Live VR trialled at IMG Champions Tennis at the RAH

20161201_120606There can be few grander or more theatrical arenas in world sport than London’s Royal Albert Hall, the venue this past week for IMG’s Champions Tennis and the focus of another live virtual reality demonstration.

The season-ending finale of the ATP Champions Tour featured Slam Champions John McEnroe and Pat Rafter, former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero and former doubles Grand Slam Champion Xavier Malisse. British fan favourite Tim Henman, former British Number 1 Greg Rusedski and former world No.4 Guy Forget were also in the line-up.

For the first time this event was given the VR treatment, streamed live to a bespoke app for a specially invited audience of broadcasters, sponsors and technologists.

“This is an awe-inspiring venue, ideal for the immersiveness of VR,” says Paul James, co-founder and head of production at Surrey-based production company Focal Point VR which is behind the demo.

Viewers were able to switch between multiple streams for different perspectives on the live action much as they would access a Red Button on TV – but all without leaving the VR stream.

“We are not editorialising in any way,” explains James, co-founder and head of production at Surrey-based production company Focal Point VR. “This is a viewer based experience where they are the editor. The viewer makes decision about when and where they want to watch. Our role is to make sure that when consumers do come to VR for the first time they experience such a ‘wow’ that they will want to return for more.”

Necessity is the mother of invention?

Part of this approach is out of necessity. A traditional directed broadcast feed may prove uncomfortable to a viewer unable to adjust to the uncontrolled, unpredictable switching of camera angles or viewing distances in 360-degrees.

With the event running from Wednesday 30 over five days, this was a prime opportunity for Focal Point VR to experiment with various aspects of what is still an emerging technology. The plan was to trial various camera positions and deliver a public stream from the best set-ups during the finals on Sunday.

Three different rigs were earrayed around the court ranging from a stereo pair for 3D VR capture designed by Focal Point VR, a GoPro-mounted rig for output to YouTube, and a high-end Mini-Eye rig designed by San Francisco’s 360-Designs comprising three Blackmagic Design Micro Studio Camera 4K outputting dual streams of 4K and 6K.

Signals from the latter configuration were fed into Focal Point VR’s own stitching and processing solution, which allows for multiple simultaneous VR streams and PVR functionality for viewers to rewind the action. The company partnered with video streaming agency Streaming Tank to encode and distribute the video.

“We are not producing highlights or replays in this instance,” says James. “The viewer can control the action they want to review. Rather than introduce graphics we want the viewer to look toward the scoreboard in the venue if they want to know the score.”

rahtennislobby04The 6K and 4K production was intended to offer a direct contrast with the standard VR experience on YouTube. Focal Point offers an end-to-end VR live solution but it’s main advantage lies in a proprietary stitching and signal processing software.

“Our technology gives us the ability to have areas of higher quality in a scene,” explains James. “We call it packing. It allows us to have native effective 6K resolution in the main areas of interest such as the field of play while areas of less interest – such as the view behind the VR viewer’s head – receives fewer pixels.”

With this region of interest optimisation the producer is able to achieve a three to five times reduction in sizes and data costs. Its solution is agnostic about codec and CDN.

Support is provided for all major HMDs, including Gear VR, Android/iOS cardboard, PC (Oculus Rift / HTC Vive) and PlayStation VR, with an embeddable HTML5 player also an option.

“A year ago the main question around VR would have been the reliability of stitching,” says James. “Now we have a rock solid approach. The issue is solving the problem with depth. There are clever ways of managing this with adaptive streaming or disguising stitch lines. We have a desire to achieve this with depth extraction.”

A grounding in gaming

The ability to write software tools comes from the company founder’s background in computer games development. Julian Davis, formerly CTO of Geomerics, which was recently acquired by ARM, is CTO; while James, CEO Jonathan Newth and chairman Ian Baverstock have built several video games and technology companies together.

“Making VR a shared and social experience is key to its lasting appeal, leveraging our games industry experience we are designing and building the components required to allow people to feel they are together in VR,” says Newth.

Recent research by Ampere Analysis found that 18 to 24-year-olds, the younger end of the so-called ‘millennial’ age group, were 17% less likely to identify sport as their favourite form of programming than the general population.

This should come as no surprise. As a demographic, millennials have become accustomed to being more in control over how and when they consume TV content and, as a result, streaming services have grown in popularity with this audience more than any other.

Streaming an event live in 360° to smartphone apps and virtual reality headsets offers a fundamentally different experience and what’s more, one that puts the viewer in control.

“VR is fundamentally different to any other form of media where someone else is directing where the audience should look,” says Baverstock. “You lose some advantages of editing and action replay and the ability to zoom in and out. In effect you lose the directed experience. What you get in return is a feeling of authenticity and presence which is of tremendous appeal to a cynical younger audience who see less value in the traditional live directed programme. Offering millennials the chance to be part of something live and under their own control is extremely valuable.

“Ultimately you want to be able to share the experience of attending an event virtually with a member of your family who may live many miles away,” he adds. “While this capability is unlikely to be available in the first commercial launches of VR, the technology will soon offer the chance for both of you to teleport to the same experience. A step even beyond that is to enhance the ability to move around within and interact with the VR world, for example by being able to point rather than just look. Our technology allows broadcasters to engage with consumers on a completely new level.”

Focal Point announced the launch of its VR platform at IBC this year. Seed funding investors include: Simon Muderack (MD at Sigma Systems; John Chasey (Operations Director of TVR Automotive, Jez San (CEO of PKR .com), and Chris Wilks (CFO of Signum Technology).

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