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News gathering goes mobile – and wearable

From cellular bonded backpacks and smartphone apps to smart glass, the possibilities of news reportage are changing, writes Adrian Pennington

From cellular bonded backpacks and smartphone apps to smart glass, the possibilities of news reportage are changing, writes Adrian Pennington

Within minutes of the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash landing at San Francisco airport last July, survivors were tweeting commentary. They included Samsung EVP David Eun whose eye-witness testimony trended online and was picked up by news outlets worldwide. Imagine then, the news value if another passenger or passengers involved in a similar incident today could stream live pictures to websites while onboard?

The scenario is one of many that is intriguing news organisations as the era of wearable computing dawns. Voice-activated, augmented eyewear loaded with HD cameras, microphones, displays and always-on Wi-Fi, promise to make content creation and dissemination as easy as saying ‘record a video.’

Broadcasters are already some way down this route with backpacks containing technology which bonds multiple cellular and wireless networks, an increasingly common element of the news gathering armoury.

“Broadcasters understand the use case around cellular uplink, often as a compliment to the OB van,” says Eric Chang, VP marketing, TVU Networks. “In a breaking news situation where a van can’t get through, the crew are able to pick up a pack and go to a certain location and still transmit.”

During the Occupy Oakland movement of 2011 journalists with TVU backpacks were able to follow police into the crowds where OB trucks had no sight lines. Indy journalist Tim Pool (pictured), became world famous for his marathon live broadcasts from New York’s Zuccotti Park using only a smart phone and Ustream.

“Journalists are able to gather new types of picture and new types of stories with this technology,” says Chang. “Stormchasers, for example, are able to put a kit in a car and travel around capturing live footage of weather events in ways that was not possible previously. The kit has no complicated set-up so crews can get to a location and start shooting live immediately.”

Al Jazeera used TVUPack to extend its live news gathering operations in locations throughout the Middle East, including the 2012 presidential election and recent civil unrest in Egypt. LiveU’s technology will be used to cover the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The BBC made extensive use of Mobile Viewpoint’s combination of embedded hardware encoder and off-the-shelf USB 3G, 4G, CDMA2000 and Wimax modems to broadcast the Olympic 2012 torch relay.

But is BGAN best?

The momentum behind the technology is clear, however, it not quite ubiquitous yet.
“One issue with backpacks is the latency which makes a Q&A interview quite difficult. Because it relies on the public network you never know at what point you may find the signal stopping,” says Malcolm Smith, head of newsgathering operations, ITN. “We run a bulletin-based news service and if the live element of a story can’t be 100% relied upon, then it’s too disruptive. A classic example is of the student marches round Trafalgar Square where we had a crew out with a backpack, they walk around the corner and bump into a Sky crew using similar kit and the signal falls apart.”

ITN’s next generation of 18 SNG vehicles, provided by SIS Live, will feature a network connection as well as providing video back to ITN. On stream this year, the service will use SIS LIVE’s 8.1m Ka band antenna at its MediaCityUK teleport, with smaller Ka band antennas installed at ITV’s regional bases and HQ on Grays Inn Road, providing downlink of signals and local IP connectivity. A SIS uBook system will dynamically allocate bandwidth between DVB and IP carriers, ensuring that the satellite capacity usage is maximised at all times.

“We will extend our network out in the field so journalists near a truck can connect to the newsroom as if they were back at their desk,” says Smith.

Vendors of cellular bonding equipment make much of the idea that news crews can transmit from remote regions or conflict zones. LiveU says it is the only vendor providing a roaming solution which covers 250 countries with a global sim card or set of cards. “No matter where you are in the world you have coverage,” says Ronen Artman, VP marketing.

Yet in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines, the cell phone network was virtually wiped out in certain areas. ITN teams used BGAN terminals “which have transformed foreign news by allowing us to widen our reach around the world in a much more cost effective manner than before,” says Smith.

Sky News’ head of technology, Steve Bennedik, however, says it’s no longer acceptable to automatically send a BGAN because of the technology’s expense. The organisation uses a variety of backpack technologies from Aviwest, LiveU and Dejero.

“You have to look at the story, the region and think about the routing, transmission and IP network,” he says. “Different combinations of technology can make considerable savings.” On location in Nairobi recently, Sky sent Aviwest 3G mobile devices backed up with a KA satellite dish.

Smartphone streaming apps
All the leading bonded wireless uplink suppliers now offer phone apps which boost encoding quality and link feeds direct to the relevant news desk. ITN uses Aspera, developers of a fast file transfer product and a mobile phone app from Streambox. LiveU offers LU-Smart, allowing customers to extend coverage using a smartphone or tablet.

Sky Asia correspondent Mark Stone has broadcast live with an iPhone outfitted with Dejero LIVE+ from a remote area of China. Sky’s North of England reporter Nick Martin has also used the app when first to the scene of a breaking sports news story.

“We are encouraging our reporters to use smartphones where it makes sense, and will kit out journalists with extra kit (professional mics, tripods and lens adaptors for iPhones),” says Bennedik. “The Dejero app is very easy to work and comes straight through to the Sky network operations centre in Osterley, not via YouTube or other public channels. We get it onto air immediately. It can be just 30 seconds of vision which a reporter can send in while they are waiting for a crew to arrive.”

Dejero’s LIVE+ 20/20 transmitter was also key to Sky Sports News’ live broadcast from all 92 of the UK’s Premier and football league clubs on 1 August 2013.

“The cost savings were huge,” reports Ian Brash, technical manager, Sky Sports News. “For the cost of hiring an SNG truck for a day, we were able to hire a complete suite of Dejero equipment for a whole week.”

He adds: “The 20/20 transmitters gave us flexibility that we just would not have had with a truck; for instance, we could send a transmitter on the back of a motor bike if we needed to. In Southampton we were able to go into the stadium and broadcast right from the pitch, where a truck would never be allowed.”

Dutch specialist Mobile Viewpoint uses a pair of Android-based smartphones to deliver live feeds from location. “The 3G-S solution turns standard mobile devices into broadcast equipment and enables cost-effective newsgathering,” says Michel Bais, CEO.

By attaching inexpensive professional-quality camera lenses, such as the £180 54-75mm Sony QX10, users can turn their smartphone into a pseudo-DLSR. Other types of lens, such as the GoPano micro, can be attached to enable 180° or 360° panoramic video. This can then be unwrapped by special software, such as that developed by Condition One, and translated back into a flat video image navigable by tablet users.

Other innovations include Switchcam software which stitches together video from multiple smartphones at an event, a concert for example, giving a low-budget and unique multicam coverage.

Associated Press deputy director of international video Mark Davies says user-generated coverage “is integral to covering breaking news, particularly where access is restricted.”

AP partnered with Swedish video streaming outfit Bambuser a year ago to enable the agency to share UGC among the 700 TV networks it supplies. Users are able to opt in to having their footage picked up by AP and its associated news organisations, and the wire service will use its network of correspondents to vet any footage shot by citizen reporters.

While news organisations look to harvest the array of video perspectives they are wary of the minefield in verifying accuracy. In the aftermath of a plane crash into the Mekong river in October, video of a plane appeared on several international news wires. Associated Press vetted the image and found it to be of a plane that had crashed in 2012.

The crucial next step is to verify that live video streams are what they purport to be. Using a Google+ group and an open Twitter account, Dublin-based Storyful is trying to build a crowdsourced ‘open newsroom’ that can help verify user-generated content in realtime during events like the war in Syria.

Get ready for Google Glass
Perhaps the technology with the most potential to upend the traditional means of newsgathering is net-connected spectacles. Due for commercial release next spring, Google Glass wearers will be able to view news feeds (“glassware”) from EuroNews, CNN, The New York Times, Reuters and ABC News. Others, like ITN, have a watching brief.

Bennedik suggests that Sky reporters might find smart glass of benefit as a research tool on location, giving them the ability to query a fact or have updates fed to them while conducting or waiting to conduct interviews.

Tim Pool, who is now an online news producer for Vice Media, has used Google Glass to livestream protest coverage from Turkey and Cairo. “Some people have told me that it’s like journalism video-gaming,” he told The Guardian. “With social media, people can chat with me while I’m broadcasting – and chat to one another, which is just as powerful.”

Demonstrating the tech at IBC, Pool observed that journalists need to be more security-aware with new technologies. “A smartphone is like carrying a tracking device. Journalists must beware of protecting themselves and their sources.”

CNN has perhaps explored the technology with most vigour. Its citizen journalist service iReport offers Glass-wearers the chance to shoot video or take a photo then upload it to iReport where a CNN editor will take a judgement on whether it supports the day’s news agenda.

“The more perspectives and data we can get the better, in order to build a picture of an event from different angles,” Jeff Eddings, a director of Media Camp, Turner’s accelerator for media startups.

Wearables also help with the validation of news stories, he says, by transmitting metadata, such as GPS, time, and identity of the user for evaluation by the news organisation.

“Imagine what President Obama’s inauguration would have been like from crowd-sourced video rather than just the multi-camera set-up. Imagine what a news event like the San Francisco plane crash would be like if reported live via Google Glass from someone onboard.”