CNN's Virtual Election Night

In a television news landscape where high-definition cameras and 3D graphics have become commonplace, CNN still has a few technical surprises in store for viewers of its Election Night coverage.

One is the introduction of virtual elements into its real-world set at the Time Warner Center in New York, using virtual-set technology from graphics firm Vizrt and Israel-based sports enhancement specialist SportVU.

CNN has created a 3D virtual model of the U.S. Capitol to give a graphic representation of the impact of Senate races. Chief national correspondent John King will control that graphic from CNN's touch-screen “magic wall.”

More dramatically, the network may use virtual sets located at Obama and McCain Election Night headquarters in Chicago and Phoenix, respectively, to conduct remote interviews between Election Night anchor Wolf Blitzer and field correspondents Candy Crowley and Dana Bash by projecting a holographic image of the field reporters onto the New York set.

Watching a demonstration of the system last week was akin to seeing a person “teleported” from Chicago to New York, as in a science-fiction movie. To let the audience in on the trick, CNN Senior VP and Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman says CNN may actually show viewers the remote green-screen room first, as well as the field correspondent out in Election Night crowds, before going to the holographic image in New York.

But Bohrman is most excited about a complete overhaul of how CNN will display exit poll results using its Vizrt graphics system. Bohrman and CNN design director Jonathan Kemp collaborated on an analysis system that displays the 50 states at once on a touch-screen wall and shows how each state, and demographic, voted based on issues like the economy, terrorism, Iraq and others. “We're completely reinventing exit polls, with so much more information than we were able to do before,” Bohrman says.

A simple touch of a state's bar will render a pie-chart graphic that shows the actual percentage vote in a state on a certain issue according to the exit polls, and another touch of the screen will let anchors Soledad O'Brien and Bill Schneider quickly compare that state to another.

CNN Political Director Sam Feist and Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger joined Bohrman in experimenting with the system last week, and their excitement was palpable.

“We've always had individual islands of state by state,” says Bohrman. “We've never had a way to show exit polls across the country for all the different demographic groups and see how one state compared to all states.”

The virtual-set camera interpolation technology will allow CNN to do realistic camera moves over the 3D model of the Capitol, such as an aerial flyover with a camera mounted on a jib boom. A look inside reveals a virtual representation of the U.S. Senate chamber that will be dynamically updated to show the outcome of individual state races.

Bohrman isn't sure how much CNN will use the remote virtual sets in Chicago and Phoenix, which were still being fine-tuned last week and represent only two of some 40 camera feeds CNN will be using on Election Night. But he says he has been considering such technology for 12 years and doesn't consider the holographic system a one-night gimmick. Instead, Bohrman thinks it could have long-ranging implications for news: “It's an interesting step in how TV can do live interviews.”