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Inside Eurosport’s 3D virtual studio: ‘If we want to put a brand in there, we can’

Novak Djokovic in the Cube

Eurosport is embracing mixed reality technology in order to bolster its live broadcasts, with hologram athletes offering an immersive experience to fans unable to attend their favourite sports. Speaking to The Drum after the US Open, Eurosport’s Alex Dinnin explains why brands should be paying attention to the ’Cube’.

Originally launched to deliver interactive visuals and helpful explainers on-site at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Eurosport’s virtual studio space the ’Cube’ has been static during the pandemic. Instead, sporting talent and even sports stadia have been beamed to it in holographic fashion using mixed or extended reality tech.

Alex Dinnin, the head of graphics and innovation at Eurosport, says: “We never ever want to take away from the live experience and being on-site is the best we can offer the viewer, but while sport with crowds is temporarily on hold and it’s not safe to be at an event, we are using AR to bring players into our studio.”

While the Cube is a physical space, the set is virtual, designed using Unreal Engine, the same graphics software that powers the world’s top video games. An agency called Dimensions helped Eurosport design a set that can be adapted and deployed across its whole slew of sports coverage. It shows no hint of the box space the presenter actually inhabits.

“Recently, at the US Open, we brought in interviews with green screens from the USTA [United States Tennis Association] to enable players to be teleported in live,” Dinnin tells us. The hologram, a once-fanciful gimmick, has become a useful tool for the broadcaster in an age of at-home broadcast and social distancing, and top tennis stars have been nervously trying out the tech.

“As sport began to return, the US Open was one of our pillar events scheduled to start again with no fans – and, more importantly, with only one host broadcaster. As Eurosport wasn’t allowed to travel to New York, we needed to look at a way we could bring our fans closer together and closer to the action, and the Cube was the perfect tool for this.”

And it wasn’t just the athletes who joined the broadcast. The USTA in New York sent the broadcaster a green screen feed of the arena. “While it looks really, really cool, it’s probably one of the easiest challenges we had to overcome. The only real problem was the latency.” A huge amount of real-time data needs to be streamed to create a convincing space. Eurosport likes to think it has cracked that problem now.

Since PyeongChang, incremental improvements have been made to the Cube. Most noticeably, one (physical) wall of the studio has been removed to allow for fuller pans in the virtual plane. The delayed pan-European coverage of the Tokyo 2020 Games will benefit from this at least.

“We were holding the Cube back for Tokyo, but now with all the Covid-19 restrictions it seems the perfect time to introduce it to other events. We’ll be using it for Roland-Garros, for example.” We can expect to see different versions of the space for snooker, motorsports, winter sports and more going forward.

But what is all of this in aid of? Well, Eurosport believes it is bringing fans closer to the experience. “We’re having live interviews with players, we’ve got this lovely screen behind our presenter that shows all the action going on and some really engaging features.”

The holographic feature’s debut, in an interview between presenter Barbara Schett-Eagle and US Open number one women’s singles seed Karolina Pliskova, received almost 1.5m views on Twitter. The chat concluded with a fun, if not-quite-perfect, high five.

Where there’s innovation, interest and attention, there’s a space for a brand. And it appears that inventory options here are almost endless. “I tell a lot of people it’s a 3D world and if you want to put a brand in there where the US Open logo is, we can put a brand’s logo in there. We were playing with an idea where we’ve got Times Square in the background and changing the LED panels to an advert. A bit of ambient advertising. It’s so easy to throw in anything commercial.”

Its 3D environments offer non-interruptive ways to implement ads. That could be from the bold Times Square suggestion to filling out inventory around its virtual explainers. If it creates a space for tennis explainers, why not fill out those spots? Or offer additional reach to rights holder partners in them? It could even replicate real-world courts if it wants.

The opportunity wasn’t fully embraced during PyeongChang, but there’s potential there and you can see it in the below video.

So it is clear – a small cube can be a huge stadia, even on the moon or underwater if the team wished it. But among such grandstanding, the reality is much more modest says Dinnin. “With extended reality, we can be in a very small space and make it look to the viewer that we’re in a much bigger studio. Our studio for the US Open was only 4m x 4m, and we’re in a warehouse in Wimbledon. To the viewer, it looks like one huge studio and this gives our viewers more of a look across a full studio set-up. I’ve also worked with slightly different sets before where we’ve added roofs on studios to give them more depth.”

Implementing next-gen 3D graphics and effects in livestreams is becoming an ever common requirement for broadcasters and those wanting to engage in digital. Mark Melling of Verizon recently talked The Drum through how demand for activations in the virtual surged during the last few months.

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