Column: Why 2020 is the year of the virtual studio

By Phil Ventre, Ncam

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It has been a strange year in the broadcast industry for any number of reasons, most of which are due to the coronavirus. But one of the meta trends that us and a lot of other people have noticed is that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of several technologies that were already starting to ramp up in an interesting way. Remote production, whether for live events or in post-production is one of them (Netflix alone is posting somewhere around 200 shows using collaborative remote workflows), and another is the continued rise of the virtual studio.

The virtual studio is a technology whose time has very much come in 2020. It is in many respects one of the socially distanced production tools that has been necessary to keep the industry going, allowing sets to be changed at the click of a button, ensuring staff don’t have to move around anymore than strictly necessary, and seamlessly hosting talent both on-set and dialing in from remote locations, even home set-ups.

The coronavirus has played its part, but virtual studios were already firmly on the agenda of many more news organizations than ever before already, even before the lockdown orders started to roll out.

Simply put, they let you do more with less. We have one client we work with in Buenos Aries, Argentina that runs eight different programs a day from exactly the same studio. Changing over is simply a matter of one presenter team walking out, a button being pressed, and another presenter team walking in. It can happen in the commercial break at the top of the hour. You would need at least two fully-equipped studios and a lot more labor to replicate that in the physical world, with all the moving of furniture and set elements, repositioning of cameras and so on that is required.

In many ways it is the epitome of all that was outdated with the CapEx model of broadcast costs; fixed assets sitting in a single location that can only produce one show at a time and having an unpleasant domino effect with costs down the line.

You would also need a proper-sized studio space, replete with lighting rigs and high ceilings. One of the keys to the appeal of the virtual studio is that they can transform rooms not much bigger than a normal office space into a viable space for production. As long as you can accommodate the set elements in the space that the talent needs to work in and the cameras to film it, the rest is very much up to your imagination and the limitations of the technology.

This is a key point, because one of the main drives behind this new wave of interest in virtual studios is that they are technically better than ever. And the main reason for that is down to the development of firstly extremely effective tracking solutions such as ours that will work in a variety of environments with swift calibration and then the widespread adoption of Unreal Engine in many leading virtual studio solutions.

Unreal has literally been a game-changer and taken what was effectively a cottage industry making bespoke graphics and hitched it to a multimedia behemoth that is responsible for a good percentage of the top-end graphics in films, games, and television — certainly all the real-time content. It’s the CG equivalent of the move from proprietary black boxes we’ve seen in broadcast as a whole to IT and even COTS hardware across the rest of the industry and allows us to piggyback on developmental work that is taking place worldwide and being driven by a multitude of sectors. The result is that quality has improved massively and prices have fallen dramatically.

The jump from Unreal Engine 3 to the current Unreal Engine 4 delivered close to undetectable real-time virtual environments. Indeed, often the only thing that does give them away is the presence of stylized graphic elements associated with advertisers or sponsors. It also did this at a price point — Unreal is effectively free — that made virtual studio an attractive proposition for Tier 2 and even Tier 3 broadcasters, democratizing the technology for a whole section of the industry that had never used it before.

There is more of this to come too. The graphics are getting better all the time (Epic has just announced Unreal Engine 5), bringing ever more realistic sets into the range of even the tightest production budget. 2020 could well be the pivot point where the discussion across news organizations and elsewhere is less about whether to use virtual studio or not, but what would be the reasons not to.

About Phil Ventre, Ncam

Phil Ventre is the VP of Sports and Broadcast at Ncam.  A media professional with a passion for sports, content distribution and technology, Ventre has international experience in all of the major markets - EMEA, North America and APAC.

 He has multi-disciplinary experience with Broadcasters, Content Owners, Professional Sports Teams and Stadia in order to help them maximize the value of their assets, with a history of delivering future-proof solutions to engage fans and viewers and to help deliver world class broadcast content.