The relationship between necessity and invention is well-known: hit
a problem; find a solution. It is not so common for a solution to arrive
before the problem, but that is what seems to have happened with virtual
The government’s plan to ban tobacco advertising will present
broadcasters with the headache of dealing with overseas sports events
that are plastered in tobacco-related messages.
But recent improvements in virtual media technology, allowing
broadcasters to insert images into live television pictures, means that
the problem may well be solved before it arrives.
The technology will not only solve a problem for UK broadcasters that
still want to carry events like Formula 1 in which tobacco sponsorship
features strongly, but it has much wider implications and is set to
revolutionise the commercial television coverage of sports.
Budweiser is rumoured to be considering the technology for next year’s
World Cup in France. As a sponsor of the tournament, the French ban on
alcohol advertising is a big problem but virtual billboards would allow
them to show their ads in countries without a ban.
Kobi Bendel, president of one of the producers of the technology,
Scidel, says: ’It will be second in importance after commercial breaks
for generating revenue at sporting events and it could extend beyond
sporting events, too.’
The technology, which developed from that used by missiles to lock on to
targets, is similar to chroma-key, which allows weather presenters to
stand in front of a blue screen in the studio and have a map of the
country appear behind them on the transmission, except it is much more
In the same way, it allows broadcasters to trick viewers into thinking
something extra is in the shot - whether it be a map of the country or
an alien spacecraft. But crucially, the new technology allows for the
image to appear as if it is in the environment, even when the camera and
the action moves around it.
Hence, if the camera is following a racing car past a poster onto which
a replacement image is projected, the perspective remains true, creating
the impression that the replacement poster really exists.
There is also none of the problem of fuzzy edges from which chroma-key
has always suffered.
The new technology has a number of applications. The most interesting
for UK sports broadcasters is that offending advertising material can be
removed from programmes in real-time.
Broadcasters will be able to immaculately super-impose replacement
images on the precise areas of the screen where cigarette advertisements
Aside from dodging local law, this virtual media can be also be put to
good use tailoring advertising messages to different audiences around
the world. What the new technology allows is for, say, the 170 countries
that take live feeds of the World Cup final, to impose their own
advertising over the billboards surrounding the game.
This will maximise the returns to the rights holder and allow
advertisers to target their messages more effectively. On a smaller
scale, local advertisers might for the first time be able to buy
advertising surrounding national events.
Apart from using the technology to change advertising on billboards, the
systems can also be used to put advertising in places that have
previously been unbranded.
Again, the software targets a certain area and imposes an image on that
area such that it looks as if it is really there, whatever happens to
camera angles and the activity in front of it.
If, for example, a player runs in front of the virtual sign, it
disappears momentarily behind him.
Tennis, baseball, American football and soccer, have so far had this
treatment, with advertising appearing on perimeter walls and on the
playing area itself. In the Greek football cup final in April, branding
for Tasty Chips appeared over the pitch’s centre circle.
This technique is used by the US company PVI, which is one of the
leaders in the field. PVI has a contract with US baseball teams, the San
Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants.
The company’s L-VIS technology is used to project an image behind the
pitcher on the back wall of the stadium, with the club selling the space
to 18 different advertisers across each game.
PVI’s Web site lists broadcasters, such as ABC, Fox and ESPN, which have
used the technology and carries testimonials from advertisers enthusing
about its potential, for example, to create ads within the programming
images which viewers will not be able to zap out of.
There are three other main companies with working systems. The French
company Symah Vision operates the Epsis system; the Dutch-based IVS has
its own Imadgine system, the Israeli company Scidel has its Computer
Most uses of the technology so far have been trials, but Peter Davis,
executive vice-president at the sports marketing company ISL, which has
a stake in IVS, says the technology is poised for breakthrough.
’It is taking a little time but as soon as it is shown in a big way over
here it will happen everywhere - the floodgates will open.’
Sources say that moment is probably just months away. ’There are two
particularly strong events within months. Because of the stature of the
events, if they go through and use it, everyone will start getting
involved,’ said a source.
One of the problems, Davis points out, is that the technology is very
powerful and some of the sports federations are concerned that it might
’People are getting frightened because they do not have control. We will
not sell it, we will only operate it on behalf of people. If it gets
into the wrong hands what would stop a broadcaster from changing the
advertising surrounding an event and sub-selling it?’
The technology is complicated, but Davis accepts that more and more
companies will soon get it, and then there is the potential for
litigious battles over ambush uses of it. ’At the moment, you could just
about post-produce an event and change the advertisers on it, but you
really need access to the cameras.’
Despite the technology’s potential, not everyone is convinced. Formula
1’s governing body, the Formula 1 Constructors Association, says it is
unsure from demonstrations it has seen so far that it is yet good enough
’When you go into the technical side of it you find there are severe
limitations. It is image-recognition technology so it relies on being
able to see an image. Ask them what happens when it rains,’ a source
Davis accepts that rain does present the technology with some problems
but says they are either already overcome, or soon will be. Maybe
invention does need a little mothering after all.