Come Fly with me

OnBoard International is more than just a content acquisition service.
Tanvir Hussain in OBI's offices..
Tanvir Hussain in OBI's offices..

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OnBoard International is more than just a content acquisition service for the commercial airline industry. Thanks to its new end-to-end digital workflow, it’s more of a production house for the skies.

OnBoard International (OBI) is an in-flight entertainment (IFE) specialist based in Dubai Media City. Founded in London in 1996, OBI moved to Dubai in 2003 to service the MEA and GCC regions, in the process becoming a noteworthy content service provider.

Headquartered in Dubai with branches in Jeddah and Riyadh, OBI is the only IFE provider based in the region providing a complete IFE solution.

As well as the usual content acquisition side of its operation, it also offers post-production services such as editing and cutting according to length requirements or cultural sensitivities, as well as the delivery of the content to the planes themselves.

OBI has an MPA certified screening lab – the only company to have this certification in the Middle East, along with an ISO certification.

With the increase in long-haul flights and the number of people flying in the MENA region, thanks to its growth as an emerging market and a key aviation hub, the region, and Dubai in particular, is seeing dramatic growth in the number of flights in operation.

Dubai International Airport broke into the Airport Council International’s busiest 10 airports in the world by passenger numbers in 2012, and with the recent opening of a second airport in the city, things seem unlikely to slow down.

Travellers in the region, just as the airlines themselves, grow ever more demanding and a journey is no longer judged solely on getting a passenger from a to b. Inflight entertainment can play a major role in creating perceptions of an airline, and consequently persuading passengers to book.

Tanvir Hussain, technical supervisor of OBI, says: “The demand for specific, rich and varied content is increasing day by day, and this is an indication of the changes in how the business operates compared to the past.”

OnBoard International serves major airlines in the region such as Saudi Arabian Airlines, Africa Airways and Royal Jet Abu Dhabi on an exclusive basis, and also offers technical services to Etihad Airways.

“We are proud of our relationship with Saudi Arabian Airlines which is a major player in the region. The requirements of the airlines are very specific, and we have been able to meet the demands consistently without fail” Hussain added.

OBI has a very strong content management team, starting with a programming and acquisition department that is committed to obtaining the most suitable content from around the world, according to clients’ requests.

At any given time OBI is ready with 950 to 1,000 pieces of content for delivery to its clients. The content type belongs to a range of categories including movies, sports, documentary, comedy, drama and lifestyle.

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A typical project starts like this: OBI receives the client request in categories, which is looked into by the programming & acquisition department. From its vast pool of resources including distributors from Hollywood, the UK, Bollywood and Middle Eastern markets, the acquisition department makes a selection of items that fulfill the requirements.

It then creates the synopsis we see on the flight screens and filters the content to match the regulations of the client. This will then be handed over to the Client Servicing department, which previews the content and communicates with the client. After approvals, the acquisition department finishes the purchases.

Although it is in name a content delivery company, OBI requires many facilities akin to those of a production house. Hussain says:”We have a well-equipped production house in our Dubai Media City office. We receive the content in either tapes or digital files.

Our equipment list includes a Digibeta and Betacam used for tapes, an extensive storage system and FCP based editing suites with four machines and three video editing specialists to ensure that the content is very well in accordance with the client demands while ensuring very high quality content.”

The challenges faced by OBI are not too different from a TVC, for example. Ensuring quality content, meeting deadlines for multiple clients while meeting clear instructions are only some of them.

The demands being complex, OBI decided to upgrade its system recently to ensure timely delivery without compromising on quality, and ensuring fast and efficient service. There were a few challenges to be addressed at the technical end to increase the efficiency.

For one, there was no central access to all the content for editing, ingest and export, which meant that specific content could only be accessed by the one editor assigned to it. The same was the case with the calibration.

So, if an editor wanted to hand over the content in the middle of a project to a fellow editor, it was not possible. There was also serious storage space limitation, and with the increasing number of clients and their demands, storage was becoming a serious concern.

Furthermore, under the old system, when OBI received the master tape on a DigiBeta, they duplicated that onto another one and sent it for subtitling. This was ingested in real-time by the editor using FCP 7 to complete the edits and rough cuts.

The edited file was then exported as a low-res file and sent for approvals. Once the content was approved, the editor would make an edit-to-tape for the final output – again in real time.

Once completed, the tape was sent to the encoding department to be converted to the client’s requested format. This process also took place in real time, and was then dumped to HI-8, or DVD. Due to the increasing number of projects OBI was taking on, this workflow was becoming increasingly impractical for meeting an expanding number of deadlines.

With the existing system having been in place for the past 5 years, OBI turned to Dubai’s MediaCast for advice on how to address their unique challenge, and MediaCast came up with a solution based around a Digital Tapeless Workflow.

The solution is centred on a storage area network (SAN), whereby all four edit suites are connected to the SAN storage via Fibre Channel, using a connection with a speed of 8Gb. This allows OBI to edit SD, HD and even 2K footage easily.

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There is a dedicated ingest station for digitising all the master tapes that OBI receives from distributors, and these are saved on the SAN. The SAN volume is managed by two metadata controllers to facilitate the volume as well to provide automatic failover in case one of the servers fails – giving total peace of mind, enabling the editors to carry on their work.

The solution also has a second server that functions as a file server to share the volume to network-based clients. These clients can access the volume using their normal 1Gb connection and they can preview any video that the editors have completed working on. This volume is accessible to Windows or Mac Clients via the SMB and AFP protocol of the server.

Mediacast also integrated 2 Encoders from Digital Rapids that help provide the necessary codecs to produce on a daily basis. These encoders can capture source from a tape, or can process a file from a folder on the network. File-based transcoding is five times faster than real time can handle multiple transcodes.

OBI’s archiving, also requires a huge amount of space. To address this, MediaCast installed a network-based archive appliance that is compatible with the existing infrastructure. This allows OBI to digitize DigitBeta masters into LTO tapes and store them in a smaller area, with greater longevity on the media than tape-based archives.

The workflow is simple – content is digitized through the ingest station so that it is available to all the editors in real time. This gives them the freedom to collaborate on the source file and create their own edits.

Once they’ve done the preliminary part, they will export a low-res file inside the SAN storage. This allows the producers who are connected via the network to browse the video and add comments.

Once they give a go-ahead, editors can export a high quality file on the watch folder of the encoders, which transcodes the video to the necessary output (Mpeg-1, Mpeg-4). The final file is then saved to an external media of the client’s choice.

Once the project is completed, the team saves the finished product to the archives just by dragging the file to the mapped archive storage. The LTO Drive will do the rest of sending the file to LTO Tape.

Hussain concludes: “With the increasing challenges we were facing and the constant need to use the best solutions to guarantee our committed service, it was necessary that we used a highly professional and innovative solution. MediaCast came up with just that and now we are just so much more capable to offer more.”

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