ESPN is working on virtual set technology that allows anchors or players in distant locations to appear as holograms on-screen. The cable sports giant plans to start using the technology on-air in the spring.
To demonstrate the virtual technology at a media briefing on its Bristol, Ct. campus, ESPN assembled longtime anchor Chris Berman and EVP of technology Chuck Pagano in a conference room, seated some eight feet apart, with a series of large HD displays behind them. Then longtime anchor Bob Ley magically appeared, seated on a chair between them, in hologram form on the TV screens.
"This is just an example of the cutting edge technology that will save us so much money on airfare for the World Cup," quipped Ley, who will host ESPN's coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup from South Africa. Ley, who was actually seated in a green-screen set down the hall from Pagano and Berman, then engaged in some witty repartee before walking into the room in person to remember some of ESPN's highlight moments since its founding in 1979.
Ley's virtual appearance onscreen was remarkably realistic, without the significant image blurring seen in hologram technology used by CNN on Election Night last fall.
Pagano says the hologram technique is an extension of the "EA Virtual Playbook" technology that ESPN already uses for NFL coverage, and Berman said it will allow them to bring the images of players directly into the studio for analysis or interviews.
"It's a way to bring people from the field in and people from the studio out," says Pagano.
ESPN VP of emerging technology Anthony Bailey says that Virtual Playbook technology has been great for bringing players into the set, and that the new virtual technology will be used in the other direction, to show talent in new locations.
"We thought, wouldn't it be great to have Boomer [Berman] in the studio, talking to [ESPN analyst] Tom Jackson, then have Boomer out on the field with [ESPN commentator] Mike Tirico, talking to [ESPN analyst Jon] Gruden and maybe arguing with him about something," says Bailey.
ESPN has written some software for the virtual technology internally, and learned how to tweak the lighting and the seating of talent to create the most realistic effect.
"You want to make sure that Boomer looks right in both locations," says Bailey.