VR And AR Becoming Standard News Tools

NewsTECHForum panelists agree that virtual sets and AR are the next step in news production. They've become practical because computing power has increased to the point where it can render “photo-realistic” backgrounds and graphics.

Last summer, NBC affiliate WTLV Jacksonville, Fla., was looking for a way to differentiate itself and gain some ground in the competitive local news market, said Victor Murphy, director of technology for the Tegna station, at a NewsTECHForum session Monday. So, during the Rio Olympics, the Tegna station went virtual — or partially so, producing the first block of its daily newscast on a virtual set with elements of augmented reality (AR).

Over a year later, he said, the station continues to air the virtual block on the newscast and, while it hasn’t yet translated into ratings gains, it has attracted the attention of the public and rival stations and convinced him that more virtual is probably the way to go.

Murphy was one of the four session panelists who believe that virtual sets and AR have finally come of age.

The other believers: Andy Bocking, head of technology, news, BBC; Thomas Desmueles, CTO of Astuce Media, a graphics services company; and Michael Gruzuk, senior director, CBC News.

Desmueles said the virtual sets and AR are the next step in news production. It was over-the-shoulder, then keyed over-the-shoulder and then video monitors beside the anchors, he said.

Now, it’s AR with “floating” images on the set, he said. “It’s very practical to use as a visualization aid — to see scale, relative weights of things. That’s why we are seeing bar charts and numbers and infographics. It really jumps off the screen.”


CBC News’ Gruzuk said that the CBC has gone low-key graphics into its just-revamped evening news show The National, not to make it flashier, but to make it smarter. “We made a bold decision,” he said. Rather than being bold, “we chose … [to be] boldly simple.”

And the graphics are “portable” to digital media, he said. Many of the new graphics “are being dropped right into Facebook, Twitter and Instagram without any mediation from a reporter voice-over.”

For now, he said, AR is reserved primarily for elections and major news events.

The BCC’s Bocking said the virtual sets and AR have become practical tools because computing power has increased to the point where it can render “photo-realistic” backgrounds and graphics.

The camera tracking technology has also improved to the point where cameras can pan or zoom in and out without producing distracting, tell-tale lag, he said. “The price is coming down and the quality is going up.”

Desmueles agreed that virtual sets and AR are ready. “Some of the stuff we are doing now and taking for granted we couldn’t do a few years ago because of the delays when you did the camera moves,” he said. “It was “just unacceptable.”

Murphy said that the only thing holding him back from plunging deeper into the virtual realm is money for a second virtual camera set-up. He hopes that will happen as the higher ups at Tegna come to appreciate what he is doing and the impact it is having.

The technology is not difficult to operate, he said. “I have kids right out of college who are by themselves on the weekend running this system.”

Graphics produced with an eye on downstream digital use is changing newsroom roles, added CBC’s Gruzuk.

Traditionally, the reporter was “the glue” of a story and the graphics were enhancements, he said. “But what we are learning from mobile users is that they don’t need reporters telling them the story. They prefer to be “very quietly told” through smart graphics alone, he said.

The behind-the-scenes shift to graphics-only stories is causing “serious bumps,” he said. “There is just the human nature of people wanting their face and voice and name to be connected to the content.”

For complete NewsTECHForum coverage, click here.

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