Virtual coverage makes a splash as regatta goes digital

By Dana Johannsen

The Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, beginning in Auckland tomorrow, has already marked a number of firsts for sailing, and that trend is continuing when it comes to the broadcast of the event.

Dunedin-based company Animation Research has undertaken a daring project that will see the two-week regatta broadcast entirely in a virtual format. It is believed to be a world first for a live sports broadcast.

Ian Taylor, who heads Animation Research, said the compressed timeframe in which the Louis Vuitton series was put together, and the expense of a traditional live broadcast, meant full television coverage was beyond TVNZ's reach.

"Because of costs it wasn't possible to have traditional live coverage like everyone was used to, TVNZ were only going to have a half an hour highlights package every night. So we just thought how else could we do it?" he said.

Mr Taylor's company, which was responsible for developing the "virtual spectator" software used in previous America's Cup regattas, were already going to be providing live tracking of the boats for the event.

Mr Taylor believed they could extend on that platform to create a full race coverage using only computer graphics and brought his television production company, Taylormade, in on the act.

"We went to NZ On Air with an idea that we could make the first virtual OB [outside broadcast], that didn't have any cameras on it," said Mr Taylor.

With NZ On Air now looking to the internet as a legitimate platform, the original plan was for the broadcast to be streamed live on TVNZ's website. But once the coverage, which will be anchored by veteran broadcaster John McBeth, became available for the internet, TVNZ also decided to put it on one of their digital channels.

Of course, there are aspects of the event that the animation won't be able to capture.

Mr Taylor admits their virtual coverage could never fully replace the emotion of a live broadcast, but believes it will be a nifty substitute.

He said they have also managed to incorporate some "real coverage" of the event by utilising a live camera on top of North Head. They will also have access to helicopter cameras. Microphones on the race boats will capture the heat of battle.

"So from a totally virtual coverage we've gone back and had a look at what real coverage we can put in, which is the complete opposite of how it usually works which is 'here's all the real footage, now how do we use all the computer graphics?'," said Mr Taylor.

Having applied to NZ on Air for funding just before Christmas, the entire project has come together with incredible speed.

To make it all possible, two of the company's CGI artists - Ben Sharpe and Damon Smith - have been holed up in an apartment in the Viaduct Harbour for the past week rebuilding Auckland City and its surrounds in 3D.

The pair have managed to incorporate incredible detailing into the animation to the point where Mr Taylor believes they've "out-googled Google". He said their work could be used for future city planning and infrastructure and for this reason the Auckland City Council has been prepared to contribute to some of the costs of the project.

"In the space of this little time, we may just have been able to use that to kick off something that is much, much bigger for Auckland and New Zealand. It's a reason to look at three-dimensional data for planning and infrastructure and all that," said Mr Taylor.

- NZ Herald

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