Virtual Sets Get Real

More processing power allows affordable creativity


When introduced 10 years ago, virtual set systems cost $1 million or more. Today's solutions can be had for under $50,000, while offering far greater photo-realism, creative latitude and intuitive operation.

The real -- time rendering and compositing of talent within a 3D virtual set -- where the backgrounds change according to the live camera's motion and perspective-used to require the processing power of a highly expensive, complex supercomputers, such as an SGI Infinite Reality, which increased the operational cost and complexity. But today's virtual sets are based on PCs, boosted by specialized video processing engines, which make them infinitely more affordable and user-friendly.

Now vendors are hoping that this improved price-performance will finally spark demand and sales from U.S. broadcasters.

"To date, the majority of virtual set installations have occurred in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The U.S. has been cautious in its acceptance of virtual sets; however, there seemed to be increased interest at this year's NAB," says Bret Lukezic, VP of U.S. Operations for Radamec Broadcast Inc. in New Brunswick, N.J.


"The driving force behind virtual sets is cost savings and the ability to create realistic environments that could not be created in the real world," adds Lukezic. "The cost of virtual sets has decreased; however, the savings are not immediate. The return on investment is realized the first time a physical set [which can cost about $250,000] needs to be replaced to keep a station's programming looking fresh." This is because a new virtual set can cost as little as $20,000 or even less if designed by the an in-house graphics department using software such as Discreet's 3D Studio Max or Alias Maya. "Over 10 years, this can amount to significant savings," he says.

If broadcasters have limited studio space, 3D virtual sets allow them to produce multiple shows back-to-back from the same studio, with no set-up, striking, or storage costs, because it's easy to load in different 3D sets, he adds.

But although photo-realistic sets produce the most credible illusion, Lukezic says that visually complex 3D sets can also present significant technical hurdles. "Poor processing can cause the background of the virtual set to look unrealistic, like a cartoon. Radamec's Scenario XR virtual studio system offers a real -- time ray -- traced rendered system that doesn't use [problematic] polygons, thus allowing high-quality realistic sets, with live reflections and refractions to be created on walls, floors, tables, and other surfaces in real-time."

Scenario XR, which can handle display in widescreen, leverages Radamec's Cross Reality technology that enables real-time control of lighting, transparency and color within a 360 -- degree ray -- traced virtual environment. Also, all of Radamec's high -- end robotic pan -- and-tilt heads, robotic pedestals and other support gear can be retrofitted to support virtual set applications.


"With affordable, powerful PC graphics workstations, the cost of virtual set systems has come down to roughly one-third of what it used to be, while the quality of the on-air product has increased, " says Gary Attanasio, Atlanta -- based national sales manager for graphics solutions for FOR -- A. "You couldn't use virtual set systems as easily before because it was such a 'black art,' but now the user interface and operation are very intuitive. So money and technical skill are no longer issues, and this should increase demand for virtual set systems."

The FOR -- A virtual studio product line includes digiWarp -- EX II, a multilayer-based virtual studio system; and digiStorm, which is powered by Brainstorm, a product of Madrid-based Brainstorm Multimedia. Partially owned by FOR-A, Brainstorm brings its powerful, mature, true 3D virtual set environment to FOR-A's core hardware technology. DigiStorm is capable of exotic fly-throughs, visual effects, and animated lighting, among other advanced capabilities.

"While the computer hardware, software, and tracking systems associated with virtual sets have become very sophisticated and mature, the biggest challenge remains the corroboration of physical lighting with computer-generated lighting of video and virtual elements that comprise the virtual set," says Attanasio. "Both physical and virtual lighting have to match for the virtual set to be convincing,"

No longer are the sets riddled with the surprises and uncertainties of the past, adds Attanasio. "Today's virtual sets allow easier modification of existing 3D sets," he said. "Rather than having to go back into the native graphics software package to affect small changes to a virtual set design, FOR-A's solutions include all the tools and an intuitive user interface enabling users to make modifications, like moving a wall or door 'on the fly.'"

Also, producing on-air graphics within the virtual set can be done without having to write custom code to generate, update, and display real-time, template-based, data-driven presentations, he adds.

When FOR-A's Producer Xmedia platform (in its broadcast graphics line), including Xstudio and Xbuilder, is used in conjunction with Brainstorm, users can automatically transform live data -- driven feeds -- from AP, Reuters or other services-into bar graphs, charts, and other dynamic displays. When integrated within the virtual set, the solution is ideal for election coverage, news, and sports programs.


As one of the original vendors of virtual set systems, Orad Hi-Tec Systems Ltd. has shown tremendous staying power. Based in Kfar Saba, Israel, with U.S. offices in New York, Orad's product line has grown beyond traditional virtual sets to include on-air graphics systems, virtual advertising, and sports production solutions.

In January, Orad introduced RealSet, which combines on -- air graphics and camera tracking technologies to generate high -- quality real -- time graphics that stay fixed to the user -- designated location in the set regardless of the shooting camera's motion. The graphics are seamlessly composited with the live action in real-time.

RealSet is powered by Orad's core hardware technology, the DVG-10, with a built-in chromakeyer, and uses Orad's CyberGraphics software and authoring tools, control and automation options as well as a rich database of models and animations.

The DVG-10 also powers Orad's conventional virtual set products, such as CyberSet and the entry level CyberSet Light. Orad gives customers a choice of camera tracking methods, including: Orad's X-Pecto infrared solution for completely free motion shooting; Orad's pattern recognition, which uses the video itself to extract camera parameters (using a spatially coded wall pattern); and Orad's tracking heads, based on built -- in opto -- mechanical sensors that can be used with the pattern recognition system.

In terms of creating virtual sets for HDTV, FOR-A's Attanasio concludes, "HDTV sets can be achieved today, but it requires a very expensive system, like an SGI Onyx or better, to process the five-times greater resolution demands. HDTV virtual sets won't be affordable or practical for four or five more years."

Claudia Kienzle