Graphics creation and management

No sooner did broadcasters come up for air following a flood of HD advancements that the next wave began forming on the horizon — stereoscopic 3-D.

Despite the global recession, more than 3 million 3-D TV sets were sold in 2010, and analysts predict sales could swell to 28 million by 2014. To fully appreciate their new 3-D TVs, viewers are starting to demand movies, sports and entertainment in stereo 3-D.

Stereo 3-D is not the only technological pressure facing broadcasters. Broadcasters must regularly update the news, sports and weather on their websites, while making this content available to assorted smart phones and other mobile devices.

Talking heads and over-the-shoulder graphics have given way to on-camera talent with the power to control how, when and where graphics, maps and video are displayed. Today's anchors can now use Apple iPads and interactive touch screens to manipulate a barrage of images and graphics any way they want to on big-screen displays. Also, 2D virtual sets have evolved to stereo 3-D HD, featuring immersive graphics and real-time data displays.

Generating stereo 3-D graphics and effects in real time

For those making stereo 3-D movies like “Avatar” or “Alice in Wonderland,” there's plenty of time to finesse stereo 3-D and visual effects. But broadcasting is live. Amazing graphics, even stereo 3-D, are needed in real time.

The only way to make this happen is with an integrated workflow, intuitive creative toolsets, and extremely powerful rendering engines capable of processing the left-eye/right-eye signals and other complex visual effects in real time.

The single biggest complaint we hear from broadcasters is just how expensive stereo 3-D and other advanced graphics technologies are. After all, economic pressures forced many to streamline their companies and automate their facilities. But to keep viewers from changing channels, networks need to have the most captivating news, sports and elections coverage in the market.

Early adopters of stereo 3-D

The government of Korea has instated a deadline at the end of 2011 that most terrestrial television channels will include one 3-D channel.

On Jan. 1, 2010, the world's first 3-D channel, Sky3D, started broadcasting nationwide in South Korea by Korea Digital Satellite Broadcasting.

Japan does not have 3-D as a legislative measure, but all electronics stores in the country readily display 3-D screens for sale. And in the Philippines, the inauguration of Philippine President Noynoy Aquino on June 30, 2010, was the first presidential inauguration telecast live in 3-D by the GMA Network.

This year, BSkyB launched Sky3D, Europe's first 3-D channel where all the movies, sports and entertainment are broadcast in stereoscopic 3-D. On Jan. 31, 2010, BSkyB became the first broadcaster in the world to show a live sports event in 3-D when Sky Sports screened a football match between Manchester United and Arsenal to a public audience in several selected pubs.

Also, the 2010 FIFA World Cup from Johannesburg, South Africa, marked the first time that stereo 3-D telecasts of select soccer games were offered to viewers in cinemas and those watching 3-D TV sets.

Live video produced at select World Cup soccer games using eight specially designed stereo 3-D camera rigs was processed in stereo 3-D modified OB trucks and enhanced with a score box. ESPN also broadcast these stereo 3-D games on its new 3-D network.

Growing demand for live stereo 3-D telecasts of news and sports events requires innovative solutions with sufficient processing power to synthesize the left-eye/right-eye streams along with other advanced visual effects. For example, Plazamedia, a Munich-based video production facility, featured a stereo 3-D HD virtual studio at its open house in the fall of 2009.

Keeping the on-camera talent centered within Plazamedia's 3-D HD set required a wide array of state-of-the-art acquisition, virtual tracking and image processing tools. Many vendors contributed their proprietary technology and expertise to enable this pioneering technology demonstration, witnessed by the public and media community.

Broadcast networks also have vast archives of 2D and 3D-animated graphics as well as video clips that have to be repurposed for stereography if the growing demand for stereo 3-D content is to be met.

Curing 3-D headaches

Existing media assets will have to be converted from 2-D to 3-D using powerful image processing and conversion tools. Because of the onerous amount of graphics and other content that will have to be converted going forward, the 2-D to stereo 3-D conversion process needs to be as automated as possible.

This process will involve extracting real-scene geometry from 2-D scenes in order to generate a true depth value for each pixel. It will also have to make decisions about the placement of objects within the 3-D space with quality rivaling what can be produced using live stereo 3-D camera rigs and control room gear.

Not all originally produced 3-D TV productions have been well received to date. If the 3-D effect is not executed skillfully, viewers could be disappointed. There are reports of viewers suffering headaches and visual confusion if objects within stereo 3-D space are blurry or fail to move in a natural manner. For example, objects can appear to jump off the screen toward viewers or collide with live action moving within the 3-D scene.

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3-D should not call too much attention to itself. It should just enhance the picture quality by adding an illusion of depth that is similar to the way we view real life. So, the creative demands of stereo 3-D will require visual effects artists and animators to develop new skill sets and techniques in order to produce natural, credible stereo 3-D scenes.

And as 3-D production proliferates and content becomes more readily available, previously unheard of technical considerations become apparent. Case in point, subtitling on 3-D video in Asia is currently a big topic for broadcasters there. Watching stereographic video with 2D graphics and subtitles imposed on the screen does not enhance the overall 3-D presentation for viewers.

New workflow and production techniques must also take into account the common ways that stereo 3-D TV will be viewed. The two most common types of glasses are active or passive 3-D. Active glasses, which are battery-powered, use LCD lenses to block out each eye alternatively in a rapid shutter motion depending on whether the left or right image is displayed on-screen.

Passive glasses use polarization to separate left- and right-eye images. They work with polarized TVs that use circular polarization and special filters to deliver the left- and right-eye images to the viewers. While there is stereo 3-D technology in the works that doesn't require 3-D glasses, most viewers today have to put on special stereo 3-D glasses in order to see the illusion of 3-D depth.

Because the entertainment industry is anticipating a voracious demand for stereo 3-D content for theatrical movies, games and television shows — ranging from news to boxing to ballet — this is giving manufacturers the incentive to dramatically improve this technology, which has been a cultural novelty for more than 60 years.

Graphics for breaking news

Garnering high ratings for news, weather and elections is vital for broadcasters, especially 24-hour news networks. When a major news story breaks, ratings go up as viewers check for updates and ultimately a better understanding of current events.

Some prefer to get their news from television, while others want to surf around for it. And many people will turn to a combination of television, websites or mobile devices, depending on where they are when their need to know arises.

With competition from new media outlets, live news, sports and election broadcasts deliver visually spectacular presentations, with graphics and video splashed across video walls, keyed on green screens, or pushed and poked around large interactive, touch-screen monitors.

The onslaught of live graphics can include 3D tickers or Twitter tweets scrolling along the lower third of the screen; high-resolution Google and weather maps; and charts that on-camera talent can control using their hands or an iPad application.

Illustrating Election Day results

On Election Day, viewers want projections of who will win, and once the votes are counted, they want an analysis of the key issues and what policies to expect from newly elected officials.

In light of the massive amount of information that must be conveyed clearly and concisely, real-time, data-driven graphics templates are fast becoming essential for news, sports and elections. Nine Networks in Australia recently presented election results by creating a “virtual parliament” within its 3D virtual studio. As the votes were counted, the virtual parliament graphical template automatically updated in real time as the voter data streamed in.

Al Jazeera's English network in Doha, Qatar, displayed the results of the 2008 U.S. presidential election onto an impressive video wall on-set. Real-time data feeds of voter statistics automatically fed interactive maps on the video wall. This graphical data was also pushed to an interactive map and table that users could interact with on the network's website. Moving graphics as well as video-on-demand clips to the website were managed by the network's powerful, integrated broadcast production pipeline, which automatically repurposed assets to adapt them for different outlets' demands.

Weather and world maps

Many weather graphics systems today offer HD imagery and interactive presentation capabilities. The meteorologist or weather presenter can display 3D HD maps in a way that helps to tell the weather story. Broadcast weather systems allow real-time visual compositing of images updated by weather data feeds that are furnished by weather monitoring systems run by third-party companies or the broadcast station or network itself.

Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) in Germany creates live graphics, including 3D animated maps and terrain, which give its viewers the sensation of flying through these geographical areas and over terrain. BR presenters also use interactive whiteboard displays to control and change the way that maps and video clips are displayed simply by touching the surface of the screen while they are giving their live report. BR's workflow includes design tools, 3D map systems and real-time rendering of 2D, 3D and 3D-animated graphics even moments before air.

Sports and replays

All of the graphics technology used for news, weather and elections — and more — is required to help viewers enjoy and understand sports. Live graphics technology is used to enhance live sports telecasts as well as to illustrate and analyze game play.

Electronic movement tracking software allows broadcasters to sync data between the playing field and 3-D graphics system so that they can digitally overlay realistic looking virtual graphics onto video coverage of the event. Because of this, the graphics appear to be integrated right onto the playing field — giving viewers a better understanding of the action.

Automated updating of data populating graphics templates is especially vital to live sports games and commentary. Many sports leagues and associations provide real-time data feeds of up-to-the-minute statistics on their particular teams, players, scores and noteworthy records.

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Nowhere is stereo 3-D more pervasive than live sports telecasts. In March 2010, TopVision, the Berlin, Germany-based outside broadcast (OB) van production company, presented the first live stereo 3-D HD Bundesliga football match to a closed-circuit audience in Munich, Germany.

The live program delivered via satellite used nine stereo 3-D camera rigs (18 camera pairs), as well as a live graphics generation system and powerful dual-channel rendering. Real-time processing enabled the parameters to be changed and evaluated immediately. Because OB truck interiors are space-challenged, this application proved that the real-time technology behind live 3-D could in fact fit comfortably on a large production truck.

Sports online sites

Football fans are no longer concentrated in local or regional areas. With the Internet, they can be anywhere in the world. Broadcasters, clubs and leagues see a growing need to communicate with these information-hungry supporters via online sports sites.

For this reason, broadcasters want to repurpose their sports media to layout online sports websites with photos, interactive graphics and video on demand, among other content. They also want to repurpose the same media assets to provide a mobile broadcast tailored to the needs and capabilities of today's mobile devices, such as the Apple iPhone and iPad, Android, and BlackBerry.

Broadcasters need to use powerful, creative tools integrated with fast rendering engines and media asset management systems to adapt graphics and video assets for use on various distribution platforms in an intuitive, automated manner.

Michael Namatinia is president of Vizrt APAC.