Prepare Yourself for a Virtual Invasion

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 technology—virtual sets.

“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 production systems.

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.

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