With Vistas, Advertising Becomes Virtual, Regional
By Carolyn Braff
When Texas Tech University placed an ad at center court of its basketball team’s parquet, the athletic department was pleased with its new revenue source, but the Big 12 Conference was not. The conference objected to actual advertising’s being placed on the floor but had no issue with virtual signage, so Texas Tech Director of Broadcasting David Hougland went looking for a digital solution. Once he found Vistas, a company specializing in delivering virtual insertions during live broadcasts, Tech’s basketball coverage was instantly transformed.
“We were expecting it to look kind of iffy,” Hougland says of the first test run, four years ago. “It was a test on both ends, since they had never done a live event before and never worked in our facility before, but, by the first game, it looked amazing.”
Making Virtual Approach Reality
“We define virtual insertion as the insertion of graphical material so that it exists in the world,” explains Dr. Kenneth Overton, president, founder, and chief technology officer of Vistas. “We do the insertions in real time, effectively all around the venue. The camera person does not need to do anything different because of our technology.”
The virtual insertions are independent of camera motion and can be placed on any homogenous background — the surface of a basketball court, pads behind home plate in a ballpark, grass, dirt, or ice, to name a few. The HD graphic system does not require its own camera but works with the broadcast cameras already in place.
“We use the Vivyx network, now owned by Level 3,” Overton explains. “We use Tandberg equipment to compress the HD signal at the production site. It’s then sent over the backhaul as an ASI signal; we receive the ASI at our downstream locations, decompress it, and that feeds our system.”
Once the signal reaches the downstream side, Overton and his staff must realign their data signal with the programming signal.
“I have to have field-accurate temporal alignment, so we figured out an algorithm to do that,” he explains. “Our goal is to make the virtual insertion appear to the viewer at home indistinguishable from the existing physical stuff in the venue. It has to handle occlusion processing, camera motion, lens distortion.”
The on-site staff calibrates the system and adds noise to the graphics to match the normal graininess of a TV signal; otherwise, the insertions stand out as looking too clean.
Building Broadcasters’ Dreams
“Our current generation hi-def system runs with 44 Opterons,” Overton says, “and we use a technology called InfiniBand to communicate data between the machines, so this is heavy lifting.”
Adding insertions to both home and away games for the past four years of Tech basketball, Vistas responded to Hougland’s challenges to create a virtual possession arrow at center court, put the player’s name on the floor while he’s shooting free throws, and even create a center-hung scoreboard for the arena. Ads were also placed around the end lines, over the shot clock, and on center court, although Hougland was careful not to overwhelm the action with advertising.
“At first, everybody thought that they were actual stickers on the floor, that we actually had advertising in other parts of the arena when there was nothing there,” Hougland says. “That’s the magic of television.”
The content of the virtual insertions is limited only by the broadcaster’s imagination. “Anything you can think of that I can render digitally, we can insert,” Overton says.
Designed to fit into a regional-sports production model, the Vistas crew of two to four technicians generally arrives on-site at noon for a 7 p.m. game, except for golf telecasts, which take a bit longer to calibrate (Vistas powers the Emmy Award-winning AimPoint technology). The system can be set to run automatically or can be manually changed during a game.
Vistas uses the same system to provide both its game enhancement (like AimPoint) and virtual-advertising insertions and must work with the rightsholder to implement the technology into a broadcast. “The rightsholder varies by sport, by level — professional versus college — and, in some cases, by individual deal,” Overton says. “We work with whoever purchased the rights.”
The implications of Vistas’ technology are particularly appealing in terms of regionalization.
“If you had advertisers interested in fractionalization,” Overton explains, “you could send a different set of virtual insertions to different places, tailoring the insertions by geographic region.”
Diet Coke, for example, is branded in Europe as Coke Light, so Vistas could change the insertion on the downstream system for targeted European markets to reflect the appropriate branding.
“You could see one insertion on-set being done at the venue, which could be sent out to the away market,” Overton explains. “You could have other insertions done at the regional hub for regional markets, and you could fractionalize within that market. One advertisement that appears to exist in the venue could look different to different audiences, all viewing the same game at the same time.”
Tech Takes a Timeout
After working with Vistas for four seasons, Texas Tech had to take a pass this year, given both the downturn in the economy and a lack of advertisers since Head Coach Bob Knight departed last season. Still, Hougland is looking into using the technology for other sports, and the university hosted a demonstration of the system during a football game last season.
“There’s no doubt that it can work for every sport — soccer, football, hockey, indoors, outdoors, it doesn’t matter,” Hougland says. “The fact that your inventory is not a fixed sign — you can change your inventory around at timeouts, halftimes, however you want to do it — gives you a lot of flexibility with your advertisers.”