Animation Research Uses AWS To Virtualize Remote Sports Production

AWS also helps ARL’s Virtual Eye production arm to reduce its carbon footprint while delivering sports events.

Virtual Eye is the sports division of New Zealand-based Animation Research, which is one of Australasia’s leading 3D computer graphics production houses. It specializes in 3D TV graphics for events such as the Ryder Cup, the US Open, the America’s Cup, Formula 1, The Olympics and The Ashes.

Typically, Virtual Eye teams travel around the world to provide on-site production support and create 3D graphics that help broadcasters deliver compelling stories to viewers as sports action unfolds. In golf alone, ARL and Virtual Eye cover more than 90 tournaments a year, and have an average of 30 projects under way at any given time.

“Helping sports programmers share great stories with fans is in our blood,” said John Rendall, Head of Technology and Innovation for ARL.

But 2020 has not been a typical year. COVID-19 presented a challenge for Virtual Eye, which traditionally deployed crews of up to 12 people to locations around the world for on-site production.

More than 80 percent of ARL’s annual revenue is driven through Virtual Eye.

“We had to devise a platform that would allow us to do everything remotely from New Zealand. The flexibility, scalability, and security of AWS was the answer we needed for cloud-based remote production operations,” said Rendall.

“Other platforms were complicated to use,” Rendall added. “Having access to off-the-shelf services, a good set of APIs in order to access them and fine applications to go with them has really made a difference for us. That is a really big benefit for a company that has to move as quickly as we do. We have 30 to 40 projects going at any one time, and, because we’re a relatively small company, we need to be able to find products and services that can deliver what we need with the minimal effort.”

By leveraging the AWS-powered architecture, ARL provides a high-capacity bridge between remote on-site productions and Virtual Eye offices in Dunedin, New Zealand without having to deploy crew to manage operations at multiple remote sports venues. Using AWS global infrastructure and services, including AWS Elemental MediaConnect, Virtual Eye is able to provide full, virtual operations management. This enables broadcasters to deliver live video from remote locations and provide secure exchanges of live video feeds between sports venues and central operations in New Zealand with minimal latency to ensure optimal viewing experiences. To further assure secure content delivery over its network, ARL uses AWS Virtual Private Cloud with site-to-site VPN and AWS Global Accelerator, a managed service that improves the availability and performance of applications with local or global users to meet broadcasting standards.

“As soon as John showed me what Media Connect could deliver to solve this problem we had, it was a no-brainer for me,” said Ian Taylor, MD, ARL. “Moving video around the globe is always challenging and expensive, whether you were using satellite links or dark fiber lines. Media Connect allows companies like us and a lot of broadcasters to do this without the huge costs associated with it previously. AWS has such a good array of services. And a lot of our customers are using the same tools we are.”

The AWS architecture was put to the test at one of the first sporting events back after the initial COVID-19 shutdown, the Charles Schwab Challenge PGA golf event in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. From 7,500 miles away, Virtual Eye provided CBS Sports with augmented reality, virtual ball tracking and other graphic elements, rendered in real time, for the enjoyment of fans at home. 

“Because we built our platform around AWS, it’s opened up new doors of opportunity for us. We are at the other end of the world and we still are able to reach distant places thanks to AWS. If we can do it from here, we can do it from anywhere. That’s the kind of reliability and confidence we can now provide our clients,” Taylor said. “Additionally, AWS is accelerating our speed of innovation into machine learning use cases, giving us the ability to automatically track players in the field using ML vision to provide a wealth of insights and analytics to different stakeholders from viewers to coaching staff.”

Both Rendall and Taylor also saw the AWS cloud video infrastructure as an opportunity for Virtual Eye to reduce its carbon footprint. “We originally planned to deploy a more sustainable model for remote production three to four years from now,” said Taylor. “Due to COVID-19, we accelerated our sustainability initiative. With the help of AWS, we are able to support multiple simultaneous remote productions without having to deploy large crews and to reduce crew size by an average of more than 80 percent for multi-day events.”

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