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Augmenting sports reality

Nic Hatch, CEO, NCAM.
Nic Hatch, CEO, NCAM.

Augmented reality in sports broadcast is a growing trend these days, as viewers become more discerning and demanding. Ncam’s Nic Hatch explains what augmented reality can do and how broadcasters can use the technology to attract more eyeballs

Sport is perhaps the most compelling genre on television. It is best watched live, so that you really don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. That’s great for retaining audiences.

But sports fans are very demanding. They want to know what’s going on. Today, that translates into a large number of cameras. For instance, where once just a handful of cameras would cover a football game, today audiences expect 20 or more around the pitch.

The audience also expects the action to be analysed and explained. All of this footage will be recorded and ready for instant replay, for example. Commentators and pundits will talk through replays, explaining what created the point of excitement.

Inevitably, broadcasters have looked to technological innovation to give them the edge, to make their coverage the one you choose. Investment in advanced technology will be repaid by bigger audiences and, therefore, higher advertising revenues.

Augmented reality

Today, creative sports directors are increasingly turning to augmented reality. Put simply, this means taking the live camera feeds and adding to the pictures’ graphical elements, to further explain what is happening and its significance.

So in swimming or track athletics, for example, you might put a line on the screen which shows the world record pace. You could add an offside line to a football match, or the gain line in rugby. Hawk-Eye, popular in cricket, is often used as augmented reality, showing the predicted path of the ball on top of the video.

Sometimes augmented reality is used to build up the atmosphere. Showing team logos apparently painted on the pitch is common, or putting winning swimmers’ flags and order onto the pool. It can also be used for virtual advertising, substituting the hoardings around the playing area with replacement content.

Studio

Increasingly, the same augmented reality techniques are also being applied in sports review programmes, back in the studio. Back in 2013, Ian Finch, director of the BBC’s football flagship programme Match of the Day, said:“The implementation of augmented reality allows us to bring a whole new approach to our studio presentation.

“We are now able to complement our existing hard set with virtual set pieces, which can be animated at the touch of a button. The system also allows us to enhance our on-screen graphics by delivering team formations on the studio floor as a 3D illustration, moving the camera along the defensive line or focusing on an individual by flying the camera across the virtual pitch. Add to that the use of team badges, maps and written text, and we have a studio environment that can keep on evolving and moving forward.”

Other broadcasters such as Fox Sports have picked up on this and apply hugely creative presentation to a wide range of sports.

But when talking about augmented reality applications in sport, it is easy to focus on the software that takes the statistics and dynamics and creates the augmented elements in real time.

It is certainly true that this requires a lot of complex processing, and the power of these applications should not be underestimated.

Precision

But there is a second major challenge. Having calculated where the offside line is, or where the ball would have gone, or what the world record pace is, the software has to know where to put it on the screen.

None of these are of any use if the augmented elements are not in precisely the right place on the screen: just a few pixels out may make the graphics meaningless.

So this means you have to know precisely where the camera is pointing at all times. In fact, you need to know where the camera is in three-dimensional space, plus the zoom setting of the lens, as an absolute minimum. Outdoors, at a sporting event, the cameras which will have augmented reality tend to be in fixed locations.

In the studio, though, they will move around. Some will be on pedestals or jibs, but others may be handheld or on Steadicam, in which case you need to know the pitch and roll of the camera as well as all the other parameters.

Traditionally, this was accomplished by rather long alignment procedures. In the studio, markers were placed on the walls – where you had to shoot around them – or on the ceiling. Some systems used a reference point on the floor and dead reckoning from there.

The modern studio cannot afford the time needed for this sort of alignment. A number of companies have developed systems which provide virtually instantaneous alignment, either using the existing geometries of the scene or by tracking unobtrusive additional markers.

The result is that augmented reality can be set up quickly and precisely, adding to audience enjoyment by enriching the experience.