Sky News Arabia has employed the latest virtual and augmented reality technologies as part of a massive editorial and technical revamp aimed at staying at the forefront of news reporting.
In an exclusive tour of the new facility in Abu Dhabi, Vijaya Cherian learns more about how the team intends to use this new generation of tools to drive audience engagement and participation.
Virtual reality (VR) studio production and augmented reality (AR) technologies are transforming news broadcasting by offering a more immersive experience that brings stories to life as never before. These technologies are also at the heart of Abu Dhabi-headquartered Sky News Arabia’s recent technology and content revamp – the first since its launch in 2012 – aimed at enabling greater audience engagement and cementing its position as a news major in the Arab world across TV, radio and digital platforms.
Sky News Arabia (SNA), a joint venture between Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC) and Sky Limited, announced a complete editorial overhaul with a fresh line-up of presenters and a special selection of digital-only programming this April. The revamp saw the launch of one of the most advanced newsrooms in the region, with the addition of a brand-new wing that is now home to Studio B, a 400sqm studio boasting the UAE’s largest chromakey background at 15x11m. The large chroma area gives the broadcaster ample room to use a lighting grid for keying objects in positions where the presenters will be on the VR set. The facility also includes an outdoor landscape set designed for the morning show.
Another major part of the announcement was the launch of Studio A, a 480sqm facility in the old wing that replaces the previous studio. 80% of the news programmes are done here.
Both studios are wired for seven cameras and have outstanding sets designed by award-winning British TV set design company Jago Design and built locally by Marcoms (Studio A) and IBS Group (Studio B), two UAE set builders.
Taking us proudly on a tour of the new studios is Wissam Ayoub, Studio Operations Director at SNA.
“It’s been seven years since Sky News Arabia was first launched, so it was time to upgrade our facilities and improve the way we tell stories to our viewers. With this in place, we are now better equipped to deliver compelling news and ensure that we stay one step ahead of our competition,” says Ayoub.
“Zero Density not only gives us real depth but offers a real third dimension to the set, which has allowed us to have something far larger than our 15x11m surface area,” David Clark, CTO, Sky News Arabia.
David Clark, who recently took office at SNA as Chief Technology Officer, reiterates that the backbone of the new set-up is the AR and the VR components, adding that the broadcaster has worked with specific products and partners to realise its vision of creating a broadcasting environment designed for a new viewership that consumes news differently. He makes special mention of the Creative Graphics Designers division of Dutch firm NEP and of virtual studio production specialist Zero Density, who have both gained market recognition for the creative use of Unreal Engine in broadcast environments.
As a key integration partner in this part of the project, NEP’s technical artists and designers worked closely with Zero Density, using its Unreal Engine 4 technology to translate the broadcaster’s ideas into visually spectacular, photo-realistic sets. The result is an integrated workflow created by engineers, who have straddled with ease the traditional world of multi-camera production and a new generation of AR workflows such as keying, rendering, tracking and shading.
The result is three stunning virtual sets – one for sports programme Stadiums; one for The Evening, which analyses some of the big stories in the Arab world; and one for Timeline, which provides periodic news updates.
“Anyone who has been watching our programmes on TV since the launch would notice a huge difference, and the VR and AR sets have contributed to that wow factor,” Wissam Ayoub, Studio Operations Director, Sky News Arabia.
Ayoub says VR and AR, in combination with new camera and lighting solutions, do not just allow SNA to bring stunning visuals to viewers’ screens, but also create infinite possibilities to continuously revisit and improve those visuals and backdrops over time, or to introduce new ones as the team gains more expertise in the technologies.
“Anyone who has been watching our programmes on TV since the launch would notice a huge difference, and the VR and AR sets have contributed to that wow factor. What makes it more real is not just our state-of-the-art technology, but the use of special lighting systems in our studios,” he says, referring to the installation of the latest DMX-controlled LED studio lighting, which allows greater flexibility with multi-colour set changes.
“These are not just normal lights. This is a state-of-the-art system that plays with different colours and enhances the visual impact on the screens. It took us some time to achieve this, but we are really pleased with the results,” he adds, referring to the fact that each programme or subject matter can have its own colour scheme.
Another benefit of employing virtual sets with this specific technical combination is the ability to quickly move from one set to another for each programme, explains Clark. “Using our virtual sets, we can create different programmes on a single studio floor, and this really elevates our stories from a visual perspective. It also cuts down the time for set-up, so our sets can be used in a rolling 24/7 news environment. Virtual sets have really helped us push the boundaries.”
Although SNA currently goes on air with just three sets, the combinations and permutations possible with VR and AR are limited only by the team’s imagination.
“It all depends on how best we can tell the story and how often we want to use it. We could use it 24 hours a day if we needed to. All our sets have been developed with Zero Density and NEP’s support. Their expertise has been great in kick-starting the project and helping us get on air. We have learnt a lot with NEP throughout this process. Now all of our concepts are done in-house, and within the next six to 12 months, we plan to see our staff produce more virtual sets as well as more AR being used,” reveals Clark.
One technology especially worth dwelling on is Zero Density’s virtual studio production technology. This uses Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, the most photo-realistic real-time game engine, as a 3D renderer in combination with Nvidia graphics cards. This software engine has gained a lot of respect in the industry for its fast rendering capabilities and the creative flexibility it offers those working with real-time applications.
Zero Density was quick to adopt this technology to offer creative solutions within the broadcast industry. Virtual studio designs can be rendered in real time with a delay of just one to four frames, depending on the tracking system and the 3D designs. This gives SNA the ability to get the most photo-realistic composite output possible.
A majority of TV technologies have also traditionally been designed for presenters with lighter skin tones, and such sets are easier to light. When presenters have darker skin tones or wear black attire, shadows have conventionally posed a problem. Addressing this with more light has in the past only led to more shadows and numerous lighting challenges.
Zero Density’s keyer has the ability to embed standard shadows coming from fixed real studio lights into a virtual set design, meaning a viewer cannot distinguish between a virtual and a physical set. The ability to combine the two thus offers limitless possibilities. Together with virtual lights, the look and feel of a set design can easily be readjusted, moving between day and night. The software allows shadows to change density intuitively, without changing the intensity of the fixed studio lights.
Similarly, when a presenter is holding an object like a bottle of water, the new keying technology allows the viewer to see through it, while the keying background continues to include natural shadows and reflections, and 3D AR objects appear completely real to the audience.
“Zero Density offers a lot more freedom when it comes to keying, which is essentially taking part of the video and making it transparent. If a presenter is on set, this solution gives us the freedom to work on various elements that enable us to feel like we are operating in a real environment. We faced huge challenges in trying to put this together, but it was a very important learning curve,” Clark elaborates.
To maximise the potential of the Zero Density technology, SNA had to ensure it had the right type of cameras and lighting in place. “We had to put a lot of attention to detail in what cameras would be suitable, how the sets would be lit and how much light would be captured by those cameras to give the best possible experience,” explains Clark, adding that the new studios feature Sony HDC-1700 cameras.
SNA also chose the Stype mapping system. With this, the broadcaster can create virtual sets even if the camera moves outside of the purview of the green key area, allowing the creation of ceilings and outside garden views, offering infinite possibilities for virtual sets.
“Zero Density not only gives us real depth but offers a real third dimension to the set, which has allowed us to have something far larger than our 15x11m surface area. From a news presenting experience, this is really exciting, as it enables us to capture a lot more in terms of the environment, as opposed to a news presenter simply sitting in front of a desk,” Clark points out.
“A presenter can be presenting a news story in our studio. With a few clicks of a button, the presenter could become a 3D model impacted by the ambience of the 3D environment, such as artificial lights, the glow of artificial flames and the refraction of artificial glass.”
SNA can also incorporate multiple real-time virtual video screens into its virtual designs, including live feed interaction. The broadcaster can make virtual objects appear larger as they are brought closer to the viewer via camera, to mimic reality. NEP also delivered an interactive GUI allowing operators to easily control props like virtual screens, F1 cars and so on, and even control virtual lights, shadows and set changes.
Depending on the complexity of the design, a virtual set can be built within one to three months.
This is another reason why having such a large green screen has been helpful.
“We have gone with something that is large, in order to take that 3D object and give them the freedom to move within an environment. The presenters are still getting familiar with how to use the large area within that space. Going forward, the presenters will get a lot more confident and understand how the wide array of tools on offer can help them tell the story more effectively,” explains Clark.
Studio A, where 80% of the news programming takes place, is another spectacular example of how SNA is pushing the boundaries, with multiple sets and seven flexible moveable screens, as well as a 12m wide, 1.2mm pitch 4K videowall which can display very high-resolution graphics.
“We are pushing the boundaries with such a large display. Vizrt with 4K has been implemented on those screens, and that has given us the option of having all of our on-air graphics on screen while the presenter is presenting in the same space. The system gives us the advantage of templating a lot of our content. For instance, a presenter can step into the studio and can use the screens to tell their story. With these tools, presenters can take their storytelling to another level.”
The new wing includes a new video and audio gallery, as well as edit and graphics suites, and can serve as a back-up for the main existing galleries, which presently control all the studios.
“When Studio B was created, we also built a new gallery which works online and offline. The most interesting aspect is that it can be used to record content in Studio B as well. All our camera sources are connected across our two galleries, which means that Studio B is not only a back-up to Studio A, but it can act as the main gallery as well,” explains Ayoub.
Interestingly, SNA carried on with seamless production of news while Studio A was being revamped; a small studio in the backyard filled in during the transition. Most of the traditional integration was undertaken by Dubai-based TSL Systems Integration, in consultation with freelance Project Manager Arthur van der Ven, who was also involved in SNA’s integration seven years ago.
Once the VR and AR workflows have become seamless, Ayoub says the team has plans to build more studios and further integrate elements on the studio floor. Besides Sony HDC-1700 cameras, SNA has invested in the latest Grass Valley Korona vision mixers.
With all these technologies in place, Clark is confident that SNA can significantly increase its editorial output.
“We want to combine that by maintaining the quality of what we deliver and spread that across not just the entire Middle East region, but globally as well. We want to be the best Arabic news source for the entire world. Given that there has been a solid base for the last seven years, we now want to take that to another level and be a world-class organisation.
“We really want to enable the storytelling and be a point of difference for not just an Arabic language news channel, but a channel that reaches across the region and into the rest of the world,” he concludes.