Gray Television began a serious evaluation of a hybrid of hard and virtual sets, augmented reality and immersive graphics about 18 months ago. The station group wanted to find new, flexible ways to customize local content in a way that engages viewers. Now it’s preparing to introduce the technology at some of its stations, emphasizing the need to use virtual to “support the content, augment what is going on with that content — not get in the way,” according to Jason Effinger, the group’s tech SVP.
Gray Television Inc. will roll out combo virtual-hard news sets at a small number of its television stations in the third quarter, the first step in what may be a much wider deployment throughout the station group, says an executive level technologist at the station group.
“This has been in Gray’s target for some time because we really see the application of this technology in our medium and small markets,” says Jason Effinger, Gray Television SVP Media & Technology for the TV broadcast group. “It gives us a tremendous leg up.”
The broadcast group owns and operates TV stations in 44 markets. A total of 76 stations are affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.
Gray began a serious evaluation of the hybrid of hard and virtual sets, augmented reality and immersive graphics about 18 months ago.
The station group wanted to find new, flexible ways to customize local content in a way that engages viewers, says Effinger.
“I believe this will be an important evolution in our content presentation — supporting content with the right graphics and right set to deliver more and more details to the viewers of our newscasts,” he says.
“We are like many [broadcasters] in the United States that are really diving in [to virtual sets, augmented reality and immersive graphics],” he says.
Adopting virtual set technology will put Gray in the company of a growing number of U.S. broadcasters including stations as small as Morris Network’s WXXV Gulfport, Miss. (DMA 160); group-owned stations like Media General’s WKBN Youngstown, Ohio (DMA 113); broadcast networks; and numerous cable news outlets.
While Gray is getting on the virtual set bandwagon with its rollout of hybrid news sets, there will be limits, says Effinger.
“We believe there has to be a visual balance for the viewer of what’s real and what’s not,” he says. “The virtual needs to support the content, augment what is going on with that content — not get in the way.”
Gray has been evaluating three separate approaches to using virtual set technology in conjunction with hard set elements.
The first involves the use of a Ross Video Furio camera tracking system and Vizrt’s Viz Virtual Studio and Viz Engine renderer.
“In the Omaha market, we will be launching with full camera tracking capabilities,” Effinger says.
“The beauty of a robotic camera system is it provides accurate tracking data for virtual so that you get great registration when you combine the real and the virtual elements,” says Bruce Takasaki, Ross Video’s marketing product manager for robotics.
“It also means that when you do a pre-set recall — in other words if you frame a shot, store it in a memory within the system and then recall it through your robotic control system, the camera goes back to exactly the same positon every time.”
Furio combines encoders on the track; the camera support lift; the head to detect both pan and tilt; and the lens into a data stream that is sent to the Vizrt Engine — the real-time 3D graphics processor responsible for rendering the virtual portion of the set.
Broadcasters can economize by relying on a single engine, sending data streams for each individual camera to the real-time graphics processor as a newscast cuts between different cameras, says Isaac Hersly, president of Vizrt Americas.
An alternative, which Gray has chosen, is to assign a Viz Engine to each camera used for the newscast, he says. “One engine per camera is the optimal working environment. With that approach, when Camera One is on air, you are seeing the virtual environment. Because you have an engine on Camera Two, you can dissolve to it, or do a take, but you will have a preview.”
Having multiple Viz Engines also builds in redundancy that ensures a newscast won’t be forced to be telecast with a visible green screen in the event the engine fails, he adds.
The second approach removes the camera track on the studio floor and robotic movements from the equation.
“In this case the cameras are stationary with the exception of pan, tilt and zoom — and perhaps elevation,” Hersly says.
In this setup, a Viz Engine renders the virtual set background in perfect synchronization with a switch between cameras to “give you the effect that the background is moving” to match the perspective of the live camera, he explains.
“When it is done correctly, the approach creates a very elegant transition and saves the expense of a camera that is physically tracking on the floor of the studio,” says Hersly.
The third alternative is similar to a traditional chromakey of a meteorologist presenting weather maps with the help of a green screen, except in this instance the background is rendered in 3D, Effinger says.
Gray already has deployed the weather-like chromakeying type of virtual set at some of its smaller stations, such as KNOP North Platte, Neb. (DMA 209). However, adding the 3-D environment via the Viz Engine means “we can do it a lot better now,” Effinger says.
At least initially, Gray is likely to deploy all three approaches at a handful of its stations, he says. For competitive reasons, Effinger declined to identify the exact number of stations and markets where Gray will initially deploy the hybrid sets.
The type of hybrid set each station gets will depend in part on the size of market served. If the launch proves successful, Gray will “definitely and aggressively [be] moving” toward the first two alternatives, Effinger says.
“They will not be for every single station in the next 12 month, but that does not mean we are not engineering for that in the future,” he says.
Augmented reality, which can make a small set look far bigger, is particularly interesting to Gray, Effinger says.
“When you get into medium and small markets, we aren’t talking about studios the size of football fields,” he says.
“Augmented reality and immersive graphics allow us to transform that studio space into something much bigger and much more diverse than what we could do with a hard set alone.”
The timing of Gray’s initial deployment means the station group will have about a year to get comfortable with the technology before the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
The broadcast group has already begun to consider the optimum way to use the hybrid sets with immersive graphics to report on election night, Effinger says.
“The best use of immersive graphics for elections is when you are trying to explain to the viewer the overall impact of what is happening with one race or two races and how that affects the state or the entire country,” he says.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m not real excited to see a bunch of politicians’ heads popping up out of the desk.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”