Fanview Virtual Fan Tech Can Fill Empty Venues, Engage Audience in New Ways

With more and more sports leagues and federations figuring out timelines for the return of competition, the challenge for broadcasters is investigating ways to fill the visual void of an empty stadium. Virtual graphics of all sorts are possible, including enhanced statistics, sponsor branding, team logos, scores, and more. And then there is the possibility of virtual fans.

Fanview, a company which has cut its teeth on player avatars, is looking to take that technology and apply it to empty venues, filling them with thousands of virtual fans.

Jim Irving believes virtual crowds can be a way for teams, broadcasters, and sponsors to build relationships with fans.

“Pretty early on when the concept of ghost games and empty stadiums came about, we saw some strong potential,” says Jim Irving, Fanview, founder and managing director. “We’ve been doing a lot of work around player avatars for the last three years,” says Irving. “We want to make that capture process scalable and affordable and that is possible with our own technology coupled with a third-party solution.”

FanView’s proposal is use a similar process to creating a player avatar but with a focus only on the neck up.

“We can do the head of a person from a single image,” he says. “It isn’t as accurate but you can make some estimations of the geometry of the face, create a virtual head in about three minutes, and then stick it on a body and place it into the crowd.”

Irving is the first to admit that the goal is not to try and fool the fans but rather to help them buy into the concept. The key? Make the virtual crowd be a representation of real fans.

“It’s an opportunity for a club, sponsor, or broadcaster to reach fans they don’t normally have a relationship with,” adds Irving. “The concept of digital humans is something we will all have in 10 years. Gamers want to play video games with themselves and the other area that is

pioneering the technology is fashion. But giving fans a digital version of themselves can build allegiance to the club and grow digital activations around the fan base.”

Irving says there are five hurdles to creating a great virtual crowd experience. First there is creating the virtual fan’s head, then stitching that onto a virtual body, and then render the crowd for various states and body positions.

“There is the idle position where they are looking and just following the ball and then there are states for things like near misses and goals,” says Irving using football as an example.

The last two challenges are then taking those virtual fans and creating blocks of fans and then mapping those crowds into a venue environment that will be unique for each event.

Virtual crowds could provide a unique way to build relationships with fans who can be part of the crowd.

The Fanview technology works by calibrating the camera and then taking the data and tracking information out of the camera and feeding it into the virtual graphics system running on Unreal Engine. In one workflow the system is operated at the venue and composited with the live video feed.

“The advantage there is that the director has both a clean and composite feed so they can choose,” says Irving.

Alternatively, the system could be located downstream from the main production, but Irving says the most robust way would be at the venue, but the more scalable way would be to do it downstream of the production.

“The next stage for us is to test it and we’ve had close to 20 conversations with various entities that are ongoing,” says Irving. “We’re developing the concept as fast as we can and we want to work with clients who are creative and want to reach their audience in new ways,” he adds. “We currently can’t put, say 10,000 individual fans in a virtual audience but we are taking iderative steps to make sure the quality is as high as it can be.”

The past two months have seen a lot of innovation in the world of sports production and distribution and virtual fans and virtual crowd noise are just two of the interesting ways to overcome vexing problems.

“People are being innovative because they have to be and it is exciting for businesses like ours as people take more risks,” he says. “It’s a difficult time but one positive is people are trying to do more things.”