AMBIENT MEDIA: Seeing is believing - Virtual ads are the latest form of ambient media and could be the answer to problems caused by bans on tobacco and alcohol advertising. Ed Shelton looks at the developments

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 media.

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

media.



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

powerful.



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.



National competition



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

fall.



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.



System operators



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

Vision system.



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

be misused.



’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

to use.



’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

said.



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.



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