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The greatest support for virtual reality applications in Sport

TV screens across the globe are currently in the grip of World Cup fever. As the first game kicks off, every piece of action will be covered by broadcasters battling to achieve the highest possible viewing figures for their programmes. While the sporting tournament plays out on the pitch, the competition between broadcasters to make their coverage stand out will be just as fiercely fought.

One area where programme makers may look to differentiate their coverage from that of their competitors is in augmented and virtual reality. Sports is perhaps the most influential genre of broadcasting in terms of advances in technology, and the resulting programmes have long been leaders in the field for augmented and virtual reality applications. TV sports fans have become accustomed to the more dynamic and creative coverage and continue to demand innovations that will make their viewing experience ever more informative and immersive.

VR graphics have been used in live sports programmes for several years, with a range of tried and tested techniques from generating team logos on pitches, to illustrating offside lines. While graphics software is often at the top of broadcasters’ VR technology agenda, there are other, crucial requirements. For example, a broadcaster could choose the highest quality graphic software system, but without the right tracking solution and camera support equipment such as that supplied by Vinten and Vinten Radamec the quality and performance is lost. The aim of any augmented reality system, such as those which insert a down-and-distance logo on to a pitch during a match, is to seamlessly composite an image of the real background with a computer generated view of a 3D model to the extent that it appears physically “real”. What appears to be a straightforward, realistic image to the viewer is the result of complex, technical process that demands the highest performing, precise capabilities of the camera support equipment.

For broadcasters to achieve the perfect match of real and virtual elements, the graphics system has to know precisely where the camera is pointing, to understand the field of view so that the scale and perspective can be correctly matched. To achieve this, all camera movements must be captured, then tracked and communicated back to the software that is rendering the graphic. In addition, as virtual reality in sports is predominantly used in live television, this information has to be accurately delivered in real time.

Vinten’s i-series of encoded pan and tilt heads, such as the Vector 430i and Vector 750i, can deliver the precise positional data needed for virtual and augmented reality applications when shooting live sports in outside broadcast environments. The heads’ intelligence modules enable camera operators to have semi-automatic set-up, slide plate tracking and kinematic compensation to track the camera’s sensor position.  For virtual and augmented applications the heads are combined with Vinten Radamec’s Virtual Reality Interface (VRI) box, which processes the precise positioning data from the head encoders to ensure the stable and accurate placement of virtual graphics into the live environment. The VRI box also offers a direct interface to lenses with encoder outputs, or bolt on lens encoders, to provide a single data stream to the graphics rendering system.

The technological capabilities of the camera support equipment and tracking solution is a basic requirement for any virtual and augmented reality applications for both standard and high definition television, but with 4K productions moving on to the horizon the precise positional data is even more crucial. The World Cup is providing the perfect platform to showcase the latest technological advances in this area, with the BBC set to stream three games from the tournament in ultra high definition (UHD). The matches, including two quarter finals and the final, will mark one of the first times a live event has been streamed over the air in UHD in the UK.

The high precision movement control and the performance of the lenses is critical to the success of any 4K application. When augmented reality is added into the mix there is an additional consideration to factor in which is to provide sufficient resolution of pan and tilt positional data for the UHD frame when using shots at the extreme telephoto end of zoom lenses. The ultra-high precision measurement of camera viewing vector is vital in augmented reality 4K productions to ensure that the graphics are perfectly located and move smoothly and therefore look part of the real scene to viewers.

In terms of resolution, providing augmented reality in 4K using the longest field lenses requires a doubling of the number of data points, to 2.35 million, through the 360 degrees of rotation of the pan and tilt axis. The encoder technology in Vinten’s i-series of heads is scalable with the ability to deliver up to 12m counts per 360 degrees, and both the pan and tilt heads and the company’s VRI interface box architecture have been designed to make this upgrade as easy as possible.

Regardless of the resolution, when sporting fans sit down in front of the screen to watch their favourite team this summer, any virtual and augmented reality elements of the programming will be taken for granted. The viewer will be hoping for the perfect performance from their team on the pitch and that same exacting performance has to be reflected in the camera support equipment which is providing the precision needed to enable every virtual reality application.

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