Production & Post Global Viewpoint – March 2018

EBU urges broadcasters to prepare for Augmented Reality

The EBU (European Broadcasting Union) has published a guide to help members understand Augmented Reality and the associated opportunities for developing more immersive content.

The organization, representing public service broadcasters around Europe and beyond, noted how the big Internet players such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix Facebook and Google were working on AR themselves and bringing it into their content where it could already enhance the viewing experience.

The seminal moment for AR according to the EBU was the runaway success of the Pokémon Go game which went viral after its release in 2016, demonstrating that AR had great popular appeal rather than just being a toy for geeks. This galvanized not just the gaming industry but also content producers more widely to start considering how AR could be harnessed, leading to release of various Software Development Kits (SDKs) during 2017. There was also greatly increased use of computer generated imagery in content produced by the big Internet players.

But the AR field is still gaming rather than TV centric in terms of production and so is challenging for broadcasters to start exploiting and incorporating within their workflows. That is therefore a core focus of the EBU guide, which expands on AR as a means of blending computer graphic objects and information with the real world. At this stage AR will be targeted more at hand-held devices such as smartphones or tablets, head-mounted displays such as glasses, but over time it will percolate down to TV displays, as 360-degree vision gains traction.

Indeed, the EBU guide examines how AR could be blended with existing service offerings and content production processes. It notes that ideas of how to incorporate AR in news, entertainment, sports programming and other genres are being developed, but have not yet reached a mass audience.

Then as always when a new technology involving production and display comes in there is at first a lack of standards and then a profusion of them, with at least four bodies piling in, ETSI, IEEE, MPEG and W3C among others.

AR is already proving to be rather a Pandora’s box when it comes to standardization, because once the process has started it raises seemingly endless questions over what is fundamental and what should be included. There have been various false starts in the process given that AR dates back at least to 1992 when the US air force experimented with it for flight simulation and training. As a result, the wayside of AR history is littered with the corpses of previous false starts, which failed because they only addressed a temporary need or niche.

For example, in 2011 a research team at Georgia Tech in the US published what it hoped would become a widely adopted open standard for smart phones, called Kharma. This was good work, enhancing existing Web protocols to yield a common way for every web browser to store, transmit, and manipulate data for AR services, rather than relying on proprietary techniques. In fact, it combined the Keyhole Markup Language (KML) used by the Google Earth mapping program with existing HTML and a few other protocols invented by the team. Perhaps it was those new protocols that were the problem, or perhaps it was ahead of its time, because Kharma never gained the hoped for wider adoption.

Some broadcasters such as Al Jazeera introduced elements of AR for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Some broadcasters such as Al Jazeera introduced elements of AR for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Perhaps also it was putting the cart before the horse, because what AR needed first of all was a clear definition of what it is and what all the moving parts are, before attempting to standardize how they could communicate and interoperate. The standards bodies are now getting to grips with this, so that for example the W3C Augmented Reality Community Group is set up as an open forum inviting collaborative discussions about how AR should interact with the Web, to yield what it calls the Augmented Web. W3C contends that this Augmented Web will push standards, APIs, hardware technologies and the broader web platform to the edge of their performance limits. Relevant standards it suggests will embrace geolocation, device orientation, device motion, WebGL, Web Audio, media capture & streams and WebRTC. The latter, WebRTC, is a set of APIs for real time communication between web-based applications.

Significantly, W3C has declined to specify the standards themselves because it sees the first task being to define what they should cover as a prelude for integrating these technologies into a new version of the web.

The IEEE is also actively developing underlying standards for AR alongside Virtual Reality (VR) as it sees them as opposite sides of the same coin. It has involved relevant parties including content providers, device makers, game companies, and government agencies to help identify all the core areas. This is being coordinated by the IEEE Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VRAR) Working Group.

This group is developing a family of standards covering VR and AR together, addressing key aspects such as safety, definition of core technologies and how virtual and real objects should interact.

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So far IEEE has split the standards into nine areas, starting with device taxonomy and definitions, then taking in quality metrics, file and stream formats, registration and authentication, user interface, mapping between virtual and real objects, and of course interoperability.

Another truism about standards is that lag behind deployments with early adopters ignoring them and by default establishing their own proprietary versions. There is a danger of that happening here as the big players roll out AR without waiting for IEEE, W3C and others to complete their deliberations. Broadcasters are not standing idly by either, with the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea proving fertile ground for experimentation.

In the Netherlands, Discovery Communication’s Eurosport converted part of its office into a virtual studio for the 2018 Winter Olympics. This set followed visual cues used throughout Eurosport’s larger coverage of the games with bright pops of color, a view of the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre and the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster of venues. This was designed, integrated and deployed by NEP Netherlands, using Zero Density’s Reality virtual studio system, with rendering from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. The set up included three Grass Valley LDX cameras with motion tracking from Mo-Sys.

Al Jazeera also adapted studio space at its headquarters in Doha for AR to display white polygonal animations portraying various winter sports, including snowboarding, curling, hockey, bobsled and skiing.

Inevitably common standards will be informed by such trials and early deployments but they will be needed to expand the scope of AR and realize its full potential.

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