Virtually real – studios from the future

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An AR broadcast from a virtual set (Photo credit: Virtz).

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Advanced design and production tools that enable broadcasters to create virtual objects that appear as if they’re actually ‘in the studio’ have been available for a few years now, but have only become a mainstream feature of major TV networks over the last 12 months. Political elections, weather updates, news coverage and major sporting events – from the Olympic Games to the FIFA World Cup – have all made augmented reality graphics one of the broadcast industry’s hottest trends, and there is a wide range of solutions to enhance the viewing experience.

Broadcasters are increasingly adopting augmented reality (AR) graphics for enhanced storytelling, allowing for better interaction between presenters and graphics objects (or even remote locations) to get the story across. For example, the BBC’s coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup took advantage of the latest in augmented reality tools to help further its Match of the Day broadcast, featuring AR graphics to help experts and hosts tell the story of each match with stats and team news. Denmark’s TV 2 built a new studio for coverage of the Tour de France, featuring on-air personalities, virtual backgrounds and a large touchscreen tabletop that displayed 3D content to aid the analysis of the race. In the US, Fox Sports has just completed building a massive new state-of-the-art, multi-purpose augmented reality studio set to become the new home of the 2019 NASCAR Racing Hub and the 2019 Daytona 500.

AR gives broadcasters the tools they need to tell a complex story in a very visual way, with the presenter driving the narrative by presenting visually-engaging representations of data. With a few years of experimentation behind them, broadcasters now have a much better idea of where AR makes sense, how to use it and what kind of AR elements are effective.

Recently, the Weather Channel in the US showed off its augmented reality broadcast prowess, taking viewers inside a virtual version of Hurricane Florence. Guided by a host surrounded by ‘virtual peril,’ the network employed the approach to show residents in the path of the hurricane why they should evacuate their homes. The insert went viral and the internet couldn’t stop talking about how immersive the presentation was and the impact it had on viewers. Although nothing like the kind of immersion one experiences while wearing an AR headset, or even using an AR app on a smartphone, what The Weather Channel’s technique achieves is getting viewers accustomed to consuming content in the context of immersive environments.

Moreover, the growing maturity of the industry has helped graphics vendors develop better solutions. As technology develops, costs decrease – and we’re now seeing more realistic graphics, with the introduction of hyperrealism, using more cost-effective render engines that are bridging the gaps and removing barriers to entry. Denmark’s TV 2 Tour de France coverage used 3D graphics software from Vizrt for their visual content. The Viz Engine platform produced the studio’s virtual backgrounds, AR content and touchscreen board, while Viz Pilot enabled the production team to create 3D content using journal templates. Viz Virtual Studio gave TV 2’s producers the ability to tell stories easily without worrying about the limitations of physical studio facilities.

AVID has also moved into the market, offering a full solution for virtual studios, camera tracking, augmented reality and video wall control – enabling the broadcaster to work within a single unified workflow. Maestro | Designer is a tool for real-time graphics creation which seamlessly integrates with Maestro | AR, a suite of augmented reality tools, which – when paired with the new Maestro | Engine real-time graphics and video rendering platform – gives broadcasters the power to manage their entire production process simply and easily.

The race to perfect virtual environments and AR production solutions has largely centered on games engines, like the Unreal Engine from Epic Games – the technology behind the mega-popular online video game Fortnite. The Unreal Engine is what Fox Sports are using to power the graphic elements in their new NASCAR studio. This is because graphics packages tied to game engines give you better animation and higher-quality content, and create a level of realism unrivalled by any broadcast character generator.

Therefore it’s no surprise that VR solution providers like Ross Video and Vizrt are currently integrating the Unreal Engine into their products. XPression is Ross Video’s line of real-time motion graphics systems, clip servers, workflow tools and software applications that power its augmented reality offerings. The Canadian company’s solutions have impressed the audiences and marketing partners of NBC Sunday Night Football, Eurosport, BBC World, Google, YouTube, Space London and China’s eSports powerhouse VSPN with their AR solutions, virtual studios, real-time motion graphics and robotic camera systems.

Recently, CBS announced some big plans for its Super Bowl LIII broadcast in February, including 8K cameras and the use of augmented reality. The network will have 115 cameras at the game, with “multiple” 8K cameras intended for “dramatic close-up views” of the action: a first for any US network. In addition to these Ultra HD 8K shots, CBS plans to use augmented reality graphics as a major part of its Super Bowl feed. Four cameras will be used to present live AR images, with a total of 14 cameras being used as part of its virtual graphics strategy.

After decades of just presenting in front of a green screen, AR now gives the likes of TV news presenters and weathercasters, sports broadcasters and documentary makers incredible new tools and technologies that can enhance storytelling capabilities and permit them to engage more deeply with viewers. As TV audiences become more distracted (and distractible), broadcasters should look to use every device available to them to secure the viewer’s attention and loyalty. Augmented Reality is an ever-evolving and exciting way for TV stations to meet the audience’s desire for differentiated big screen experiences, and to do so without really breaking the bank.

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