Advanced technology wows audiences on Election Night

Economic times may be tough, but the broadcast networks put on a technological fireworks display for viewers during last week’s election coverage that was bigger and better than any televised event before it. Some said it was because voters were so involved this year. Others claim the video prestidigitation was money not very well spent.

CNN won the gee-whiz contest by using a live holographic image that had to have every “Star Trek” fan salivating. In its New York studio, correspondent Jessica Yellin and musician, who were in Chicago’s Grant Park, were virtually transmitted to appear in live interviews. The hologram was made possible by technology from Vizrt and SportVu. A ring of small HD cameras were set up in a tent with a green screen in Chicago by SportVu engineers, inside which Yellin and stood and responded via an IFB audio connection. They also had a plasma screen monitor in the tent to preview the effect.

Up to 35 HD cameras were pointed at Yellin, standing in front of a green screen, with each camera shooting a different angle. SportVu's motion tracking software on 20 computers was employed, using position telemetry information from any of five tracked cameras in CNN's New York City studios to control the view angle.

As the director in NYC asked the operator in the studio to pan, the SportVu software in Chicago immediately calculated the proper perspective. The images from the cameras were processed in real time by Vizrt’s VIZ|ENGINE and sent back to New York via a dedicated fiber line, where they were composited in the main production switcher before going to air. This process allowed CNN to show a true 360-degree hologram image as the camera swept past the virtual image. After the computers merged the video feeds together, viewers saw a likeness of Yellin in the studio with “Situation Room” anchor Wolf Blitzer.

In New York, dozens of HP computers with quad processors were running Vizrt’s Engine, which includes virtual rendering software and a TCP/IP server to combine and reveal the effect on-screen. (The technology has been used previously for instant replays during European sporting events.) On a daily basis, CNN uses Vizrt technology extensively throughout its news production workflow.

Interestingly, the effect looked a bit fuzzy and had a blue-green key outline around the subject. According to Issac Hersley, president of Vizrt Americas (who was in New York for the entire elections telecast), this was done on purpose to ensure that viewers didn’t get the impression that Yellin was actually in the studio. This stems from the ongoing debate about the use of virtual technology in news. News directors don’t want to be accused of deceiving audiences with phony backgrounds of remote locations that are chromakeyed in.

Jon Klein, CNN/U.S. president, told the Web site TVNewser that: “The hologram allowed us to pull people figuratively out of a very noisy environment in Grant Park and actually have a conversation with them,” he said. “One day all TV news will be done that way.” Some would disagree.

CNN also featured a virtual capital building to follow results of Senate seats, which was created with Vizrt technology as well.

As for the other networks, ABC employed three massive screens in New York’s Times Square to display results in real time. News Corp.’s Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and the Fox broadcast network also used a new virtual-reality studio to provide graphics and polling data.

NBC and MSNBC used the 16:9 aspect ratio to feature a running electoral count projected on the sides of the network’s main images. They also debuted two “virtual-reality studios” where anchors updated animated maps. To make sure viewers understood what they were seeing, at one point the network showed the green chroma key set and showed how the virtual graphic worked.

Outside of the studios, NBC transformed Rockefeller Plaza’s ice rink into a giant map of the United States, painting red or blue on the states as calls were made from the studio.

Despite all the technology, the most memorable part of the night featured no special effects at all. President-elect Barack Obama’s dramatic appearance and speech before 1 million-plus emotional people in Chicago’s Grant Park was watched by more than 71 million viewers.

Now that was impressive.