The World Cup tournament underway in Germany is history in the making, not only for the teams competing for the coveted trophy but also for the engineers covering the event in HDTV (high-definition television) format.
For the first time in the championship's history, all 64 matches are being produced in the widescreen 16:9 HDTV digital format, with 25 HD cameras carrying each match. When the tournament ends on 9 July, more than 1,500 hours of programming will be available.
As its name suggests, HDTV delivers a much sharper picture than standard TV, consisting of 1,080 horizontal lines rather than 625. While standard definition has an effective picture resolution of about 400,000 pixels, in the highest resolution digital TV formats, each picture contains between one and two million pixels.
Not only that, but the new technology offers superb surround sound, giving viewers a cinema-like experience.
For sure, it's an experience they won't easily forget – if they get the chance, that is.
The technology, which has been on the drawing board for decades, has been slow to take off largely because of equipment costs, according to Brian Elliott, head of international broadcast operations at Host Broadcast Services (HBS). While studios must invest in new cameras, recording systems and more, consumers need an HDTV-ready TV and a digital receiver that can process HDTV signals.
Costs, however, have been coming down thanks in part to HD take-up in Asia and the US.
Even if the verdict is still out on whether the German tournament will help kick-start the technology in other parts of the world, the effort behind the World Cup project is big.
HBS, which has been hired by the World Cup tournament organiser Fifa to provide production services, is operating newly equipped broadcast vehicles that process signals from the 25 cameras in each stadium and send the feeds down fibre optic cables to the International Broadcast Centre in Munich.
The signals are transmitted uncompressed over a dedicated point-to-point SDH (synchronous digital hierarchy) network managed by T-Systems, another Fifa partner, at speeds of around 1.5Gbps (gigabits per second). For redundancy reasons, the stadiums are connected with two fibre optic cables, each capable of transmitting data at speeds up to 20Gbps. The cables feed into a backbone network boasting a total capacity of 480Gbps.
"We're taking uncompressed feeds directly from the stadiums and offering them either uncompressed or compressed to broadcasters in other parts of the world, depending on which feed they've agreed to purchase," Elliot said.
If broadcasters can afford an uncompressed signal, they're ensured better quality, said Walter Zornek, head of the Fifa World Cup engineering project for T-Systems. "Every compression step along the way can result in some quality loss," he explained.
The colours and images of the uncompressed feed are similar to what viewers expect in cinemas.
As part of the HBS multi-feed concept, broadcast customers can purchase both standard TV and HDTV feeds. Of the 250 television stations taking feeds, including many small stations from developing countries, 17 have contracts for HDTV. In Germany, the pay TV channel Premiere Fernsehen is broadcasting the games in HDTV, as are the BBC and BSkyB in the UK.
Exactly how many of the viewers, estimated to be in the billions, are watching the games on HDTV sets is anyone's guess, but the event, Elliot said, has helped draw attention to new technology – so much so that at least one broadcaster, BSkyB, hasn't been able to stock enough receivers to keep up with demand.