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Revolution in real time

Technological advancements in graphics creation software and processing hardware have impacted the volume and quality of graphics that broadcasters can generate for live programs as well as the very way they work.

In the last 15 years, the broadcast industry has experienced a revolution that has transformed the viewing experience by enabling a virtually unlimited creative palette and dynamic eye candy effects.

To fully appreciate how dynamic the live broadcast graphics business has become, look at the equipment 15 years ago. The first live graphics systems were limited to relatively simple moves like spins, warps, flips and page turns. In addition, early versions of character generators did just that — generate characters onscreen.

An entire control room full of equipment, including the production switcher, DVE, CG and still store, needed to be pressed into service to create sophisticated, multilayered looks — especially for live sports telecasts. Or graphics packages had to be outsourced to post houses and boutiques that charged stations an hourly fee to build all the graphics roll-ins and channel branding pieces broadcasters needed.

Real-time 3-D animation

While the term live broadcast graphics refers to push-button triggering of real-time graphics during live applications, such as newscasts, sports, elections, concerts and award shows, a good deal of the work takes place in advance. Graphics must be designed and in some cases rendered; 3-D animated elements need to be imported from 3-D animation systems; and other post-production finishing may be needed to give the graphics an enhanced, polished look.

In just a decade, the CG has grown to become a live graphics system, and many of the high-end models now incorporate 2-D, 3-D, HD, SD, animation, production and delivery tools in one system.

The 2-D systems dominant in the 1990s — many of which were designed to give the illusion of a 3-D look — have yielded to real-time, 3D-animated graphics systems. Real-time 3-D animation is fast-becoming the standard for live graphics for broadcast news and sports.

Increased reliability

In the 1990s, broadcast customers still relied on dedicated, proprietary graphics systems because they thought they were the only way to get sufficient processing power to render live broadcast graphics. When Windows-based systems first appeared, there was justified distrust in their reliability, as people feared they would crash in the middle of a live show.

Today, most live broadcast graphics systems are PC-based, and the high-end models have proven their ability to deliver enough processing power to handle real-time output of multiple channels of 3-D animated graphics, text, video and audio, in HD, SD, or a mix of the two.

Automated for efficiency

Features are being built into high-end live graphics systems that are intelligent enough to adjust the position of one graphic on the screen to make room for a new graphic. This capability is intuitive enough to adjust the composition on the fly without an operator's manual intervention.

As a result of these advances, broadcasters need fewer operators and gear during a live show, which means that they can lower production costs without compromising production standards. Also, broadcasters view the ability to distribute their branded content to multiple outlets as critical for broadening their audience and generating new revenue streams.

Distribution to multiple outlets

Today's live graphics systems can handle a wide range of resolutions and formats, including wide-screen HD, 4:3 SD, Web formats and even the scaled down display requirements of a cell phone.

We're moving into a world where the multilayering of graphics, and the positioning of foreground and background elements, will be a function of the target display device. While today graphics are composited in the production control room and sent out as part of the broadcast signal, in the future, graphics elements may be sent separately to different devices — such as the set-top box (STB), PC or cell phone — where they would then be rendered on the fly into a single, multilayered composite as the image displays.

Also, some of the graphical elements can even be customized or personalized at the point of delivery for the particular display medium or viewer's interests, location or demographics. Broadcasters may find that this is a simple way to generate new revenue streams without changing their business models.

Distributed creativity

The broadcast workflow has also been irrevocably changed. Compared with the days when a graphics artist could sit at an expensive workstation and design the graphics, journalists and producers can now actively participate in the graphics creation process.

As graphics creation software has become detached from the processing hardware, such as the rendering engine, the creative process can move to less expensive laptops, desktop PCs and newsroom computer systems networked across the station's operation.

People can now do what they do best. Graphics artists can concentrate on creating an innovative graphics look that can serve many graphics needs at that station or network and ensure that channel branding remains consistent.

Template-based graphics

Today, there is a growing trend for artists to create a single graphic template that journalists can load with specific information, without affecting the graphic's look. A sports template might be designed with fields for the player's name, position and player stats, as well as the team's name and logo.

With template-based graphics, the journalists and producers who are most familiar with the details of the news or sports story can enter the names, places, and video and audio elements for that graphic. Then they can prepare them in time for the next newscast or sports show. All of the creative attributes that the artists built into the templates — such as shadows, 3-D moves, banners, colors and font styles — do not change when the user fills in the content.

Instead of having to create a dozen or more graphics for every member of the team, only one graphics template is needed because the content can be repeatedly changed without building the graphic from scratch. They can stamp out versions of a graphic while maintaining a consistent on-air presentation.

This technology is a significant time-saver for broadcasters and one that enriches their live shows with more unique graphics than would be practical for an artist to create from scratch.

Data-driven graphics templates

The latest trend in live broadcast graphics takes the idea of the graphics template one step further. Many high-end graphics systems now support RSS feeds and other third-party data feeds that deliver timely, real-time data — such as sports scores, team statistics, stock prices and polling results — and feed them directly into the graphics templates. Values, such as percentages, can be used by live graphics systems to generate visuals, such as bar graphs and pie charts, that help viewers better understand the information.

This capability has proven to be particularly useful during fast-paced, data-driven events, such as election coverage or major sports telecasts. This process is automated, so graphics can be created live, on the fly, without data entry errors. Broadcasters can generate an impressive quantity of live graphics — far more than could be created manually — because a single graphics template can be used repeatedly and automatically refilled as new or updated data streams come in.

Real-time, data-driven 3-D graphics displays were once considered a luxury that only national networks could afford. Today, smaller broadcast operations, such as local market stations, are adopting the technology because the costs have come within reach.

Image tracking for graphics

Graphics templates can also be filled or influenced by other live data sources, such as camera tracking or GPS coordinates. This type of technology is already used for auto racing, marathons, horse racing or other instances where cameras and GPS tracking devices are placed on moving objects.

Data is relayed back to the graphics systems to enable them to position the live graphics relative to the moving objects so that the graphics follow the objects wherever they move on the screen. For example, a flag displaying a car's speed, driver and position can be made to stay right above that respective car as it whizzes around the track.

With image tracking technology, sports graphics have become an integral part of the sportscast itself because graphical objects can be keyed or superimposed onto specific spots on the playing field. During broadcast of American football games, a yellow line — known as the first-and-ten line — is routinely employed across the field, serving as a first-down marker. During association football game broadcasts, bright lines are keyed on the playing field to show offside lines, or the distance from the kicker to the goal.

In addition, sports, such as baseball, include ads that are keyed directly onto stadium billboards or displays behind the batter. Swimming event broadcasts include ads that appear to be at the bottom of the pool. By overlaying graphics onto the playing field, broadcasters can realize a new advertising revenue stream, as well as give their sophisticated viewers a better understanding and analysis of the game.

3-D virtual sets

Another significant trend in live broadcast graphics has been moving graphics from the control room to the set. While over-the-shoulder graphics have commonly been keyed behind news anchors, over the past decade, 3-D graphics have come to fill the entire background of the set — an effect made possible by virtual set systems.

With the use of camera tracking technology, the perspective of the graphics can be tied to the movement of the cameras. As the camera pans, tilts, zooms and trucks, the graphics background moves accordingly for a more realistic viewing experience.

The advantage of virtual sets is that a small studio can produce a variety of set-based shows, including talk shows, magazine news shows and sports wrap-ups. Changing the set or the look of a show is as easy as keying a different 3-D virtual environment into the blue or green screen. For this reason, virtual set technology can be a more affordable alternative to building and storing large, elaborate, physical sets.

The disadvantage of virtual sets is that the talent is surrounded by a solid blue or green screen or cyclorama, making it difficult for them to react to the graphics display unless they are looking at a reference monitor that shows the video-graphics composite. Another criticism of virtual sets is that they can look like cartoons or video games, which might not be appropriate for a serious news show.

However, the virtual set has been widely embraced in places that don't have a tradition of using physical sets or crews dedicated to building physical sets. In many ways, broadcasters in emerging countries have leapfrogged over legacy technology, with no resistance to change impeding their progress.

Interacting with the video wall

Compared with the virtual set, the video wall is a much simpler technology that doesn't involve complex camera tracking and calibration, or real-time rendering of large graphics image files. A video wall can be HD or SD, and a single, large-screen plasma monitor can be used to display many individual video sources.

The video wall is a more accessible effect, so it is gaining popularity as an effective way to splash live graphics prominently onto the live set, especially when space is not an issue.

CNN's “Situation Room,” and ABC's “Oprah” and “The View” are among the high-profile television shows using video walls. CNN has a single monitor with eight to 10 displays of moving video.

With video walls as part of the set design, the talent can see the graphics and video running on the display, react to people being interviewed from remote locations and interact with the video like a teacher pointing to a blackboard.

Moving toward integrated production

As the set becomes a more dynamic environment of moving images, we're likely to see a trend where anchors and talent finally get up from their chairs, stand in front of the images and interact with the video.

In the future, more production capabilities will be integrated within a single system so that one operator can take charge of all aspects of a live broadcast, including real-time graphics. The industry will also experience a proliferation of graphics in a wide range of resolutions and formats, pushing the envelope for creative expression on the biggest to the smallest screen. Not only are 3-D graphics being used to enhance the live broadcast, they are also becoming an integral part of the studio set.

Judging by the way that the live graphics business has evolved, live graphics systems will have more firepower in the future. These tools will enable a greater volume of eye-catching, 3-D animated graphics to be produced for distribution to a wide array of media devices.

Petter Ole Jakobsen is chief technology officer for Vizrt, Bergen, Norway.