NAB Preview: Pushing for Computer Graphics’ Far Edge

By Debra Kaufman

CNN made CG history during the November elections with its remote “holographic” live interview. Behind the scenes, Vizrt and STATs combined their video processing, tracking and virtual set technologies to make it appear that CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin, in Chicago, was “beamed in” to CNN’s Election Center in New York.

Anyone who missed the trick in November will be able to see it again — and again — on the NAB 2009 show floor, where STATS and Vizrt will team to provide live, in-booth demonstrations re-creating the holographic effect.

Brian Kopp, STATS vice president of strategic planning, says that the two companies will have adjacent booths, and will project a hologram from one booth to the other.

“CNN wanted it to have that otherworldly effect, and we had to add additional elements to make it look like that,” he adds. “The technology itself is crystal clear and we can make it look like they’re really in the same room.”

Vizrt director of usability, Nir Goshen, reports that David Bohrman, CNN Washington bureau chief-senior vice president, urged Vizrt to come up with a way to create the hologram effect. “No one technology did exactly what he wanted,” says Goshen.

Instead, Vizrt partnered with SportVu (later bought by STATS), which had a sophisticated technology for collecting sports event data by positioning multiple cameras. The CNN application placed 35 HD cameras, which covered more than 200 degrees, around Yellin. The SportVu plug-in that the company wrote for Vizrt, collected all the feeds and fed it to the Vizrt engine which rendered the composited output in real-time.

Kopp says the two companies are now working on making the system as cost effective as possible. “The ideal for us is to make it so economical that we can make it possible for call letter stations,” he says. “But the national networks will be the first ones who use it. If the main studio is in New York and the remote studios are in Atlanta and Los Angeles, it can be used again and again.”

The CNN hologram is one example of what’s happening at the far edge of broadcast graphics. Another is Orad Hi-Tec’s AdVision virtual advertising product, which was recently used to place virtual banners all over Phoenix: on buildings, in the sky and even on the moon. In New Orleans, AdVision put a TNT logo on the SuperDome and had a virtual lady dance around the building. At NAB 2009, an enhanced version of AdVision will demonstrate a first: video clips with audio.

Though virtual sets have been around for several years, they’ll be back in force at NAB 2009, thanks to tremendous improvements brought by graphics rendering cards. Virtual sets, with their real-time rendering of highly complex graphics, have always depended on major computing firepower.

GPU rendering, which is much more effective than the general-purpose CPU, now makes virtual sets easier and more cost effective to create. And that’s changed the basic nature of the virtual set.

“A few years back, people thought virtual sets would be these fantastic spaces,” says Goshen. “The demand, actually, is for the virtual set to be like the real world. Every year, we’re adding more features and enjoying more robust hardware. Virtual sets are getting closer and closer to photorealism with less effort and fewer skills.”

Shaun Dail, Orad vice president of sales and marketing agrees: “News typically goes for realism, because news is about credibility.”

Vizrt will highlight its shader package, from R&D company RTT, including an improved depth-of-field feature. “Now we can introduce the same blur level that the lens introduces, improving photorealism,” Goshen says. “When you’re trying to match objects of the virtual and real world, those fine parameters are very, very important.”

Orad will also showcase its depth-of-field shader, introduced last year, with enhanced capabilities. “For a long time, the lack of depth of field was a dead giveaway that you were looking at a virtual set,” Dail says. “Now, you can control the amount of blur, the blur rate, the speed of the zoom and other features. As you zoom in the talent’s face, the background blurs. With the depth-of-field shader and better rendering capabilities, the sets look real.”

Virtual sets are also a way to save money in tight times, adds Dail, who says that, rather than buy a wall of monitors for a news set, people are using “virtual augmentation.”

“If you’re a broadcaster running four show with four different sets, you have the expense of building them, changing them out, storing them,” he says. “With ProSet, our high-end HD/SD virtual set system, you can turn a 20-foot-by-20-foot space into something that looks like it’s 100-square-feet and change it with the click of a mouse.”

At NAB 2009, Orad will also debut Interact, a new product that enables graphics to react to a hand gesture.

Philip Nelson, NewTek vice president of strategic development, has also seen a streamlining of the virtual set process, from “heavy iron and black boxes” to more nimble graphics card processing.

“The real-time virtual set isn’t the cheapest item,” he says. “One thing that makes our sets revolutionary is the price point for a photorealistic set. The Tri-Caster starts at just below $8,000. And anybody with LightWave 3D software can design their own virtual sets.” NewTek’s Virtual Set Packs provide choices of virtual sets for approximately $500.

Although virtual sets and virtual graphics may one day be as fantastical as CG permits, these experts say that, for now at least, photorealism will rule the day at NAB 2009 and beyond.

“People use virtual sets mainly to overcome some physical limitation they have,” Goshen says. “My interpretation is that it’s a step of growing up in the virtual world. The next step in the evolution will be not to limit the conception and creative process to mimic the real world, but to use graphics to tell a story.”

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters