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Wed 18 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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HD in Mecca and Medina

High definition Hitachi cameras were deployed at Mecca and Medina to broadcast prayers from the holy cities in HD. Vijaya Cherian brings you an exclusive report.

High definition Hitachi cameras were deployed at Mecca and Medina to broadcast prayers from the holy cities in HD. Vijaya Cherian brings you an exclusive report.

More than a whopping two million people gather annually at the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, which is thought to be one of the most important pilgrimages undertaken by Muslims all over the world.

Wanting to cover the prayers held at these two cities in the most befitting manner and in keeping with the desire to be fully HD-ready in the coming years, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) decided to upgrade the cameras at the two places to HD. Saudi Arabian systems integrator First Gulf Company (FGC) undertook the US $11million project.

A combination of 36 dedicated 720p/50 versions of Hitachi’s SK-3200 range, including studio, portable and robotic versions have been installed at the holy cities as part of this project.

26 HD cameras have been installed at Mecca while 10 SD cameras at Medina have been replaced thus far with new HD cams. The rest are slated to be replaced in the second phase of the project.

“The client’s requirement was to have cameras that could shoot in 720p/50,” says Walid AlMoukhtar, chairman and general manager, FGC. “The only camera that fit these specifications accurately came from Hitachi. None of the other competing brands had a product that was specific for this use and would have had to be modified. The Hitachi SK 32B was lower in weight and came with high-end studio specifications while also providing broadcast-quality imagery. It was the perfect fit.”

Paddy Roache, director and general manager of Hitachi Europe sheds light on the birth of the SK 32B camera.

“The Hitachi model which was chosen for the holy cities was the SK 32B. This camera was originally designed for a project for NHK in Japan, where there was a requirement for high-quality studio camera functionality but with the comfort of robotic control,” he says.

“Many newsrooms and TV stations today are reducing the manpower involved in production and looking for solutions that can enable one person to control and operate all the cameras in a production environment.

“The design requirements for the NHK project specified that no studio functionality and performance should be sacrificed. This camera was, therefore, developed from a full studio camera but with a completely new body shape that was stripped down, of course, with no viewfinder and no handles. It also has a lighter weight body construction. Our engineers dramatically reduced the power consumption for this camera. This proved very beneficial given the hot weather in Mecca. Everything you can do to reduce heat in the camera has operational benefits. It was just very good timing that our company had developed this camera when the tenders came through for Mecca and Medina. The SK 32 B was an instant winner for this project,” he adds.

One other big demand at Mecca, according to Roache, was the need for extremely long cable runs from the studios to the cameras and the ability to control them. “Our camera offered superb performance despite the long cable runs and that again made it a worthy investment for the MOCI,” he claims.

The HD cameras have mainly been placed in the same positions as the SD cameras they have replaced at Mecca and Medina. However, the mosque at Mecca has been extended with further extensions planned for the future. Cameras have also been installed at the extension.

“These cameras are basically in boxes. They weigh less than four kgs and are positioned on top of minarets on 31 Vinten Radamec robotic pan and tilt heads. These are very durable and high capacity heads, and can carry more weight than most such tripod systems,” explains Al Moukhtar.

A combination of wide angle and zoom lenses from Canon have been employed for this project.

Two engineers and six technicians from FGC were assigned to undertake the installation at each of the holy cities.

The control room at Mecca has been designed to accommodate 25 cameras or more in the future. Harris Solutions have been used through out the control room right from the Nexio server, its multi-viewing system, graphics, routers and glue equipment. Other essential kits include the Kahuna switcher from Snell and Wilcox as well as the Studer Vista 5 for audio.All through the year, especially during Hajj and Ramadan, Muslim pilgrims flock to Mecca and Medina. Saudi TV broadcasts the prayers held at each of these cities on separate channels five times a day. During Hajj, however, the prayers and events at the cities are continuously aired live on the channels.

“Very little editing is actually done at the control room as they are transmitted directly to Riyadh. Most of it is aired as is although we do have a team that helps them with the production,” explains Al Moukhtar.

FGC was able to complete the installation at Mecca in time for Hajj in December 2008 while the installation at Medina is slated for commissioning this month.

The whole installation was done in time to showcase the project to members of Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), which gathered in Jeddah last year for their annual meeting.

“From Mecca, we uplinked directly with the images and they were able to see everything in HD. It was a moment of triumph for Saudi Arabia and is only a small taste of the plans the Kingdom has to undertake full-fledged migration to HD across Saudi TV. We are working on several projects across the Kingdom to bring this dream to fruition,” adds Al Moukhtar.

FGC CEO Naim Saidi adds that in the new era of HD in KSA, so far all the projects have come to FGC. “All of our projects in the Kingdom are being done in HD. What makes us special is that we are able to do everything in house. We do the systems integration at our workshop in Riyadh and test everything before it is shipped out to its destination and we have good calibre engineers,” he claims.

Although this project was awarded to FGC early last year, work inside the holy cities was not permitted until a few weeks before Hajj in December 2008.

“We had only two weeks to do this. One week to commission and one week for handing over,” explains Al Moukhtar.

Access to the site was a big challenge because of security reasons, he explains. Added to this, the nature of the place demanded that FGC had only fully-trained Muslim staff on site.

In the meantime, the performance of the Hitachi cameras at Mecca and Medinah have set the stage for the manufacturer to sell even more cameras into the Kingdom for Saudi TV as part of the state-owned broadcaster’s gradual migration to a complete HD setup. Hitachi believes this project is one of its biggest success stories in the region and may spur other broadcasters in the GCC to adopt its products.

“Although we have been hugely successful in Egypt and with Saudi TV on several projects, we have not made many inroads into other parts of the GCC,” says Roache.

“We hope to change this situation by partnering with FGC, which recently opened an office in Ras Al Khaimah. Our company was not ready to invest in Middle East activity when we first came here seven years ago and the alliances we built were not as successful for various reasons. We hope we can replicate the success we have had in Saudi Arabia in other parts of the Middle East as well,” explains Roache.

Mecca and Medina, however, are not the only places of worship that have undertaken high-profile camera installations to air prayers. Last year, the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi undertook a huge broadcast installation.

Prior to that, UK-based systems integrator MHz was commissioned to handle the installation of a six-camera serial digital production facility within the Sultan Grand Mosque in Oman. With prayers being broadcast often on several local channels within the region, more such installations are likely to be seen in the future.

Key kit

Hitachi SK 32B camerasVinten roboticsCanon wide and telephoto lenses

Control roomFrom Harris: Nexio server, Velocity NX editing, Zandar multi-viewers, Platinum routers, Inscriber graphics, glue equipment

Snell and Wilcox Kahuna switcherStuder Vista 5 for audio