Keeping it real


Will Strauss# TV-Bay Magazine
Read ezine online
by Will Strauss
Issue 92 - August 2014

With Sky buying into an immersive video start-up, and the BBC trialling content on an Oculus Rift headset, virtual reality could be about to move from simply sets and studios to a whole new realm.

Once residing purely in the realms of science fiction and, latterly, video gaming, it appears that virtual reality (VR) is about to become something a bit more mainstream.

Well, that is if you believe everything you see and hear. Which, of course, you have to if you want VR to work (if you see what I mean).

VR has been around since the 1950s in various forms. And we’ve had virtual studios and virtual sets in TV for some time. For many years though, the UK broadcasters ignored them. Where studios space was big enough, they were not relevant. Where space was not, and virtual sets were deployed, the production values were not high enough or the set up costs were unjustifiable.

Despite ITV’s ‘Theatre of News’ being nominated for an RTS Craft Innovation award in 2004, that attitude only changed in the last five years or so when improved computer processing power and better camera tracking technology allowed for decent looking virtual sets.

There are now several good examples of virtual sets working well.

Vizrt worked with Sky Sports on its Monday Night Football (MNF) set, used for the first time last season. It did exactly what it was supposed to do: give the illusion of there being a much larger physical set in the studio than there really was.

At the same time it also successfully allowed virtual studio graphics to sit happily alongside - and be visually indistinguishable from - the physical-set elements. To make it work required graphical rendering that was photo-real and highly accurate tracking for cameras moves. As a viewer, you cannot see the joins.

BBC News has had similar success with virtual sets on its election coverage. In May, for the local and European elections, Studio D at Elstree Studios was transformed thanks to the VR tracking system, MoSys Star Tracker, deployed by BBC Studios and Post Production.

Attached to several studio cameras, including one on a crane, it used an upward looking camera that tracked markers on the studio’s grid and sent positional information to a computer to render the correct viewpoint.

Working this way allowed presenter Jeremy Vine to be “virtually immersed” in graphics and up-to-the-minute statistics, and to move freely around the green screen environment without affecting the position of the virtual graphs and charts.

That virtual set was rendered with Vizrt’s Viz Engine while Idonix provided the content control interface for Viz Virtual Studio.

At IBC next month you’ll see plenty of innovation in this area too. From Vizrt’s Virtual Presenter, an innovation that places a presenter among the action of a clip, to ORAD’s ProSet, a high-end virtual studio that utilizes its Xync infrared tracking system with 360-degrees of free camera movement, and its new ‘Virtual Studio in a Box’.

With virtual sets now firmly part of the furniture, so to speak, VR could be going a step further: potentially becoming a tool for completely immersive content.

Just last month BSkyB spent nearly half a million dollars on another stake in Jaunt, a video start-up that is developing hardware and software for VR devices that can provide an immersive experience for viewers of films or TV shows.

“As an innovative content creator, cinematic VR represents exactly the type of technology we want to better understand and explore,” says Stuart Murphy, the director of entertainment channels at Sky.

It is a strong sign of intent. And with Oculus, the maker of a VR headset, bought up by Facebook for $2bn, and Sony’s Project Morpheus in the pipeline, VR is now big news.

“VR as it exists today is mainly about video games,” says Jaunt chief executive Jens Christensen. “We want to broaden the experience to mainstream entertainment. [We have] built the technology to put VR in the hands of the best content creators in the world to deliver stunning, reach-out-and-touch-it entertainment experiences using VR goggles.”

Sky is not the only broadcaster looking at VR.

During the Commonwealth Games, BBC R&D, with the assistance of UCL, put on what it described as the “most immersive live VR broadcast to date.”

By combining existing research it showed a demo in which a panoramic, 360-degree video camera, and a 3D audio microphone, captured pictures and sound at the SSE Hydro Stadium in Glasgow. The live feed was then streamed to an Oculus Rift VR headset in the Glasgow Science Centre.

Another test has also been done using the BBC News room.

This research is all focussed on providing an immersive experience, says Cyrus Saihan, the head of business development at BBC Future Media.

“Imagine if you could watch a nature documentary and feel as if you could reach out and touch the animals, or feel as if you were on stage with a band during a music festival or on the pitch during a football match,” he says.

“The purpose of this trial was to test out the technology and see if we could make our users feel as if they were actually there in person.”

It is early days, he admits, not least as Oculus Rift headsets are not yet commercially available, but there is enthusiasm for VR.

Another pioneer of new technology, Atlantic Productions, certainly thinks so.

Having been an early adopter of HD, 3D, 4k and more, the indie production company is now exploring VR with the launch of Alchemy VR, a new division that will create content for Oculus Rift and the Sony Morpheus.

Atlantic Productions chief executive Anthony Geffen describes it as a “natural progression for us, harnessing the unique and talented team we have built to create content for a revolutionary platform that is finally becoming viable for a consumer audience.”

Sir David Attenborough, a long-time collaborator, is on board and a mix of educational, non-fiction storytelling content is in the offing, using live action, 360 video and immersive CG. Exciting stuff.

There are obviously many hurdles to overcome before VR becomes mainstream. And they’re not all technical ones. Yes there’s the latency, which can make viewers feel dizzy. And, if you can see the whole set or studio, you will also see the crew. Image stitching could solve that.

But there are cultural problems to overcome too. Very much like watching stereo 3D, using a VR headset is likely to be a solo activity. And TV is a mass medium, often watched as a family or with friends. If glasses-free 3D is the answer for stereo, then headset free VR may be equally as important. But, for now, that brings us back to the realm of science fiction again.


Tags: iss092 | Sky | BBC | Virtual Reality | Will Strauss#
Contributing Author Will Strauss#

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