back to article Inside the BBC's R&D Labs

Whatever your views on its programming, it is hard to deny that the BBC’s research labs have produced some pretty clever things over the years. Teletext, RDS and Nicam stereo are just some of the more well known ones, but the R&D Lab is also responsible for much of the work on the DVB-T2 standard that makes Freeview HD possible …


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  1. Mage Silver badge


    They are not spending enough and it's a pale shadow of what it used to be.

    Some of the stuff of course is worthless and stupid. Without enough resources and budget too much will be trivial.

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      They may well not be spending as much as some would like, but they manage to achieve an awful lot, in my view. Stuff like DVB-T2 is pretty clever (regardless of your view of the content distributed with it), and the accessibility work is pretty important too, in my view.

      I'd love to know how much Google has spent on GoogleTV; it's very likely far more than the whole of the BBC Labs. And what have they got to show for it?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Good comparison, but there is a difference. Google can waste as much money as it likes. We don't pay a Poll Tax to Google.

  2. John Geddes

    My late father worked at Kingswood Warren from its opening until 1967, and as a child I remember it as a wonderous place - a spooky anechoic chamber and a mindblowing first encounter with stereo.

    One of the inventions at Kingswood was TARIF - kit to rebalance the colours in old movies where deterioration of the dyes had distorted the colour balance. The story was that its working moniker was originally TARRIF - "Tony and Ron's Remedy For Inferior Film", and that it was only when it won a Royal Television Society award that a more respectable name had to be developed. Dropping one "R" it became TARIF - "Television Apparatus for the Rectification of Indifferent Film".

    1. MrCheese
      Thumb Up


      Should've kept the first name, I rather like that!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Excellent use of licence fee

    More of this sort of thing

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    5.1 sound

    Are we meant to be impressed by "5.1 sound"? It's not even half of 11.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Auntie Beeb makes some lemons too....

    Teletext : brilliant

    RDS : brilliant

    Nicam : brilliant

    BBC Beta Home Page ( ): utter shite

    1. Tim Parker

      Re : BBC Beta Home Page

      ..and of course I had to follow the link...

      "utter shite"

      Ugh - blimey, see what you mean. That's like being Rick-rolled, but worse....

      1. Robert E A Harvey
        Thumb Down


        Is that inspired by W8, do you think?

    2. Eponymous Cowherd
      Thumb Up

      Not to mention.....

      The abysmal Flash based Android iPlayer.

      What do you mean you want to listen to the radio with the screen *off*!!? You actually want people's mouths to be synchronised with their voices? You really want the play/pause controls to actually be hidden while you are watching (and not cover 1/3 of the screen)??? You want to actually use a *mobile* app while you are away from a fast broadband connection??? You want to be able to continue watching where you left off after taking a call on your *phone*????

      Why would anyone want those things????

      1. Nigel Whitfield.

        To be fair, I think things like that are more the province of the web team than of R&D. Much of what goes on in the Lab is at a much earlier stage.

  6. Fenton

    22.2 Surround sound?

    How the hell I am going to persuade "She who must be Obeyed" that I need an additional 17.1 speakers in the living room ????

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      That's one of the great things about ambisonics / 3D sound. You don't necessarily have to have a specific number of speakers. The reproduction system will try to recreate the effect based on what you do have.

      1. Ru

        "The reproduction system will try to recreate the effect"

        Your reproduction system is exactly what you are risking by purchasing this kit without approval.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "If you let me have it then I'll stop whinging about not having it." :-)

      1. Grease Monkey

        22.2. But I've only got two ears!

  7. Red Bren


    Lets you cram even more useless shopping channels into precious bandwidth.

    It still annoys me that millions of "HD Ready", Freeview TVs have been forced into early obselescence while inferior DAB is still being pushed despite low take up. It's cheaper to upgrade a radio than a telly.

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      I think it would be more accurate to say that DVB-T2 increases the bandwidth of a given slice of spectrum, and in that sense it's a very good bit of engineering. It's the decision of the bean counters to fill that extra bandwidth with content that's less than sparkling.

    2. Grease Monkey

      "Lets you cram even more useless shopping channels into precious bandwidth."

      And why blame the BBC R&D crew for that? DVB-T2/Freeview HD works fine thanks.

      What doesn't work is the financial model of Freeview broadcasting, or specifically how the channels are sold.

  8. TRT Silver badge

    Ah, these are the real British Boffins still going at it. Excellent.

    1. NightFox

      Don't forget the egg-heads

  9. Dave Murray

    DVB-T2 standard makes Freeview HD possible?

    Where I live no one that has a Freeview HD box can actually watch any of the channels. If you actually get a picture at all it will become distorted and then the dreaded 'no signal' will pop up within 5 minutes of watching.

    1. Grease Monkey

      I don't even have an HD telly and I really can't see the point, but the neighbours have Freeview HD and they don't have any problems at all.

    2. Return To Sender


      Just checking - the folks with a Freeview HD box are using a good aerial?

      Just replaced my fairly knackered old aerial with a nice high-gain Yagi (I pick up Mendip, with a few problems with local hills) and good quality downleads (CT100 satellite cable). Only a few quid more expensive than the bacofoil crud you get at B&Q etc and it'll last a damn sight longer. Net result, more channels and better signal - much less break up. Oh, and make sure you get some decent independent advice, experience suggests an awful lot of satellite / aerial installers are clueless cowboys...

  10. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Optional soundtracks

    PLEASE! Then we won't have to put up with documentaries filled with tootling and parping incidental music for 50 minutes.

    And if they can somehow redub Robert Peston into English that will be worth the licence fee alone. But I suspect even the Beeb's boffins won't be able to stop Peston having a good rummage in his trousers every time he stands up and speaks (sorry it's one of those things that once seen can't be unseen - much the same way that Peter Sissons jiggles when reading the news)

    1. James Hughes 1


      Trouble with over dubbing Peston, is that once you have got across all the pertinent information, you still have two minutes to fill up as he speaks so annoyingly slowly.

      1. Grease Monkey

        How about redubbing Peston to give us actual news rather than one of his rambling, threorizing, opinion piece waffles?

        1. John 62

          Is that Eddie Mair in disguise?

  11. Neil 44

    Shame they didn't do more on DAB

    Then we wouldn't have been stuck with something that doesn't even do the equivalent of their own RDS service!

    1. alyn

      DAB works fine - its the fcuking accountants who messed it up

      DAB works fine if the broadcasters used it the way it was designed to be used. Its the bean counters who want more channels squeezed into each multiplex to create more revenue, which then results in the bitrate being reduced. Also DAB was not designed for local services.

      P.S. I worked at KW when DAB was first demo'ed

  12. TeeCee Gold badge

    "...compared to 3.19 for Bath."

    You're right, obvious west country bias at work.

    Only the other day I saw a bit of "Escape to the Country". They were in Lancashire and even there, in one of the houses they mentioned Bath three times!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      It was a barth dearie!

  13. Grease Monkey

    "a live dalek toy bursts into life when one of his fellows appears on screen."

    We already have the technology for that. It's a six year old boy with a remote control, every home should have one. And there's the sonic that comes out whenever the Doctor uses his and so on.

    It's sort of like the six year old's version of the Withnail and I drinking game.

  14. Cliff

    This is what I so love and admire about the Beeb - not content to accept the status quo, but pushing development on some funky fronts. I am so pleased to hear that the licensing and patent pool actually provides money to the corp, surely that means the department should be expanded ;-)

    I remember in 1990 seeing that a bunch of engineers had recorded the Wimbledon final in HD - this is back before digital, mind, this was 4 Beta (SP? SR? Certainly waaaay before digibeta, and massively before HDCam...) decks ganged each recording 1/4 of the signal.

  15. Sam Crawley

    Good work

    When you think of the amount of money squandered on rubbish "prime time" shows and overpaid star presenters to compete with commercial TV on a Saturday evening, it's only things like this that restore my confidence in the Beeb. Up the funding I say!

    1. alyn

      actually not beta

      Actually it was not beta but four Sony digital video recorders using HUGE cassettes. Long before jpeg compressed video formats.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Scrap metal

        And in the last days at Kingswood Warren I saw scrap metal merchants taking club hammers to these trusty old washing machine-sized D1 recorders. Such is the march of technology in 20 years or so. If nothing else, the closure of the site forced a major clear-out.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Grease Monkey

      IOW DAB works fine if you spend an absolute fortune on infrastructure. And why would DAB not work well for local services?

      The local BBC station for our county is not available on DAB where I live, but ten miles down the road it comes through loud and clear. The conclusion I have to draw from this, therefore, is that DAB transmissions are very localised. As such it would seem to me to be eminently suited to local services.

  17. b166er

    I just love the fact that Uncle Reg and Auntie Beeb were playing nicely!

  18. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    But is this supposed to be impressive ?

    Inventing searching the text of subtitles - just as real image search "find an image with green tree on rainy landscape" is starting to work.

    Adding RDS to a digital radio standard that everybody except the BBC has abandoned.

    And a sound activated toy that was on Tomorrows world 20 years ago. 10 years ago I worked on modifying it so that the hidden audio codes could survive MP3 - and it was old boring tech even then.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      He's right

      The Dalek is not a great advert for the TV tax

  19. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Actually you can read a lot of their history

    That digital HDTV recording experiment was done with 4 D2 or D5 recorders, those were early popular digital recording formats. I think you could already buy one analogue HDTV VTR the BCH-1000.

    They did some amazing things in the past. For example they made a framestore, which is a solid state device which could store a whole video frame. It was about as large as a wardrobe and only consumed 5 kW of power. It stores a whole video frame in shift registers, because apparently RAM isn't available yet in the UK.(!?)

    They also designed a machine called Anchor which was meant to be a replacement for Letraset sheets. It created letters and numbers purely electronically. Unlike digital systems, it uses analogue circuits to make wonderfully round shapes. From what I've seen it looks so much better than the blocky 5x7 pixel fonts of digital systems.

    Ohh and they made a device which could transfer a video signal into a video. It worked by hooking up a high speed papertype puncher to a A/D converter. For every frame it did sample one pixel and punched it out. The papertype could then be read with just about any computer.

    They did make some pretty nifty stuff there.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      D1 recorders

      The system used D1 recorders : ("A digital HDTV recorder using a cluster of four D1 DVTRs"). One aspect of the design was that a sub-sampled version of the entire image was recorded on each VTR, as opposed to the image being simply cut into quarters. This allowed editing of HD recordings to be done using one playback VTR in a standard-definition environment and then the edit decisions to be applied to the other three to produce the final HD programme.

      Going back even further (1958) was the Video Electronic Recording Apparatus - one of the first VTRs, which didn't record in stripes as is done today and so used enormous reels of tape moving at very high speed for a very short recording time. Pretty impractical but I gather that an innovation which was carried through to every subsequent analogue format was to use frequency modulation to allow the bandwidth of a video signal to be accommodated on tape.

  20. Heineken Please

    KWW - A Great Place

    Having visited Kingswood Warren many times in the 70's and 80's you felt the history there. The country house setting always impressed. I remember a comms room in the basement, it had a dark recess in the corner where someone had fitted a cell door. Quess what, they had also strung up a skeleton behind it. Great fun taking new people around the place.

    You just don't get the same sort of atmosphere in a concrete block.

    A beer for the people who worked there in the old days......

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    BBC Impartial - HA, what a JOKE

    When this 'clips' tracking software comes into being, we can prove with their own data the sheer craven bias when talking about "our" wars, the lies about Iran, Libya, Syria, acting as the propaganda arm of the Israeli government that they are and demolish their lies about being "impartial".

    When did you hear they say ANYTHING about the illegality of Obamas drone murders? Or the illegal wars the country has carried out? Or that Major/Blair/Brown/Cameron should be on trial for crimes against humanity?

    Never, and you never will. The BBC is the propaganda arm of the establishment.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      ...what has this got to do with BBC R&D? Can you take your foaming mouth somewhere else please?

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Sorry

    The article doesn't seem to say that the Dalek was triggered by audio. If anything, it implies there was some kind of internet connectivity involved.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Digital production

    "production system that allows ‘rushes’ to be taken from a camera and synced to multiple devices, so all the members of a team can make notes or comments about a shot within a short time of it being loaded into the system"

    Why not make notes as it's being ingested, and in multiple qualities simultaneously? It is possible, but I have been installing systems that do for years, @ the BBC and ITV

  24. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Re: Sorry

    Then that's even worse. They have had cheap technology for putting low data rate sideband info in audio streams for years, now the solution is for a toy to connect to your wifi (how do you enter a WPA password on a Dalek?) and then to the BBC servers and hope the latency isn't too bad.

    Good job subtitles have already been invented or they would be using twitter - or sending you SMS texts !

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      IIRC from the demo....

      IIRC from the demo, the clever bit was the frame-accurate synchronisation between the broadcast and the alternative audio. The tech is really designed to allow an alternative audio track (like in another language, or with audio description) to be sent to a secondary device (moby/fondleslab etc) while keeping the lip-sync exact. The Dalek was just a fun example. Since they don't have externally visible lips. Daleks that is, not BBC employees.

  25. Mike Flex

    "The BBC’s working with students from Lancaster’s Beaumont College to create interfaces that can be controlled with just a single switch, for example."

    Might be handy, given that I've just been dragged away from reading this article to turn the TV on for my better half.

    It doesn't help that our Sony TV defaults to the last selected input, even if the relevant device is switched off. Which is somewhat sloppy when it has a HDMI connection and is also a Sony box.

    1. Grease Monkey

      Interesting. My Sony TV doesn't do that at all. Have you read the manual?

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    have the prog without the incidental music?

    Gets a massive thumbs up from me! "I wish someone would shut that f$cking orchestra up" became something of a catchphrase in our house, I think it was around the time crime dramas were becoming more prevalent...

  27. Phil Endecott Silver badge

    As well as Bath

    Other places that might get disproportionately more mentions than their populations would suggest:












    and most importantly.....

    BEER !!!

  28. Lamont Cranston

    Dubbing Polish audio over the live broadcast of Doctor Who?

    Typical of the left-leaning BBC to want to support all the lazy immigrants who want to come over here, to steal our jobs and abuse our benefits system.

    The sooner the BBC has it's funding slashed (it's a tax - I don't even watch Cbeebies, so why should I be forced to fund it?), and is sold off to Rupert Murdoch, the better.

  29. MrCheese
    Thumb Up

    Almost Happy

    Save for the following:

    "With the UK’s creaking broadband infrastructure, broadcast will still be doing the ‘heavy lifting’ of delivering content to many consumers for a long time to come, with the internet enhancing it through hybrid services.

    One of those is RadioTAG, which can use the internet to deliver additional data alongside a broadcast"

    Non sequitur as far I can tell, any further use of the "internet" will add load to the "UK’s creaking broadband infrastructure". Is there an element of semantics here I'm missing?

    "By capturing all the subtitle information from the DVB streams – the last four years’ of broadcasts are included so far – it’s possible to search a huge amount of material to find any mentions of a subject, then view the relevant clip and, eventually, producers will be able to use the system to include it in their own programme"

    Surely this guarantees the exact same clip will be used by all shows more often not less, especially when the sample size covers a period during which they know this to be a problem?

    "Another project aims to help classify archive material based on the moods evoked by the music"

    Again, you wouldn't be classifying the clip just the music, the person who puts the music to a clip is dictating the mood it is trying to confer upon the viewer/listener long before other interpretations can be made.

    I'm sure I can probably be enlightened and like all research, primary investigations generally promote discovery rather than making discoveries. Nice to know there's some British boffinry still doing what they do best though, license money well spent!

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      What I was getting at is that while some people fondly believe that in just a few years we'll all be receiving everything via the internet, that's pretty unlikely (at least until multi-cast is more widely available); but by using hybrid systems like this you can still do some of that clever stuff, using both system together; instead of clogging up the internet with a video broadcast, and multiple soundtracks, for example, extra soundtracks can be delivered via the the net, with the video still delivered using traditional broadcast.

      There's slightly less benefit when it comes to radio, which uses less capacity, but it's still more efficient to use FM broadcast and a small amount of additional data than to have all the radio listening delivered down people's broadband, even when they are listening live. Systems like RadioTAG mean you can pretty seamlessly move between the two, as well.

      How well the indexing works will remain to be seen; but typing in search words during the demos turned up a lot of mentions of the various terms, and plenty of clips - if a topic's been mentioned, it'll be found.

      I would imagine you'll find more mentions of something - especially given the way some discussions can change topic subtly - by effectively searching full transcripts than by searching the notes that might have been made beforehand. And, of course, over time the amount of material included is likely to increase. The four years is, I think, pretty much what's readily to hand to test out the system.

  30. John 62


    Surely Coolvetica and Arial should be the ones for the chop

  31. John 62


    hopefully they'll discover a way to get rid of background music when they put up full-screen graphics like league tables

  32. John 62

    wideangle panning shots

    In the future we'll have cameras that give electric jolts to directors who want panning shots when the camera's on wide angle

  33. Danny 4

    incidental music volume control

    If the Beeb should happen to come by here looking for ideas, here's one, what with all this talk of multiple audio channels and that.

    How about transmitting the dialogue and music in separate channels. On the TV we can manually set the volume of each channel before it is mixed and fed to the speakers. Then *we* can decide how loud the music should be and it might actually be possible to hear what the characters are saying. This is something my Mum is always complaining about.

    Or for that matter when documentary makers decide to go with an over-inflated and continuous soundtrack we can switch the annoying thing off and enjoy the uninterrupted dialogue. I remember a David Attenborough doc a few years back just like this. I could only endure about 10 minutes before switching over.

    1. Tony Smith, Editor, Reg Hardware (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: incidental music volume control

      Hear, hear.

      (Pun not intended)

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