Virtual billboards lined up for All Black test matches

New Zealand's first virtual billboard space should be for sale in time for the All Blacks' domestic test season in June, after a successful test during one of last weekend's Super 12 matches. Denis Harvey, executive editor of sport at TVNZ, says sponsorship and advertising using the digital signage is being "very actively discussed" with interested parties, including the rugby union and its major sponsors. TVNZ could use the technology to display different ground advertising for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa during live telecasts.

New Zealand’s first virtual billboard space should be for sale in time for the All Blacks’ domestic test season in June.

TVNZ’s Moving Pictures unit tested the new EPSIS system as part of broadcast coverage of the recent Super 12 rugby match between the Chiefs and the Northern Bulls. Large team logos were inserted into the live transmission, both on the ground, in the teams’ in-goal areas, and across the grandstand. When the players changed ends at half time, so did their logos.

Denis Harvey, executive editor of sport at TVNZ, says sponsorship and advertising using the digital signage is being “very actively discussed” with interested parties, including the rugby union and its major sponsors.

“Obviously, because it’s a whole new approach to selling sponsorship and advertising, there’s a lot of issues to be worked through, and we don’t want to go rushing in promising things we may not be able to deliver,” says Harvey. “There are relationships that broadcasters have with existing sponsors, and it remains to be seen how that relates to relationships the rugby union has with its sponsors.”

Harvey says pricing is “one of the issues we’re working through at the moment. You can’t just take the traditional commercial methods and apply them. For one thing, it has the potential to be valued differently for different markets. We’re probably in a position now to deliver three different outbound signals with one system. So it changes the nature of the way one markets the broadcast.”

Along with broadcasters in Australi and South Africa, TVNZ is working in partnership with the power Sports Marketing Group, which has bought rights to EPSIS for all three countries from French company Symah Vision, a spin-off of the giant Lagardiere Group which has used technology created for its parent company’s satellite tracking systems to develop the optical sensors at the heart of the technology.

The Super 12 trial, the first in the southern hemisphere, required some groundwork, says Moving Pictures national sales manager Michael Tindall. EPSIS can presently only be used on one of the eight cameras used at an outside broadcast, typically the “high, wide shot”, to which optical sensors are fitted, tracking camera movement and zoom.

Before the game, the camera crew had to identify target spots on the ground, says Tindall “and at that spot we input a digital image”. The image was passed, along with information from the sensors, to a system using two 233MHz Pentium PCs and a Silicon Graphics Octane computer.

The system then “cut out a hole” in the live video signal – if necessary, cutting around the moving players in real time – inserted the image and passed the result back to the outside broadcast unit.

Although it is excited about EPSIS, TVNZ has been more circumspect about Symah Vision’s chief competitor in the imaging field, Orad, whose Imagene product uses technology developed for the Israeli air force. Australia’s Channel 7 has bought Orad’s virtual set, virtual replay and digital properties, but TVNZ has only picked up the virtual replay.

“The software for that is currently being written in Israel,” says Harvey. “That will let us freeze images from a rugby game and view them from any angle. So you could take a backline move, freeze it, and show what the player saw as he was heading for the gap. We hope to be able to introduce that in May.”

R&D on new imaging systems has been conducted by TVNZ’s New Media unit, whose head Reg Russ says he believes products such as virtual sets can be achieved without the relatively expensive SGI boxes on which both EPSIS and Imagene depend. “I’m hoping that I can do the same as them on fairly generic equipment. Whether or not I can remains to be seen.”

Further ahead, Harvey sees both 3-D and animated signage in telecasts.

“I’ve seen demonstrations where you can animate on a Coca-Cola can or any other three dimensional image. There are all sorts of potential ideas, but the challenge is making them work within a broadcast so they’re not overly intrusive.”

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