OmniBus iTX: Making Operations Intelligent

By using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, OmniBus has designed iTX to be a powerful yet cost-effective master control system for small and medium-sized facilities. With iTX, software alone delivers automation, ingest, editing and basic content management and also acts as a video server, master control, graphics device and logo inserter.
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Imagine being able to run an entire broadcasting operation using a single desktop computer! Well, it’s not such a far-fetched idea: radio stations have been doing it for years.

Still, being able to run a TV station using a single desktop computer has been a pipe dream...until now. That’s because the UK firm OmniBus has developed a desktop master control system called iTX. Developed over the last three years, iTX software allows one operator to manage all of the functions of a traditional multi-person master control room on a single PC.

That’s right: we’re talking video and audio switching; feed ingest, editing, scheduling and playout; commercial insertion and verification—all monitored on a single screen and controlled by a mouse and keyboard. “People have talked about the concept of ‘TV in a box’ for years, but this is it,” says Ian Fletcher, OmniBus’ CTO. “iTX allows you to produce a fully crafted channel using a single HP server equipped with an AMD dual processor CPU, in either HD or SD.”

Here’s how.

THE ITX ARCHITECTURE
In a traditional TV master control, a number of consoles, servers and dedicated pieces of equipment are required to do the job. Small wonder: besides translating the station’s computer-produced playout schedule into reality—which involves accessing and playing programs, commercials and station idents in the proper sequence—master control has to handle audio transitions, realtime title and animated logos overlays, realtime insertion of VANC data for subtitles and V chip ratings. Add multiple IT-based video formats such as DV25, MPEG and WM, and the average master control has its hand more than full.

Despite this fact, OmniBus has apparently succeed in squeezing all of these tasks onto a single program, which is run by a single server box. “We are using an HP 145 standard model running Windows XP,” says Fletcher. “Even though Windows XP is not a realtime operating system, we chose it because XP is an open and well-supported development environment.”

As for processing power? “We decided to outfit the HP server with an AMD dual core processor, because AMD’s processor architecture—being that it is aimed at gamers—is able to handle graphic- intensive operations,” Fletcher says. “To add an extra level of playout reliability, our server has a 500 GB local cache. Having a cache this big means that we can playout video directly from the cache, rather than the station’s hard disk storage. This improves the reliability of the system.”

Despite its obvious power, the iTX system can be installed in “a single day,” he says, and carries the extra benefit of being compatible with most billing and scheduling programs. “However, to produce live programming such as news, you’ll still need a video switcher and an audio console.”

THE OPERATOR EXPERIENCE
Given that iTX reduces a station’s master control operations to a single user interface—as displayed on a computer monitor—the layout and intelligibility of that interface is all-important.

Taking a lesson from the radio industry, iTX’s monitor display gives most of its space to a large playlist. Located in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, it lists each event’s Start Time, Type (i.e. video clip), Item Name, Duration, Status (On Air/ Ready) and Source (server and file location). It’s this list that the operator monitors and works with, without a scheduling computer or master control switcher.

Above the playlist is a horizontal linear monitor—akin to one seen in a nonlinear editing system—which tracks the time and status of events being accessed from PGM A, PGM B, Captions, V/O, Logo A and Logo B sources. In between the two are three small windows, one showing the remaining time on the current On Air clip, the second showing the station time, and the third specifying what’s coming up next and its duration.

Starting from the left top of the screen and going down, there are various small windows such as the ones that indicate which iTX program the operator is using (iTX, iTXHD1, iTX-Edit or iTXHD-EDIT). Among the most important windows is the Content Selector, which allows the operator to choose between video clips, logos, graphics and, of course, what’s going out Live on air. To provide quick access to the station’s video content, there’s a scrollable menu of Selected Clips. This is located below the video window.

Add in buttons for Take Next, Cue Next, and Hold Next—among others—and the iTX desktop has everything an operator needs to do their job. Moreover, “Because everything is all in one place, the user-interface is pretty friendly to work with,” says Fletcher. “For instance, if you want to add a logo to a program, no matter what the video standard, you just drag-and-drop it to the program’s location on the playlist.”

ITX IN THE REAL WORLD: THE RED BEE MEDIA TESTS
OmniBus put iTX front and center at NAB2006, fielding 12 different TV channels using equipment packed into a vertical rack. Not surprisingly, their booth was a favorite destination for budget-minded managers and fascinated engineers. In addition, a week before NAB at its annual Technology Conference in Las Vegas, PBS announced their intention to deploy iTX for its Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS).

Still, a seasoned broadcaster can’t be faulted for wondering if a software-based system on a single server can actually replace a traditional master control. This is why Red Bee Media—the UK firm that runs the BBC’s playout facilities—has been putting iTX through its paces in the laboratory.

“We are looking at the limits of the capabilities of working with the iTX, in cooperation with OmniBus,” says Ian Stubbs, head of Operational Strategy. “We are looking for those areas in which we’d like to see further development, and testing for robustness in general. After all, television is one of those areas where it just has to work.”

To find out, Red Bee is currently testing an iTX server. “We are running it isolated from the rest of the building,” says Stubbs. “The suite it’s in doesn’t go to air, but has adequate facilities for testing and training. We want to run some complex test schedules on it,” he adds. “We’re looking at loading a really demanding commercial channel schedule on the iTX, one with lots of advertising inserts and effects to deal with.”

ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET?
Now for the big question: how is iTX performing for Red Bee? “We have yet to run it ‘in anger,’ but we are impressed by the depth of its capabilities,” says Stubbs. “We especially like the promise of running two identical boxes, and auto-failing from one to the other as need be.”

Maybe so, but doesn’t Ian Stubbs feel nervous about putting all his master control eggs in one basket? “It’s a balance,” he replies. “By having so much integrated into one box, it could actually reduce the complexity and the risk of failure found in today’s master control environment, where so many different manufacturers’ products have to interface with each other,” says Stubbs.

Using a redundant two box configuration would certainly reduce the risk of on-air failure. “We could have the system set up so that if one box starts to show problems, the operator could switch to the other with the push of a single button,” Stubbs says. “We could also set it up to auto-default from one to the other, should our monitoring equipment detect a problem with the primary box’s output.

THE END OF MASTER CONTROL?
Not necessarily, says OmniBus’ Ian Fletcher. “Even with software-based systems such as iTX, I expect broadcast equipment manufacturers to find new areas where they can provide value over and above standard IT solutions. This said, I am hoping that iTX will significantly reduce hardware, staffing and operational costs for TV stations, allowing them to do much more, much better, using much less.”

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.