The future is smaller, faster, better and much, much, much more virtual

 by Martin Belam, 20 May 2003

I was at the BBC Research & Development department in Kingswood Warren today, for one of their open days. One of the bonuses of working for the New Media department of a big broadcast organisation is that occasionally you get to gate-crash the broadcast bit. Every two years R&D have a series of open days, and one of the days is reserved for BBC staff.

Kingswood Warren is a fantastic building out in the greens of Surrey, that looks like a small stately home or castle, and is stuffed full of a gadgets and equipment. The lawn and grounds are littered with satellite dishes, transmitters and receivers, and it looks like how you might imagine Bletchley Park looked in the 1940's, and an ideal future location for filming UNIT HQ.

One of the demonstrations I attended was about the future of e-cinema and digital projection. Part of it was a demonstration of how last years World Cup Finals had looked in high-definition television. Some of the competition was filmed in high-definition for the Japanese market, and the BBC had access to the feeds. For a couple of the England matches the BBC relayed the transmission onto a big screen in one of Television Centre's studios for staff, and for the final itself various industry figures were invited to see this in action. Even projected onto a smallish cinema-style screen (I guess maybe 6 metres wide) the result was stunning - an incredible increase in the detail and realism of the image. It convinced me that for the 2006 World Cup Final I want to get my name on the list for the high-definition showing. Still on a sports theme, I also saw a demo of how the 'on pitch' graphics and virtual tracking of players can be done in real-time for sports coverage - in this case on the Kingswood Warren croquet lawn.

I think the most interesting demo was a mixing of interactive computer generated elements into the television picture in real-time. A camera picked up images from very simple cards, and using magic* replaced them in the broadcast stream with virtual elements. Additionally placing two virtual elements next to each other caused them to change and interact. The system was ideal for doing 3D "infographics" that presenters could manipulate in real-time, and the MixTV demo featured a film of presenter Peter Snow trying the system out. In fact it was quite surreal watching Peter Snow on TV having the system explained to him by Dr Vali Lalioti, whilst Dr Vali Lalioti stood next to the television in person and explained her on-screen explanation to us. I think what impressed me most though was that this system can run on a webcam and a laptop. It really brought home how the portability and miniturisation of technology has come on since the last time I was at a BBC R&D open day two years ago. The team were apologising for the fact that the computer generated elements were not "broadcast quality", but they were certainly a long way ahead of the BBC micro graphics used on The Adventure Game when I was a kid. Drogna, drogna, rangdo indeed.

* actual process may not be magic

1 Comment

"It convinced me that for the 2006 World Cup Final I want to get my name on the list for the high-definition showing"

Hmmm, actually it turned out I wasn't at the BBC anymore, but I
did get to go and see Switzerland v Togo in real life

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