Virtual Enhancements Make Winter Games Debut for OBS

For Kim Erdahl, Olympics Broadcast Services (OBS) graphics manager and her staff of graphics professionals, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver feature more virtual graphics than have ever been seen before at a Winter Games. And the challenge, as always, is making sure OBS provides quality virtual graphics that don’t detract from the competition and also meet the needs of a wide variety of world broadcasters.

“Virtual graphics are a big thing for us this year as it wasn’t until Beijing, and now Vancouver, that we include virtual effects in the host broadcast feed,” says Erdahl.

Swiss Timing Sports is the virtual graphics provider, relying on Vizrt graphics systems for traditional virtual graphics and Dartfish Technology for the system that allows for two athletes to be ghosted over each other, making it easier than ever to compare how two athletes fared in their competition.

With virtual graphics technology providing so many possibilities, Erdahl says one of the more difficult challenges is making sure that graphic enhancements are appropriate. “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should,” she explains. “So our approach is focusing purely on the competition and analysis.”

In terms of host feed coverage, the Dartfish system often shows how the competitors in first and second place might have handled a turn differently during a skiing, skating, or sliding event. OBS also helps rights holders use the Dartfish system to meet their own specific analysis needs as a post-production tool. For example, NBC Sports may want to use the system to compare how two U.S. competitors skied the downhill as the event is tape delayed.

“We record every run and give the rights holders who have approached us access to them if they want to compare specific athletes,” says Erdahl.

A personal favorite enhancement for Erdahl is also one of the more simpler graphics, at least in terms of its look: the ski jumping line that shows how far competitors need to jump to win the gold.

“It’s almost subliminal because you can instantly see if the jump was better or worse and if you’re brand new to watching ski jumping, you can understand it,” she says.

Another favorite is the system that shows how much distance an alpine skier spends in the air coming over a jump. “There is an on-going debate over whether it’s better to stay in the air longer or keep skis on the ground for the most speed,” says Erdahl. “We can virtually measure those jumps and see how it impacts a spectacular run.”

While virtual graphics may be the spice for the coverage, it’s the MSL Agile character generator that is the bread and butter, presenting the names, flags, times, and scores of competitors.

“We’ve been using it since the Athens Olympics in 2004 and we work closely with the organizing committees for each sport to make sure their results system and data layout interfaces properly with the Agile system,” says Erdahl. “That’s its strength as we have one machine that can handle multiple sports. Plus the operator interface is very straightforward.”

One thing viewers won’t see is a lot of biographical information, as the goal is to give rights holders enough breathing room to lay in their own graphics.

“We keep our look as straight forward as possible so it can be recreated by rights holders if they want their own coverage to reproduce our look,” says Erdahl.

Erdahl, as always, keeps an eye on future opportunities for applying virtual graphics. “We see a lot of opportunities, like being able to show how far above the half pipe someone like Shaun White gets,” she says. “The focus is to start with the basics as the technology catches up with our dreams.”