Graphics systems

On-air graphics push the limits of imagination … at a price.
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In today's highly competitive television environment, on-screen graphics continue to be a key channel differentiator. There's no graphic too sophisticated or complex for today's audiences — be they high-definition, 3D, full-motion branding bugs or multilayered titles that transition on and off the screen in highly creative ways, or fully interactive maps and charts tightly linked to the Web that provide real-time updates of information and a clear message for the story being presented.

The ante continues to be increased for what can be done on screen to help tell a story or enhance a live broadcast. With the advent of wide-screen HDTV sets in consumers' living rooms, static 2D images no longer cut it if you want viewers to take notice. The competition for eyeballs among sports broadcasts is especially tough, where full-motion images now take the place of player headshots, virtual technology is ubiquitous, and 3D models move in an out of the screen seamlessly.

A wide variety of cable channels now use full-motion logos or live video mapped on top of a program to promote another upcoming show, generated with a single channel branding solution. National news programs are getting high-tech with interactive maps that can zoom in to a particular street with the touch of the on-set plasma screen. CNN aired a holographic-like effect that virtually placed an off-site reporter in the studio for an interview with the show's host. So it appears there's no limit to what can be accomplished with the right art direction.

For years, stations at the local level have not been as innovative with their newscasts, preferring simple over-the-shoulder graphics. This is beginning to change, as ratings have become harder to come by. We're seeing multilayered 3D opens and bumpers being used like never before. However, stations now have fewer resources and are forced to do more with less staff, so there are limitations. The economy has not helped this scenario.

Finding the right model

Vendors in the space are working hard to provide tools that allow producers and graphics artists to design at all levels of multilayered sophistication to create new types of graphics in an intuitive way. This has resulted in a number of options for broadcasters, depending upon the business model and production workflow desired.

In addition to whiz-bang effects, manufacturers are also focused on making broadcasters as productive as possible by enabling all members of the staff to collaborate in the process. There are several workflow models being deployed among their respective product lines: single-box solutions, networked systems approach and a software-as-service (SaaS) subscription model whereby graphics tools are provided in a Web-based environment that are hosted by the manufacturer.

The Avid Deko line of character generators and graphics engines has been a mainstay of the broadcast business for many years. Teicia Gaupp, market segment manager for on-air graphics at Avid Technology, says that broadcasters want the ability to centralize the graphics creation process so that there's no duplication of efforts. There's also a need for distributed access of graphics among multiple departments of a media company, be it a single local station or a main network (broadcast or cable) production facility.

With the emergence of the MOS protocol several years ago, journalists using an Avid iNEWS or AP ENPS newsroom computer system now had the ability to create a graphic using prebuilt templates and then link that graphic element to a particular story. Because the templates are designed by a single artist, it also keeps a consistent brand image onscreen. And the same graphics can be saved in multiple formats that can be used in both TV programs and print campaigns. But the real driver of template graphics is that it allows a station to maintain or increase graphics productivity without hiring more graphic artists.

Today, this access to graphics tools within the Deko product family has been extended to the editor, allowing the person cutting the video to create and insert graphics elements. This includes the latest Deko 3000 software, which supports the industry-standard FBX and Collada 3D formats, and enables users to import and playback 3D models and animations. This again saves time and money.

Virtual graphics

Orad Hi-Tech Systems has been a long-time player in the virtual set community. The company has moved aggressively into the sports broadcast arena, offering 3D title graphics and virtual insertion technology for interactive charts, graphs and even advertising. CBS Sports has used Orad's MVP enhancement tools for some of its live football and tennis broadcasts, enabling producers to zoom in and highlight a single player or play in real time. CBS also uses Orad's First Down Line system, which uses sensor-free image processing tracking technology to superimpose the yellow line and other virtual graphics over the playing field.

Shaun Dail, vice president of sales and marketing for North America at Orad, says resources (money and graphic artist talent) are the biggest hurdles stations are faced with when it comes to graphics production. In general, the companies that invest in newer technology are the ones gaining the highest ratings.

The company recently introduced an on-air graphics, branding and CG system that supports 3D as well as SD and HD resolution. It comes with a built-in tutorial on how to build different types of graphics. This type of low-cost channel branding box is offered by a variety of master control switcher vendors, including Evertz, Grass Valley, Harris, Miranda Technologies, Omneon, OmniBus Systems and Utah Scientific. EVS and Pixel Power offer similar products, in addition to their graphics and on-air display systems.

One of the latest graphics technologies from Orad is InterAct, a 3D graphically driven touch-screen system that works with any plasma or LCD display. The company has also developed a chromakey monitor that can control virtual objects within a virtual set. Another new Orad virtual technology, AutoCatch, enables a live telecast to keep a virtual ad in the shot. When a director takes a different camera angle, the system automatically remaps the image into each shot.

Cost-effective models

For broadcast networks and independent station groups across the country, sharing resources and reducing redundant processes has become standard production practice. These days, if you want to stay competitive, you have no choice.

For the Media General Broadcast Group, this philosophy has been extended to the creation of a centralized on-air graphics production initiative and the implementation of an innovative workflow that saves capital and gets packages on the air faster. In the news business, faster time to air means higher ratings.

From its Broadcast Division headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, Media General has put together a team of digital design artists that produce design elements for the entire station group. It supports 23 full-power television stations in various midmarkets across the Southeast United States. The group is helping each station beat its respective local competition with the latest breaking news story and improving the on-air look of its diverse newscasts — all with fewer resources and less duplicate processes than the company used in the past.

Known as Media General FX (MGFX), the graphics hub is providing Media General stations with every type of on-air graphic element, from over-the-shoulder headshots to 3D maps, program bumpers and teases. They're using template-based graphics authoring and workflow tools from Miranda Technologies, in tandem with other graphic creation systems (After Effects, Photo Shop and Curious Maps), to create and distribute standard- and HD graphic elements in both the 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. Participating stations simply order graphic elements from MGFX, and they become available via the Internet, sometimes within minutes of the request.

MGFX general manager Jim Doyle says that while economics certainly played a large role in setting up the project, the current driving factor is trying to achieve an inherent efficiency in how graphics are produced and used across the station group. It has helped Media General improve the quality of its newscasts and increases the quantity of graphics available to its stations on a daily basis.

Other stations groups, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, have deployed similar centralized graphics production hubs.

With a rich history steeped in hardware- and proprietary software-based graphics systems, the name Chyron has been synonymous with on-air graphics for many years. This year, while the company continues to offer its stand-alone HyperX systems for graphics production, it has also taken a decidedly different approach to helping station groups create graphics economically.

The company's Axis Web-based graphic tools provide a “Distributed Centralization” strategy that the company said brings stations substantial cost savings. The new software-as-service concept leverages “cloud” computing, whereby graphics elements are stored in a remotely located server, controlled by Chyron. The idea behind cloud computing is that it allows broadcast groups to have access to the high-quality graphics tools, via subscription licenses, without buying the actual hardware and software normally required. Gannett's 23 stations have adopted the Axis SaaS model and are using it on a daily basis.

How much is too much?

Remember that graphics can become too distracting. When CNN used the Vizrt holographic-effect technology during the presidential elections in 2008, it was not without some consternation. Executives at CNN apparently felt they needed to ensure that viewers knew the virtual reporter was not in the studio, so they defocused the edges of the virtual effect. This made the interviewee looks cartoonish, like a cheap “Star Trek” analog video effect.

During NAB, Vizrt and a company called STATS presented a live demonstration at the company's booth, which showed how problematic the technology can be for an inexperienced “guest” to use the system. The audio delay between an interviewer and interviewee can be quite disarming for someone not used to it.

The technique requires that a semicircle of small cameras is positioned around the guest standing against a green screen in a remote studio. In the main studio, a single camera is fitted with special sensors that help position the virtual guest next to the live guest. The system uses STATS' video processing and tracking technology, in tandem with Vizrt's real-time tracking and rendering software. The impression of the holographic interview is completed in fractions of a second, and multiparticipant interviews are possible.

With current graphics technology, anything is possible given the right budget and talented artists. It all depends on the desired audience and the on-screen image you are trying to portray. Ratings and revenue will follow.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.