per month because they knew that they were not going to exceed their monthly commitment regardless of usage.

If a consumer has mentally adjusted to paying $90 or $100 per month, no problem. Most consumers don’t like surprises, especially with a service they don’t have to have.

I have my own ideas of how to maximize revenue, but variable billing is not the answer.

IPTV Update: At the same time this is happening, it seems like the appetite for over-the-top Internet video is exploding.

Greg Demetriades: Indy Racing League is a perfect example. We increased our viewers by 250 percent over last year. We generated well more than 1 million people who came in for the Indy race itself on that Sunday and have had exceptional viewership with more than 100 practices, trials and races just in 2008.

What we found is a tremendous number of people — from 88 countries and all 50 states — came in to watch this content. What makes this content compelling over traditional television is that fans come in, switch camera feeds, interact with online social communities and can ask the moderator questions. What people loved was it was free.

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