BBC and Vizrt tell the story of the Scottish Referendum vote

BBC used Augmented Reality technology from Vizrt to tell the story of the historic Scottish Referendum vote as it unfolded.

Update* BBC has won the 2015 Promax BDA Gold award for the Scottish Referendum Live Graphics. 

3D Augmented Reality (AR) graphics continue to be used effectively (and to the benefit of viewers) by broadcasters around the world to tell the latest and most important news stories in the most memorable way. Recently, as the entire country of Great Britain held it’s proverbial breath while awaiting the historic Scottish Referendum vote on secession from the United Kingdom, the BBC used their Pacific Quay headquarters in Glasgow as the backdrop to show the results.

The broadcaster went on air with wall-to-wall coverage, using Vizrt’s AR graphics technology extensively, starting on Thursday night, September 18 at 10:35 pm and stayed on air until 9:00 am the following morning.

Turnkey services augment historic coverage

To make it work, the BBC’s Politics & News division hired Vizrt’s Special Events Services division to bring its virtual vision to reality. Taking virtual reality and augmented reality ‘on the road’ for special projects takes specialist skill and experience.  For one-off events like this one, or infrequent projects like elections, it makes sense to hire experienced project managers, engineers and data providers to handle this aspect of the programme. The broadcaster does have its own in-house virtual studios in London and Manchester (also based on Viz Virtual Studio software), but they are constantly in use, so the broadcaster hired Vizrt’s Special Events Services to help with the Scottish Referendum vote.

A crew of three people from Vizrt spent two weeks at the broadcaster’s facility in Pacific Quay, Glasgow, setting up, calibrating and testing the technology prior to the big vote. The Scottish vote coverage was reported on from a specially-constructed studio area built within the building’s large atrium (known as “the Street”). This area, resembling a series of steps, serves as a meeting-space for employees and runs through the middle of the building.

Vizrt’s André Cruz (Product Specialist), Dan McCarthy (System Specialist) and Russell Leak (Project Manager for VR projects), managed the project. They also delivered the AR specialist services, just as they did for the local and European election projects for the broadcaster earlier in the year. More support came from Vizrt colleagues from the company’s London office as well as other international offices (such as Austria where Viz Virtual Studio is developed).

The Vizrt team provided the hardware (13 Viz Engines with NVIDIA Quadro K6000 GPUs, and a Viz I/O server) and the expertise to set up and calibrate the lenses for the mechanical camera-tracking systems (one for each camera). This, Leak says, was the most critical part to making the effects work correctly; live and in real time.

Mechanical tracking systems use one “data ingest head” each for a pedestal camera, working in tandem with a Viz Engine (which is controlled through the vision mixer in the control room). One Shotoku camera pedestal and one Stype kit tracking system, mounted on a Jimmy jib provided the camera tracking. 

“The lens calibration and mechanical camera tracking calibration needed to be good and the tracking system had to be reliable, with no room for error” Leak says. “If you don’t have all three, it won’t work. We made sure we delivered the system on time and to the exact specifications that were required.”

Virtual graphics In 3D space

Besides the rear screen, there were also AR graphics in 3D space in front of the talent, which the team calibrated for both the AR objects and the screen. This gave Jeremy Vine his creative storytelling tools  as the camera followed the talent around the set.

At all times the graphics on screen and in front of the presenter were in synch. The in-house design team had planned pre-built, custom animations that appeared to come out of the screen and into the real world. In one example, a series of 32 blocks (representing the 32 constituencies of Scotland) flew off of the screen and aligned themselves along a balcony in the BBC’s atrium above the set.  They showed the up-to-the-minute vote tally (green for “yes,” red for “no”) from each of the different regions.

“This effect has only ever been used live a few times before, but never to this extent.” Russell says. “We were using two HD cameras, which we had synchronised to get the effects right. The technical setup was difficult and complex to set up but we had the experience to do it right.”

Synchronization was key

The team also used a Viz Engine to feed graphics to the screen behind the presenter. The tricky part: they wanted to use tracking data from both cameras to the Viz Engine that was feeding the screen. The graphics on screen and in 3D space were always in synch with one another. As the camera moved across the screen, the viewer got a sense of depth, as if looking into a three-dimensional tank, instead of the screen appearing as a flat, 2D monitor. The effect— created by the in-house design team—was well-received by the audience and TV reviewers.

When the director switched cameras, the Viz Engine feeding the 7 x 3m screen needed to maintain the correct perspective view for the viewers at home. A GPI trigger box sent a command from the vision mixer to the Viz Engine via Viz Virtual Studio. This required good communication and teamwork with BBC engineering staff and knowledge of all the integrated pieces of hardware and software.

There were some issues early on with the screen running at a different time to the foreground AR elements. Initially, the animations coming out of the screen did not match the foreground. Idonix, who provided all the data and control for the AR, adjusted their scripting to compensate for this and solved the problem.

“The BBC did a stellar job designing something very unusual for viewers and their inspirational use of the technology; and they should be applauded for that,” Leak says. “We were well organized and ran some tests ahead of the event to make sure it all worked the way the broadcaster wanted it to.”

Milestone graphics event

In total, the Scottish Referendum coverage required 13 Viz Engines: one for each camera; one for the screen; a Viz I/O server to manage the tracking data; several other Viz Engines for other graphics not related to the AR and VR effects; and others for redundant backup. That’s in addition to the Viz Virtual Studio software.

“This was a milestone in graphics production, I’m sure,” says Leak. “Similar stuff like this was used before with graphics coming out of the screen, but never in this type of live, constantly changing environment and never with such precision. The combination of augmented reality visual elements and synchronised screen graphics was the challenging part that takes a lot of experience to get right. There were some stressful times, but it all came out brilliantly.”

Download the Vizrt and BBC Scottish Referendum case study