Snell & Wilcox's Helios

Different video formats have always been an issue in the creation and production of content, but until recently, traditional broadcast distribution formats were relatively homogeneous. The explosion of new content distribution platforms has created an environment where each platform and, in some cases, each consumer device requires video content to be repurposed in a specific way to achieve the best result.

There is a huge push for content owners to monetize their assets across multiple distribution platforms. However, having to repurpose content for an ever-increasing number of distribution formats adds complication, cost and time to the equation.

The mobile media challenge

Mobile television provides the perfect example of this situation. Unlike a satellite TV application where all the receivers are the same, there is a variety of mobile phones in a typical network. And models vary in screen size, shape and resolution, not to mention in processor speeds, available memory and on-board video decoders.

Another challenge is that video is a bandwidth-hungry application. Regardless of whether an operator is using 2.5G, 3G, DMB, DVB-H or Media-Flo, bandwidth is a major consideration. This puts special emphasis on the fidelity of the video compression in any content repurposing system.

Perhaps most significantly, content creation for broadcast is changing, affecting how it looks on the small screens of mobile phones. Many major events, particularly sporting events, are produced in widescreen HDTV. This means, for example, that content shot for an interlaced 1920 × 1080 display must be quickly and efficiently repurposed for small screens such as the 176 × 144 (progressive) resolution of a typical mobile phone. When these widescreen images are reproduced on a mobile phone, it is often difficult to follow the action. Particularly with sports content, such as soccer, it's sometimes impossible to find the “object of interest” on a small display.

All these factors create major challenges for content owners and network operators who want to tap into the mobile TV market. In order to create a profitable business, they must be able to deliver to consumers the content they want (and are happy to pay for), in a form that provides the best viewing experience. Doing this manually would be a costly and time-consuming process. So, what content owners need is a system that enables creation of a single master and subsequent repurposing of that asset for distribution anywhere and on any device.

Mastering distribution

In response to these challenges, Snell & Wilcox created Helios Mobile for automated repurposing and delivery of content for mobile TV applications. As a scalable, software-based system, it leverages image processing, video compression, and standard and format conversion to address quality and bandwidth issues in the emerging mobile TV market. The platform enables operators to deliver better quality video at lower bandwidths to their customers, optimizing the viewing experience given the constraints of network bandwidth and handset functionality.

Capturing big action

For a typical sporting event, the compression encoder must deal with both the action on the field and the crowd in the background. Because the crowd can form a fairly large part of the image and is random in nature, it wastes a significant portion of the available bit rate of a compression system. This becomes an enormous factor in bandwidth-constrained mobile TV applications in which every bit is precious.

Helios eliminates this problem through the use of Ph.C motion estimation to analyze incoming images and focus in on the area of interest in the foreground, such as the show jumper in Figure 1, while defocusing the crowd in the background. As a result, the available encoding bit rate is concentrated on the area of the image that is important to the viewer. The result is a significantly enhanced viewing experience for the end user, even at low bit rates.

Displaying on small screens

Helios is also designed to dynamically reframe video images and thus produce tighter, sharper shots that retain the emotional impact of the original when displayed on the small screen. This functionality replaces the need for additional cameras that might otherwise be used to create the tighter shots required for mobile television. It also eliminates the need for a separate mobile TV production crew, complete with its own video switcher and operator, to recut shows on the fly to make them more suitable for mobile TV.

Helios provides all of the above functionality in real time with no human intervention. In so doing, the system delivers significant cost savings for content owners and mobile TV operators. They can now deliver better quality and more reliable video services to their customers while using less bandwidth and eliminating the high cost associated with additional equipment and production services. Furthermore, Helios can create multiple outputs from the same source, so operators can use Helios to take the content they have and turn it into the content that delivers the best possible viewing experience to their customers.

Joe Zaller is vice president of strategic marketing for Snell & Wilcox.