It’s easy to forget, when you’re watching coverage of your favourite sporting events, how much work goes into bringing that broadcast to you. Whether it’s motorsports events like the Bathurst 1000 or the Formula® 1 with their dozens of high definition cameras on every corner of the track, or golf championships where coverage switches seamlessly between half a dozen players without ever losing sight of the ball, there’s a ton of money and skill involved in even the most basic of broadcasts.
And that’s just the one event. Now, think about what’s on offer on Foxtel, with 15 channels of sport running 24 hours a day, live games from around the world flawlessly beamed in via satellite and placed alongside replays and other shows. Keeping all those channels running at the same time involves equipment that wouldn’t look out of place at NASA – and a lot of skilled people.
And now, as sporting coverage moves to the new era of combined live and on-demand streaming, things are going to get really involved. A long time in the planning – and launching to near universal acclaim from sports fans – the $25/month Kayo Sports service brings live sport firmly into the 21st century with its seamless melding of live and recorded events, augmented by some very clever new features.
The Kayo Sports Difference
If you load up the Kayo app on your desktop computer, phone, tablet – or best of all, on an Apple TV – you’ll find an interface that’s ready-made for the sports fan. You have a series of screens showing you (with plenty of colourful graphics) what events are on offer at the moment, what’s available to catch up on and what’s coming up.
Kayo is run as a separate business to Foxtel, and that detachment has let them develop a different “look and feel” for their apps – and at the same time, put a unique spin on the long-standing pay TV concept of “channels” and, to some extent, schedules. Obviously live sporting events still happen at scheduled times, and Kayo’s got that covered as well. If you fire up the app and see an event already well in progress, you don’t need to miss the start – you can just start streaming from the beginning, the live feed continuing to update as you do. You’re effectively watching the game “live” – but on your schedule. It’s brilliant.
And on top of that, a review of Kayo reveals a bunch of other unique features. Real-time statistics are available for many events, along with a true innovation in the form of “Key Moments” (more on that in a, err, moment). Fans wanting to keep track of multiple events that are on at the same time don’t need to flick between them anymore either, since depending on your device, you can run up to four live video windows on the one screen. It’s like running your own TV network.
All of this cleverness doesn’t just happen, of course. Behind the scenes at Kayo, there’s a dedicated team of talented people looking after all the moving parts that make it work, bringing them all together behind the scenes to deliver a service that, to the end user, feels natural and effortless to use.
But a 24-hour-a-day service like Kayo can’t rely entirely on humans to keep it running – it’s simply not practical to manually update the live and recorded feeds when there’s always something new going on somewhere in the world, regardless of the time of day. The secret sauce that makes Kayo tick is automation, says Thomas Kaurin, Kayo’s Director of Technology.
“A high level of automation keeps these things running smoothly and available for instant replay after a live event has concluded,” he explains. “There are parts of the workflow that do require human intervention, but these are around scheduling the events onto the automation systems. We also use automation around our VOD (on-demand video) workflows and metadata enrichment.”
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s some pretty high-tech stuff going on here – and some very clever people behind it. The engine powering Kayo runs on powerful cloud-based computers using custom-developed software that allows Kayo a fine level of control over almost every element of the service. And thanks to the massively scalable power of cloud computing, Kayo can customise video streams in real time to suit a range of different devices, from mobile phones to high definition TVs.
“For a single live event, there are 3-4 different video formats that are encoding simultaneously, both on premises as well as in the cloud,” Kaurin explains. “As an event finishes, the previously live encoded fragments stay in place and are used for on-demand playback, so the turnaround is instant. We stream 13 linear channels, more than 200 events/matches a week and can get up to around 20 concurrent live events.”
That translates to a lot of video to be encoded in real time, and the power behind Kayo’s systems is truly staggering when you think about what they’re doing. The real innovation here is making video instantly available for on-demand streaming. It’s a very similar technique to what a DVR device like the Foxtel iQ boxes do on their hard disks, but it hasn’t been done on this scale in Australia before.
The real “showstopper” tech in Kayo’s launch apps is Split View, which enables multiple windows of live video to be displayed at the same time on selected devices. It works surprisingly smoothly, and more to the point, it doesn’t seem to massively increase the download speed required to stream it. At any point you can select one of the windows and hear its audio, or click on it and make it full-screen, so these are clearly the actual full-quality live streams being used. How did they pull it off?
The secret, says Kaurin, is to dynamically cap the streaming bandwidth of the various windows to suit their size. “If you’re watching in the Picture in Picture SplitView layout, the main video is uncapped in its bandwidth usage and will dynamically find its way to the full 1080p if bandwidth is available, but the secondary video is capped to the resolution that’s actually displayed, which can be smaller than, say, 300 pixels. Instead of allowing these smaller videos to play in full 1080p when only 300 pixels are showing, we’ll lower the bitrate to the size it fits to.”
A Kayo feature that hardcore sports fans will absolutely relish is the seamless integration of real-time statistics into the streams – and not just on replays, either. While there’s real-time statistics available for many games by default, those watching a replay (or just watching on a bit of a delay) will often see an extra button – “Key Moments”. That brings up a timeline of crucial events within the game – wickets, goals, penalties, the start and end of play sessions and more can all be instantly jumped to with Key Moments.
But how does it work? Does Kayo have a team of people glued to screens entering this data as it happens? Fortunately, no – rather, it’s the close relationship Kayo has with Fox Sports that provides the juice for all the stats and data. “It’s a mix of automation and statisticians entering game data as events progress,” Kaurin explains. “Every piece of data (run/try/wicket/ball/lap/basket) is recorded at the moment it happens live and becomes available to us, and is then represented as a Key Moment on video timelines.”
Though it’s now officially launched and serving up high definition streaming sports to fans all over Australia, the plan at Kayo is not to sit back and wait, but rather to continue expanding and enhancing the service. Kaurin sounds genuinely excited as he talks about some of the new features that are already in development for Kayo, and on the way very soon.
“With over 30,000 hours of content to be added each year, fans won’t need to worry about finding what they want to watch with a new search function. Within seconds users will be able to search for an event, show or game and be watching instantly. Fans who are watching on the go and want to pick up the action later now can, with a new continue watching feature enabling fans to pause or exit an event, then return later on any device and pick up where they left off. In-app alerts will ensure fans don’t miss any of the big sporting moments, by alerting users of when their favourite team is about to begin or if a match is starting to heat up.”
Chromecast and Kayo
One frequently asked question from the customer side with Kayo has been why the app recommends that users have the high-end Chromecast Ultra or the just-released third generation of the standard Chromecast if they want to cast to a TV from their phone, tablet or browser. With many thousands of the 1st and 2nd generation Chromecasts out there, it seemed like an odd restriction – but as Kaurin explains, it’s down to the parameters of the devices themselves.
“Chromecast 1st and 2nd generations are hardware-limited to a maximum of 720p at 60 frames per second, or 1080p at 30 frames per second,” he says. “Kayo Sports encodes the vast majority of its live stream events in 1080p at 50 frames per second, exceeding the parameters of these two devices. We limit generation 1 and 2 to our 720p HD content while allowing the newer generation to access the 1080p HD version. It is important for us to target high resolutions and framerates, as sport is all about fast moving pictures, and the higher the frame rate and resolutions, the smoother the motion.”
So that’s one thing that sports fans in Australia have waited for years to happen now easily available – smooth, high frame-rate video streaming that’ll look just as good as top quality broadcast TV. Kayo keeping frame rate as the main priority is commendable – and of course, that full 1080p HD is ready for you at any time if you upgrade to a newer device. We wondered if 1080p is the ultimate goal, or whether we’re likely to see 4K streaming on Kayo in the future – or maybe 5.1 surround sound. The answer, though, is: “it’s not currently on the cards in these early stages”.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to like about Kayo’s services. It’s well designed, has visually appealing apps, superb streaming quality and a range of features that give sports fans more control. Kayo’s a revelation for any sports fan – a peek at the future of how we’ll watch sport that’s available right now.