By any estimation, OSN’s exclusive Middle East coverage of Rugby World Cup 2015 earlier this year was a world-class production, with internationally renowned pundits and presenter, a slick new studio in Dubai with augmented reality graphics, and even a studio on location in Twickenham for the semi-finals and final.
But putting all of this together was no mean feat, and viewers would be surprised to know that the main studio had been little more than a shell of a building just three months before the first game kicked off.
Indeed OSN decided to relocate its sports studio to a bigger building next to the main OSN site in Dubai Media City. The previous studio, which had been used for sports coverage since 2007, was becoming too small to accommodate new technologies such as augmented reality graphics, and so a move to a new-build next door, which boasted a far more suitable floor space of about 320sq metres, seemed like an obvious choice. “As part of OSN’s growing business needs, we were required to expand our facilities. Having space next door was optimal,” says Andy Warkman, VP of sport and production at OSN.
“Production planning for the world Cup started about a year ago by deciding on who we wanted to join regular pundits Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs on our panel, looking at new technology and discussing how we can improve on what we already do,” Warkman says. “That was in tandem with what was organically happening at the business with moving our studio.”
Melvin Saldanha, broadcast project manager at OSN, adds that the new studio in particular presented an opportunity to do something new. “Having the new building for the studio was perfect, we now had 320 square metres of studio space - double the capacity of what we had earlier,” he says.
One of the main opportunities that this additional space opened up was to incorporate augmented reality graphics. While this type of graphics is becoming a staple of coverage for big sporting events, it had not been used on such a scale in the Middle East before, and OSN’s previous sports studio had been too small to use this type of graphics effectively.
Warkman adds: “Moving to the new studio was great because we had a big space and that brought up the conversation of what can we do to enhance our coverage. Every year we have improved and added a technology. We added Piero three years ago, and augmented reality graphics was something we’d seen and really liked. Now with the extra floor space and bigger studio, the ability to bring in augmented reality graphics was a reality. I think we are the first ones in the region to use the augmented reality. The thing with the studio build is we wanted to future-proof it as well.”
OSN worked with design specialist Alston Elliot for its augmented reality graphics. One of the aims of using this type of graphics was to incorporate OSN’s key Rugby World Cup 2015 broadcast sponsors Emirates and Daman into the coverage in an intelligent way. OSN invested in augmented reality graphics systems provided by Stype Grip and Vizrt Systems, working closely with Alston Eliott – which also produced the graphics for the world feed – on the actual design of the graphics.
David Urquhart, senior sport producer at OSN, says: “Working out how we were best going to use the augmented reality, that was quite significant and an important point for the sponsors as well. The aim was to integrate the sponsors into the coverage in editorially valid graphics. It was about including Emirates in the team formation layout, creating the route maps to show routes to the relevant areas before each game.”
The augmented reality graphics certainly allowed OSN to innovate, for example by bringing a virtual model of an Emirates Airbus A380 into the studio during a discussion on the routes the airline flew to the countries represented at the World Cup.
But while the finished result was polished, the work behind the scenes was not always as easy as expected. “It was the first time we had done this and we didn’t understand the difficulty of using it,” Urquhart says.
“It proved to be a lot more time consuming than we thought, getting the graphics designed, positioning them, tweaking them, and doing all the fine-tuning. The thing that surprised me the most was exactly how tricky it is to get all those graphics to sit just right and look like they are there,” he adds.
Once the concept for the graphics had been decided by OSN and designed by Alston Elliot, the graphics then had to be calibrated with OSN’s kit on the studio.
Saldanha explains that OSN had to invest in some specific technology to allow it to use these graphics: “We looked at a few solutions and then finalised on Vizrt and Stype Grip. Stype Grip is a hardware solution which gathers real-time positional data of camera in 3D space so in combination with the graphics engine Vizrt, allows you to put virtual graphics into a real set achieving the effect of augmented reality.”
Essentially, Stype Grip technology includes sensors on the jib for pan, tilt, zoom, focus and a sensor that sits on the pedestal to track the jimmy jib arm. It then feeds the information back to the Vizrt engine which creates the 3D graphics. “If you look at what you’ve done it looks as if it’s part of the set – it’s bringing virtual graphics into a real set,” Saldanha adds.
Another challenge was that the augmented reality graphics, which included complex graphics elements, caused a slight visual delay of eight frames. Although just a fraction of a second, it was vital for the crew in the gallery to account for this by delaying the audio for a corresponding amount of time to ensure that the visual and audio content was perfectly in sync.
Warkman adds that using these graphics involved “quite a bit of rehearsing” with the crew and presenters. It also involved some special training for the jib operator. “We were rehearsing for about a week before the World Cup started which included positioning the graphics in the studio and rehearsing camera movement around the graphics,” he says.
Another important aspect of getting the augmented reality graphics right was the sponsor branding. Indeed, sponsors needed to see and approve graphics relating to their brands, which meant several rounds of tweaks might be required before reaching the final graphics ready for broadcast.
OSN invested in more than just augmented reality graphics for the new studio, as Saldanha explains. “When we moved to next door, we lifted up the gallery and put it back in with some significant tweaks. We upgraded our Vizrt graphics systems to the latest software and hardware. We had two audio mixers from former studios which we amalgamated into one big mixer, a Calrec Zeta providing 64 AES and similar number of analog I/O’s with a back-up Yamaha mixer providing complete flexibility and redundancy to the operator.”
The team also invested in a new production server, an EVS XT3 8HD channel broadcast server for production providing 70+ hours of online storage and a 32 TB nearline SAN capacity. OSN moved the existing six Sony HDC 1500s, although the studio is built to accommodate 12 cameras.
OSN hired TSL as systems integrator and Saldanha says the team did an “excellent job”, especially given the tight deadlines. “We had a fixed timeline with 18th of September as the start date of the Rugby,” he says.
The team from TSL, which consisted of seven technicians, integrated the entire studio in about 30 days. “We had about 10 days of rehearsal before we could go live,” Saldanha says. “This project had no margins for error in it. If we were to run into issues, we didn’t have much time to fix them, so we appreciate the work TSL has put into this.”
OSN’s Rugby World Cup 2015 coverage also benefitted from a dedicated studio and coverage on location in Twickenham which was used during the semi-finals and final matches, Warkman says. “We had two positions in the stadium, a studio in a corporate box where we had Jim our presenter and two pundits with a compact set and three cameras. In addition, down at pitch side we had two cameras and two pundits. We were one of six international broadcasters on site.”
OSN’s studio set-up on site at Twickenham was built with the assistance of Televideo and Rocket Creative Solutions in the UK. Rocket Creative Solutions designed and provided a set to maximise the space and stadium view. Televideo provided a 16 Camera HD OB unit to accommodate the production, EVS, Piero and VizRT operations.
“Without an OB of this scale OSN would not have been able to provide the pre and post-match analysis OSN viewers expect,” Warkman adds.
“Delivery of the on-site program to Dubai was fully diverse using satellite and fibre to Dubai. Links Broadcast provided an MPEG4 4:2:2 satellite uplink to Eutelsat 10A. SiS fibre was used from Twickenham to BT Tower, from there we backhauled the signal via OSN fibre to Dubai,” he says.
Communications between Twickenham and Dubai transmission were established using ISDN lines connected to talkback systems at both sites. The whole operation ran seamlessly, according to Tom Jones, director of broadcast operations at OSN.
OSN was the exclusive broadcaster of Rugby World Cup 2015 for the Middle East and North Africa. The pay-TV operator received a world feed which consisted of ITV’s match coverage along with world feed commentary. OSN did everything else in-house, mainly from its new sports studio in Dubai Media City. OSN’s lead presenter for the event was Jim Rosenthal supported by a panel of top former Rugby players. Andy Warkman, VP of sport and production at OSN, explained that it was vital to have a broad mix of pundits from various countries in order to give the kind of unbiased commentary and analysis that OSN’s diverse viewership in the region expect..
For the semi-finals and final, OSN’s production team moved to London to cover the matches live from Twickenham, where it set up a small studio in one of the VIP boxes.
In addition, the OSN Rugby World Cup lounge in Dubai’s JW Marriott Marquis Hotel had five jumbo screens where fans could gather to watch the games. “When our pundits weren’t working they were down there to meet the fans. We really went all out to build that buzz around the World Cup. Our slogan is ‘taking you to the heart of the action’ and that is certainly what we always try to do,” Warkman adds.