BBC develops 3D technology to enhance sport broadcasts

The BBC’s research and development team are trialling technologies that will give viewers a greater contextual understanding of live events and broadcasted content.

One project, which it hopes to be ready for the 2012 Olympics, will superimpose live sporting footage on a three-dimensional rendering of the Olympic Park — allowing viewers to navigate with a ‘helicopter’s eyeview’ and zoom in on specific venues and events.

The Viewers’ Situational and Spatial Awareness for Applied Risk and Reasoning project, referred to as the VSAR project, is a £3.1m collaborative venture co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

3D rendering of the Olympic Park is achievable

Graham Thomas, principal research engineer at the BBC

The BBC team will trial the technology for Wimbledon 2011, where it will be used internally as a tool for producers and directors to better coordinate coverage. A flash-based web-browser plug-in for consumers is also in the pipeline.

‘With Wimbledon we might have camera feeds for five or six main courts. You could add overlays of who was playing and what the current score was, then you could fly between the courts. When you fly into one particular court there might be a button where you could switch to Iplayer for a full broadcast complete with commentary,’ said Graham Thomas, principal research engineer at the BBC.

Although 3D rendering of the Olympic Park is achievable, there are significant logistical issues when it comes to overlaying live footage, as Thomas explained.

‘To make this work sensibly you need an isolated feed from a particular camera if you want to embed it in the model. What people normally see at home is a feed where it’s being switched between different cameras depending on what’s going on. To put that in the context of a 3D model might look a bit odd, because parts of the model would be continually blinking on and off as the feeds were switched around,’ he said.

Partners on the VSAR project include the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), BAE Systems and the Centre for Advanced Software Technology (CAST), which is focused on security applications for the technology.

In this instance, a 3D rendering of a town centre might be overlaid with footage from an array of CCTV cameras to give the control room a better spatial understanding — rather than just a wall of seemingly unrelated camera screens.

Another project the BBC team are working on is what they refer to as ‘surround video’. Footage is shot as normal on a HD camera, but attached to the rig is a second fish-eye camera that captures a 180o view.

When displaying the compiled footage at home, the central shot appears as normal on a HD TV screen, while the fish-eye feed is projected around the room onto the walls. Thus the TV screen provides the key narrative while the projection provides an enhanced contextual experience.

‘One idea is to use surround video in conjunction with the big screens that the BBC sometimes sets up in city centres. Imagine at night, with a football match or the Olympics, you could perhaps project the crowd from the stadium onto the buildings around the big screen, so that the people in the square feel they’re much more part of the event,’ Thomas said.