3D Graphics in Sports, Part Two: Economically Meeting the Need for Flexibility

By John Rice

Sports-graphics professionals attending NAB this year will see a number of new options designed to tighten workflows, get information in front of viewers more quickly, and most important, make it easier to do more with less. And doing more is the key because, as Nir Goshen, director of visibility for Vizrt, sees things, “every piece of graphics, even the score bug, has animation in it.” In part two of a two-part series on new 3D graphics devices at NAB, Sports Video Group takes a look at how suppliers are streamlining 3D production and making it more cost-effective.

Vizrt systems has found believers in those involved in live sports production. The key to that success, according to Goshen, is that “Vizrt offers a core graphics platform. There is no need to import and export. Part of our success is due to the embedded authoring tool, Viz Artist.” He explains that the “relationship between Viz Artist and the rendering engine is basically like client and server. The render engine is the server, and the Viz Artist user interface is one of the server’s clients.”

The platform allows users to add tools for tickers, maps, weather coverage, and asset management for video footage. “It’s very attractive to broadcasters to capitalize on their investment by adding modules and components and things they already know how to use,” says Goshen.

Vizrt systems do work with third-party systems and software like PhotoShop, but the strength of the systems is that the designer maintains “ownership” of the graphics. “We believe in the ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ [WYSIWYG] concept,” he says. “The rules are dictated by the creator of the graphics.”

More and more, integration of real-time data is becoming a major part of live graphics. “We are going in the direction of fancy technology that tracks stuff on the field, collects statistics [including] some that may not be able to be recorded by a human being.”

Vizrt is in a strategic alliance with Stats Inc. (which recently acquired SportsView), providing “unique equipment that can be placed in the arena and track the position of all the players and the position of the ball,” Goshen explains. “Think about the ability to highlight a player, a bunch of players, or a team” or the ability to draw the path of a player as he ran to score a goal or a basket. Think about the ability to show numbers pertaining to the speed of a run, the speed of the ball or the pitch. It is really fascinating what can be done with it.”

Orad Inc. also takes the platform approach. “I think there are a lot of efficiencies that broadcasters can employ and are not being used today with 3D graphics because they rely on multiple systems and multiple staff to deliver one output,” says Shaun Dail, VP of marketing, North America, for Orad. “They want to a high-quality graphics presentation, but they want to try to do that as efficiently as possible. We see them asking for that.”

Orad’s MVP (Motion Video Play) was “developed as a sports platform,” Dail explains. “It was developed as a platform, not a set tool. If you try to build a system that is constrained with fixed tools, you don’t often meet the needs of the market.” He says MVP was designed as a basic tool set that a customer can build upon.

Features offered in MVP include Object Tracking, Flow Motion, Magnifying Glass, and Tracked Telestrator. For 3D, Orad’s 3Designer provides authoring software for creation of 2D and 3D graphic elements; it also imports 3D objects from Studio 3D Max and Maya.

Orad’s 3DPlay is described as a 3D and 2D template-based system. “The point-and-click database interfaces are amazing,” says Dail. 3DPlay was originally developed for internal use for sports and election coverage, he notes. 3DPlay “gives the operator the ability to point and click on any stat that will populate a template,” he explains. “The data is automatically carried in from the database. It’s a big time saver, but it also gives [the operator] flexibility.”

Speed, of course, is crucial in live sports production. But ever increasingly, Dail says, customers are looking for to save time and money. “Time and cost efficiencies while delivering the same or better output is what we’re about. When you can eliminate 95% of your programming cost and streamline your design and do it in a system that requires minimal hardware units, it’s very cost-effective, and you get a killer show.”

Harris Broadcast will give sports networks what they want with Inscriber G. Introduced at NAB 2008, the HD/SD-switchable CG system available in single- or dual-channel. “We approach our systems as an all-in-one box,” explains Curtis Mutter, product line manager for the Inscriber Production Graphics line. “They include a character generator, connection to automation, and 3D capability. We do everything from a single box. You can purpose these systems however you want.”

In addition to the flagship Inscriber G7, Harris also offers the G3 and G1, “still running the same software platform and with the same functionality.” The systems are Windows XP-based. “You can add the design tools that you want.”

Harris systems feature RTX, a programming API that enables customizable graphics applications. RTX 2.0, which is currently being rolled out, “has access to entire 3D-scene capability,” says Mutter. “RTX has been used for tickers and score bugs, which have traditionally been 2D. Now you have access to the entire 3D environment, so you can introduce some interesting transitions.”

Mutter sees 3D graphics in sports as an augmentation to “traditional” 2D. Producers are “using the 3D tools to tell more about certain situations in a game,” he explains. “3D also gives you a new way of presenting data. With the 3D environment, you can integrate text as more of an element within the scene, so you can actually have that content imbedded into the scene.”

Another recent introduction is a G3D design application. “This is a piece of software that sits on the machine,” Mutter says. “It’s our 3D-scene creation tool.” G3D enables creation of 3D primitives, texturing, and animation. It features multiple timelines and provides the ability to “build very complex scenes using this tool.

“Where it really shines is in scene-importing capability,” he continues. “We can import entire 3D scenes from third-party applications like 3D Studio Max. A customer can have their 3D designers work in the tools that they’re comfortable with.” The system operator then has access to all the elements and can modify the graphics as needed. “It keeps it simple for the operator while providing a very complex scene.”

In live-sports graphics, Mutter sees something of a tradeoff between fully rendered, ray-traced events and what can be realistically accomplished in real time. “We take the approach that you can combine the two. If you need elements that have a very high production look, you can integrate those into your 3D scene. Our product allows you to use the best of both worlds. You can integrate that rendered content when you need it. You still have access to the 2D environment and use the 3D content to augment that presentation.”

With cost a paramount importance in a weakening economy, Pixel Power’s approach to 3D graphics, says CEO Pete Challinger, is “to try to make the cost reasonable, because we see it as something that’s going to become ‘everyday.’”

The problem with real-time 3D graphics to date is that systems have been very complex and very expensive. “Systems that are capable of doing [high-end 3D] are not usually operator-friendly, and not usually accountant-friendly,” says Challinger. “That’s starting to change.”

Pixel Power’s Clarity 3D is a recent arrival in the marketplace. “It’s been a long time in gestation
,” Challinger says. “It really stabilized toward the last quarter of last year. Our approach has been that real-time 3D should be a modest extension of the existing tools that people are using.”

Noting the large base of graphic artists working in After Effects, Challinger says an artist or operator who “can drive a real-time graphics box and can use After Effects can use Clarity 3D. That’s our approach.”

The need to incorporate real-time data and integrate with external systems and software benefits Clarity 3D, he says: “One of the advantages to our approach is that every aspect of the animation can be connected to something externally. You could have 20 different variables that are coming from live stats data and all modifying some part of the animation. You can easily attach any control to any piece of that.

“The area where we think we go beyond other players is the ability to map multiple, real-time live videos onto the object surface,” Challinger adds. Although most systems are limited in terms of inputs, he says, Clarity systems have four live-video inputs “so you can put more pictures on more parts of the object.”

For Pixel Power, it’s about “ease of use and lower cost of ownership,” says Challinger. “We hang our hats on them.”

For those needing access to high-end platforms on a rental basis, California-based graphics company Reality Check Studios has been creating high-end graphics and effects for broadcast, feature films, and commercials. But recently, via its “hardware” division RC Gear, it’s a presence in live sports production in both hardware and systems design.

“As time goes by, the graphics and graphics systems have become more sophisticated,” says Jeff Heimbold, producer at Reality Check. “The networks want to do more, and someone has to be on the cutting edge figuring out what it can do.”

RC Gear’s BULLET is a rack-mountable hardware package that runs on Vizrt software. According to Heimbold, there are 70 or 80 of the systems in the RC Gear fleet, primarily supporting HD sporting events. Using off-the-shelf components, the system rack-mounts PCs with a back patch panel that has video ins and outs: “The truck engineer simply plugs it into his truck environment.” He estimates that the BULLET works on approximately 1,800 events per year for various clients.

Recently, Reality Check and RC Gear have moved into the realm of integration of graphics and video switching. “We developed Upper Cut, which is a video-switching application on a touch screen,” explains Heimbold. “What we’ve done is put the graphics operator and the director side by side on the bench and made the graphics intelligent.” The system occupies a smaller footprint in a production truck, and he says it requires fewer people to operate.

“We are using the same sort of mentality that we had for creating graphic front ends to now controlling graphics,” he says. “We’re integrating the graphics with the video switching to make it more user-friendly. You or I could be the TD.”

Heimbold says the company has “gone from being a graphics company to adding hardware” to creating software and application solutions. “We have a difficult time explaining what we do” even to our clients,” he smiles. “It turns everything they’ve been doing on its head.”