December 4, 2017, NewscastStudio
By Dak Dillon

As part of our Focus on Virtual, we recently had a chance to speak with some of the leading designers and software solutions providers about virtual reality in broadcast news and sports production.

This Industry Insights roundtable follows an earlier gathering that focused on augmented reality in broadcast television, a closely related topic.

In this edition, our panel talks about the biggest misconceptions, when virtual makes sense for broadcasters and timelines needed for setup and integration. Stay tuned for another post later this week discussing recent advancements in software and hardware.

What is the biggest misconception about virtual design in broadcast production?

“Historically, the biggest misconception is that any broadcast designer can build a virtual set if they can build a graphic. While technically a virtual set is a 3D graphic, in order for it to look acceptable to a large portion of the viewing audience, it needs to look like a piece of architecture,” said Brian Olson, VP of product management at NewTek. “This means that the virtual designer needs to have some set design or architectural background to have the sensibilities to create something compelling.”

“We find that the time it takes to design a virtual studio is usually underestimated. To have a great looking set on air, you need to pay attention to the details of the set that will give the audience a sense of reality when watching the set,” said Gerhard Lang, chief engineering officer at Vizrt.

“The biggest misconception about virtual design is that it is difficult to create and once created it isn’t photorealistic. Today’s design tools are far more sophisticated, enabling designers to create almost anything with relative ease. In addition, these design are further enriched with virtual studio capabilities such as shaders, particles, tracking, etc that add the necessary photorealism to make them appear real,” said Ofir Benovici, VP of media enterprise at Avid.

“This used to be a common issue in the past, but no longer the case. The introduction of hyper-realistic rendering solved the issue,” added Chris Mollomo, virtual design manager at Ross Video.

“One of the advantages of virtual sets is the ability to save production costs while implementing new ways of telling a story. But one of the obvious misconceptions is to think on virtual design only as a way to provide a background virtual set, rather than a system to produce a complete show with camera movements, graphics, production and so on,” said Miguel Churruca, marketing and communications director at Brainstorm.

“Creating something credible or realistic requires skilled and experienced design, allied with effective use of the software and hardware solutions available, but more often than not, it’s the limitations of the lighting and keying that result in an artificial looking result on camera,” said Jim Mann of Lightwell. “The issue of artificiality is proving to be much more of a problem since the emergence of ‘fake news’ which is unfortunate, as one is an editorial issue, the other is presentation.”

“I think the biggest misconception is that the audience will know it’s not real and therefore not trust the source. In our Magid Virtual Reality Viewer Preference study comparing virtual sets to real sets, we found that reality has nothing to do with trust if a design is well done. In two comparisons over 60% of the audience could not tell the difference between the real and virtual sets,” notes Mack McLaughlin, CEO and creative director at FX Design Group.

Where does virtual make the most sense from a programming standpoint?

“Virtual sets are appropriate for any type of programming, but especially in studios with space constraints. Another situation that makes sense for a virtual set is a studio in which different shows are produced, each with completely different thematics,” said Olivier Cohen, senior product manager at ChyronHego.
“They are also useful when you want to transfer the presenter to a place which is either hard to reach or dangerous. And also when the studio needs to change during the production,” Lang explained.

“We are recommending that stations use virtual as an extension of their real sets for feature segments like Sports and Entertainment. This can easily double the ‘size’ of their set without doubling the size of studio needed,” McLaughlin said.

“Virtual graphics are particularly valuable for sports, because they make it easier to visualize data and tell better stories. But we have also seen fantastic virtual graphics applications in news — especially for elections, where data visualization is key, and also for reporting all types of weather stories from simple five-day forecasts to hurricanes,” added Cohen. “Virtual graphics allow news, sports, and weather to draw in viewers, and they create new opportunities for sponsorships. We also have seen virtual graphics being used to replace expensive real video walls by green screen which costs a fraction of a cost with better quality.”

“Anyone who spends time in news and sports studios will have observed that movable sets will pick up damage in the form of paint chips, scratches and bumps. That kind of damage will start to show up in HD, whereas a virtual set will always appear as good as it did on launch day,” said Mann.

“With garbage mattes (the ability to force the virtual set into areas outside of the green screen), you can insert talent in a small space into a giant warehouse-sized environment. Also, you can go from one show to the next, simply by changing the virtual set — even in a commercial break,” Olson added.

“Virtual sets are one of the best ways to optimize installations, to create extended spaced for the shows, and to include additional resources to enhance the information given,” said Churruca. “Due to technology or design limitations in the past, some virtual set productions were not realistic enough for the viewers, and this is one of the issues that we’ve addressed lately.”

“I believe that virtual sets and hybrid sets will become the default for news, talk shows, game shows and most studio-based productions in the coming years. The photo-realism is here. The keyers are better and the technology costs will continue to fall. A well designed virtual studio, with the flexibility and dynamic possibilities the technology represents, will basically sell itself,” said Ronen Lasry of Full Mental Jacket.

What is the timeline needed to setup a virtual studio solution?

“The biggest variable is whether it is a “tracked” (encoded camera heads/lenses) or “trackless” (locked down cameras) solution. Trackless implementations can be set up in an hour or two. Tracked virtual studios can take days, depending on the number of cameras and how much calibration is required. If you add robotics into the mix, it can take even longer,” said Olson.

“It takes a little longer in the design and rehearsal phases but much shorter in the fabrication/installation phase, would estimate it shortens the overall process by a month or more,” said McLaughlin.

“It will depend on the complexity of the installation, calibration of the tracking system when required, peripherals involved and requirements for operators’ training. A simple installation with fixed cameras using the virtual system’s internal chroma keyer is quite straightforward, meaning it just requires some days to train operators. But more complex installations involving external chroma keyers and several cameras or cranes with tracking do require careful calibration and initial set up to perform at their best,” Churruca explained.

“Hardware installation and commissioning usually takes 5 to 10 days. The set design process typically takes 3 to 4 weeks,” Lasry notes.

“Different virtual studio systems have different setup times, from several hours to several days, depending on the design, tracking and the system’s configuration. Avid’s Maestro | Virtual set offers multiple configurations and tracking options depending on the broadcaster’s needs. For example when used with the Avid’s new Xync 2.0 infrared camera tracking, a virtual set can be up and running in a matter of hours,” Benovici said.

“Timelines would depend on our familiarity with a particular client, the design brief, the scope of the project and the scale of design, amongst other things, i.e. it varies a lot,” explained Mann. “We’ve been successful doing this in as little as 5 weeks. The timeline needed to setup a virtual studio solution would be about 90 days,” notes Mollomo.

– Ofir Benovici of Avid
– Miguel Churruca of Brainstorm
– Olivier Cohen of ChyronHego
– Ronen Lasry of Full Mental Jacket
– Gerhard Lang of Vizrt
– Jim Mann of Lightwell
– Mack McLaughlin of FX Design Group
– Chris Mollomo of Ross Video
– Brian Olson of NewTek