By Charlie Smith
The average TV is now gigantic, a sort of domestic black hole threatening to engulf a front room. It might be time to ask the question: Is it still practical for the home TV to continue getting bigger? And if no, then what can be done to create an increasingly improved, more real viewing experience?
Manufacturers have attempted to answer this question with the advent of 3D TV, where content is virtually breaking out of the box. But this technology not only requires the viewer to wear a particularly irritating form of sunglasses to watch TV, but induces headaches in those who look at the screen for too long.
A more elegant alternative that results in a similarly immersive experience is available via a technology called Surround Video, an idea which has been thought up, investigated and developed by the BBC’s research and development department in recent months. The technology is currently still in testing and prototyping but has already shown exciting potential.
The concept of surround video is not far removed from surround sound, aiming to create the feeling of being in the middle of the action by engulfing the viewer in a visual landscape that extends what's onscreen – in this case, the picture. To produce this surround content, video is captured using two HD cameras mounted side by side on a rig, one with a standard lens with traditional framing, the other with a fish-eye lens to give a much wider field of view for the surround image. When broadcast, a standard HD TV in the viewer’s living room gets complimented by a wide-angle projector behind the viewer which creates mapped background images of the given scene along the floor, walls and ceilings, filling the viewer’s peripheral vision with the peripheral world of the show. The wide-angled projection is created using a hemispherical mirror to reflect light from the projector.
The surround video concept is essentially an extension of the thinking that led to the creation of Ambilight televisions by Philips in 2002, where light effects are beamed around the edges of the TV, corresponding to the video content on it. Those televisions were criticized for resembling the underneath lighting of a boy racer car, but surround video promises to be infinitely more sophisticated. Tests have used a PC during the display of the surround video to correct the lens distortion and to adapt the surround image to the layout of the room. The images may not yet be exactly high definition, but the feeling of being immersed in the action is achievable even with blurry imagery. This is because the peripheral vision of the human eye evolved to protect against attack simply by detecting motion. So long as this sense is satisfied, the viewer should feel a heightened sense of “being there.”
As tests have gone well at BBC, there are now plans in place to use the technique on existing pieces of film by automatically taking color, form and motion from the central video and extending it around the room in the form of the ambient colors and motion cues derived from the original scene. Even further research and development will aim to focus on adapting the projected image to color-correct various surfaces of furniture and walls, as well as simplify the dual camera set up with a single, ultra-high-definition fish-eye camera that can do both jobs.
Many of the surround video ideas are currently only in the test stage and far from perfect. But it is clear already that this technology could transform a sitting room into any scene or location. The possibilities for promotional uses are huge too – the ability to put a consumer right in the midst of a product will be a powerful marketing tool for brands. It is, for example, theoretically easier to persuade a consumer to purchase a beach holiday when an entire beach scene has been projected across the expanse of their living room.
Charlie Smith is an advertising account director working in London at RKCR/Y&R. He specializes in future media and most recently led the promotion of the BBC’s groundbreaking multi-platform coverage of the London 2012 Olympics. He is passionate about the possibilities that technology creates to improve communication and is currently working on a campaign to convert the UK to digital radio. You can find out more about him at charliejamessmith.co.uk.