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Virtual news sets get more affordable

Apr 1, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Thanks to recent advances in graphics card capabilities for PCs, TV stations that once viewed the adoption of virtual studio technology as too expensive can now consider implementing such solutions, since the costs have dropped drastically this year.
Broadcasters no longer need to purchase a supercomputer that starts at $100,000. They can instead rely on desktop PCs with graphics and video cards to run virtual studios, since most of the providers of virtual studio technology plan to or have introduced systems that use cheaper computers.
A virtual studio is a virtual replacement for a traditional set. The movement of a real camera is tracked, and virtual images replace the real ones. In a newscast, an anchor would stand against a blue or green background while the viewer sees him or her in the virtual set. Such technology previously necessitated the use of an Onyx supercomputer from Silicon Graphics of Mountain View, Calif.
However, graphics cards for PCs can now handle many of the same functions that SGI systems enable, said Paul Lacombe, CEO of Brainstorm America, the U.S division of the Spanish company that provides virtual studio software.
Today’s graphics cards allow for more texture memory, so operators can use more and different textures in creating a scene. The new cards also handle full-scene anti-aliasing, which smoothes the edges and improves picture quality.
Virtual studio technology is still fairly new to the United States, though networks such as CBS, NBC and CNN have used the technology, as have some local stations such as Cablevision’s News 12 in New York’s tri-state area. A virtual set allows a broadcaster to quickly change the look and feel of a studio environment without moving the actual set. For stations with little studio space, a virtual studio makes the use of multiple sets possible. It also enables enhanced graphical elements in a newscast.
Virtual studio providers who handle some or all aspects of the virtual solution-companies such as Brainstorm, FOR-A, Vizrt, Devlin Design Group, Radamec and Orad-are rolling out systems that eliminate the need for a supercomputer.
Brainstorm plans to introduce version 7.0 of its eStudio virtual studio software at this month’s National Association of Broadcasters show. It is the first Brainstorm system that can run on a Windows 2000 operating system as well as on SGI or Linux systems. Brainstorm is targeting smaller TV stations that otherwise couldn’t afford to implement such technology, Mr. Lacombe said. The release includes an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface and costs $20,000 for the PC version and $40,000 for the SGI version, which does allow for more advanced graphical capabilities.
New York-based Vizrt makes a high-end virtual studio system called Viz (virtual studio). The latest version, 3.0, runs on a Windows NT-based system and contains a user interface that is more intuitive and easier to use than previous versions, said Isaac Hersly, president of Vizrt Americas. The system starts at $150,000 and can include the software, hardware and tracking system for the camera.
The system is being used by Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to broadcast three hours each week of news, sports and public affairs. The virtual studio is also used for classroom training for electronic media students, said LSU Professor Bob McMullen.
LSU elected to use a virtual studio because the actual studio is too small to accommodate the different sets needed, Mr. McMullen said. The school uses SoftSet from San Diego-based Devlin Design Group, a set design firm that also designs virtual sets.
At this year’s NAB, Devlin Design Group plans to offer its SoftSet VS200 solution, which incorporates its set designs with an operating system from Darim Vision that operates on a Windows NT platform.
The system is trackless, thus eliminating the cost of the tracking system from the equation. The package starts at $48,000.
Orad plans to showcase a virtual studio system that runs on its own DVG (digital video graphics) computer. The DVG also serves as a traditional 3-D on-air graphics solution, but when combined with camera tracking it can allow multidepth graphics. That means users can place graphics in the background of the virtual set as well as in the foreground, said Noah Meiri, president, Orad North America. Cost of the system ranges from $70,000 to $250,000, which is a reduction from the $400,000 it would have run when coupled with an SGI computer, he said.
FOR-A, which has made audio and video equipment for 30 years, has partnered with Brainstorm to include its virtual studio software in FOR-A’s latest version of an integrated hardware-based virtual studio product, digiStorm, to be unveiled at NAB. The new system allows for 3-D graphics and can run on a Windows platform. It is based on the company’s switcher and chromakeyer, and a system can be configured in less than a half-hour, said Gary Attanasio, national sales manager graphics solutions for FOR-A, based in Gainesville, Fla. A digiStorm system starts at $130,000.
Radamec, known for its robotic cameras, plans to present its Scenario XR system, which runs on a Windows NT platform, renders sets in real time and allows for the reflection of live inserted objects into the virtual elements to make the set look more real, said David Ackroyd, sales and marketing director for Radamec in Chertsey, England.
Despite the ample evidence to indicate that it is being phased out of the market for virtual sets in broadcast newsrooms, SGI believes the market is only growing for all players. Low-cost solutions allow those who couldn’t otherwise afford to adopt virtual studio technology to finally do so, said Shawn Underwood, director of product management for visual computing at SGI.
The company will continue to serve national and regional broadcasters as well as stations in top 10 markets that have higher-end graphical needs, since an SGI computer allows for a more precise image and greater scene complexity, he said.