Prepare Yourself for a Virtual InvasionU.S. stations finally looking at graphics and set innovations for broadcasts 8/13/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
While the U.S. has long been a leader in broadcast technologies,
American programmers have for many years been
reluctant to deploy one important development in industry
“We have hundreds of virtual sets at major
broadcasters around the world that are
heavily in use, but in the U.S., virtual-set
technology has been somewhat limited,”
says Shaun Dail, VP of sales and marketing
for North America at Orad.
In the last year, however, that has been
changing, thanks to economic pressures,
the push to produce higher-quality video
for online and mobile platforms and improvements
in virtual-set technologies
that have dramatically cut their cost and
improved their quality.
“There is no question that we have seen an
increase in interest and demand for virtual
sets and immersive graphics or augmented
reality” that allow 3D objects to be placed
inside of real sets, notes Isaac Hersly, president
of Vizrt Americas. “The technology has
improved, the graphics are more realistic, the
pricing is more reasonable and they are easier
to set up and maintain on a daily basis.”
On the tech side, key improvements include
better camera tracking systems that
permit shots to zoom in and out of the virtual set, better resolution, improved
interfaces that make it easier for a regular production crew to handle
live newscasts and rapid advances in graphics processor units (GPUs).
An illustration of the rapid growth in GPU processing power occurred
on Aug. 7, when Nvidia unveiled its new Nvidia Maximus workstation
platform. The platform processes video much faster and produces much
more realistic graphics because of its ability to handle up to 1 million
“textures,” a big jump from the 128,000 available in the previous system,
says Greg Estes, industry executive for media and entertainment, Nvidia.
The faster GPUs have greatly improved the look of virtual sets. “I
could show you two videos of a newscast and you would not be able
to tell which one is a virtual set,” Dail contends.
Technological innovations have also dramatically pushed down prices
by as much as 90% while offering improved quality, which has made these
solutions very appealing to the educational market, cable access channels,
broadcast stations in smaller markets and companies looking to improve
the quality of their web video, notes Eric Pratt, CEO, Virtualsetworks,
whose sets are widely used by broadcasters and producers.
One example of those technical innovations is a new 3D postproduction
set software system from Pratt’s sister company IntensiKey that
retails for only $299.
On the broadcast side, much of the
demand is still coming from stations in
smaller and mid-sized markets, according
to Philip Nelson, senior VP of artist and
media relations at NewTek, which includes
virtual sets in its widely used TriCaster
Those systems have been deployed
at stations including ABC affiliate KSAT
in San Antonio and WAAY, the ABC affiliate in Huntsville, Ala. But Nelson also
notes increased demand from larger programmers
and networks, including CBS
Sports, which recently started using one of
NewTek’s virtual sets for web programming.
Virtual sets are also allowing stations
with limited budgets to expand their news
production. Paul Lara, marketing director
at Broadcast Pix, says that “one of the
largest attractions of virtual-set technology
is that you don’t need to have morning,
noon, afternoon, evening and 10 p.m. sets
with different looks. You can do it very
convincingly with software.”
Broadcasters can also enhance the look of newscasts by adding
“augmented reality” or “immersive graphics systems” that put virtual
objects into real sets. One example is the virtual monitors that CNN,
Turner Sports and ESPN are already using to display graphics and data.
“We think that is one of the most exciting areas going forward,” notes
Jeff Moore, executive VP and CMO of Ross Video, which has been
rapidly expanding its virtual-set efforts since purchasing FX-Motion
and Cambotics earlier this year to help launch Ross Robotics.
Using a system of moving cameras along tracks that was developed
by FX-Motion, Ross now believes it can offer much higher-quality
virtual sets at more affordable prices. “One of the biggest challenges of
virtual sets is that they have been difficult to do, and one of our main
goals is to make it more practical for TV stations to offer great-looking
virtual sets at a reasonable cost,” Moore says.