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Surround Video: BBC beats Microsoft with its own immersive TV project

Surround Video: BBC beats Microsoft with its own immersive TV project


Seven years of research into expanding the living room

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BBC Surround Video
BBC Surround Video

Back in 2006, the BBC took 250 engineers and locked them into several rooms in a mansion. But this wasn't the scene for an epic horror movie: instead, it set the stage for researchers to group together and focus on a number of projects. The BBC had a stack of ideas, but it "didn't really know what to do with them," explains Alia Sheikh, director of BBC R&D Production Labs. "We did the math and we worked out that if we split everyone up into teams of five and took an idea off the stack, and then locked those five people into a room for a week, they could work on an idea — we pretty much had enough ideas to do a whole year."

So Sheikh and her team kept the managers away and shipped in pizza to ensure the researchers were focused on creating some unique projects. At the end of the week, each group had to demonstrate their findings to the department. One of the ideas, simply named "Surround Video," was part of the weeklong experiment. Sheikh describes it as "surround sound for your eyes" and she told her team to simply "go build it" before leaving them to it. "What they came back with was really interesting, it was a way of extending your traditional TV experience." The idea centers on having your normal television in a living room and then projecting additional video onto the surrounding walls.

After locking engineers in a room, the result is impressive

The result is rather impressive. I got a chance to experience it firsthand during an unveiling at the British Film Institute recently. The system, which requires about an hour of calibration in a new room, uses a standard HD projector with a fish-eye lens that bounces off a nearby mirror. It mimics the eye's natural tendency to focus on details at the center of our vision, while picking up movement in our peripheral vision. That's exactly how Sheikh and her team have approached creating content for such a system.

BBC Surround Video research photos


Sheikh's team got permission to put a camera in front of a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) train to film a continuous shot. For the demonstration, I sat at the very center of a sofa in front of a large-screen television with images projected around the TV and on the nearby walls. I couldn't escape the projections unless I looked behind me. Passing over the train tracks through London's East End provided a real sense of immersion, and the changes in lighting as we passed under structures was a good illustration of how this technology could be applied in the future. There were some minor drawbacks, though. The seating arrangement wasn't ideal, as my head eclipsed the projector and cast a shadow below the TV. It spoiled the experience slightly, until I learned to ignore it and focus on what was around me.

The BBC shot a film designed for Surround Video

Another issue was in the level of detail. Unfortunately, the pixels in the projection were clear, an issue that was particularly evident when Sheikh's team demonstrated a frame-by-frame animation. Unfortunately that segment lacked the graphic motion required to pull the effect off well. I found myself staring at pixels rather than focusing on the content itself. Animation does seem like a natural fit for this particular technology, but it requires motion to work well. That's something the BBC is investigating, and in 2011 it shot a film exploring how directors would need to capture content for a future projection system.

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Sheikh found that using a Steadicam or set of dolly tracks were essential to capture the right motion shots for the best results. The film's director had to shoot his subjects four meters away, and the demands that went along with using two cameras — one focused on the actor with the other capturing a fisheye of the surroundings — made it tricky to film in certain circumstances. A Steadicam operator would have to carry an uncomfortable 88 pounds of equipment. Dolly tracks worked well, but the fish-eye lens on one camera often picked them up. There are certainly challenges filming surround content, and until this is addressed fully it holds back the viability of such a system in the home.

It's not IllumiRoom, but the BBC is happy with Microsoft's own research

Microsoft has stolen the limelight recently with its own research into an "IllumiRoom" projection system that expands gaming content beyond the realm of a TV display and onto living room walls. The software maker's primary focus is gaming right now, with speculation that such a system might debut as part of Microsoft's next-generation Xbox plans. But the company has also said that IllumiRoom could be used to augment film and TV.

"I'm really glad that people are actually now doing work in that space ... We've seen Microsoft is doing something very similar," says Sheikh. "To be honest, it's quite cheering because this was an experiment we did years ago." The BBC research team is now experimenting with high frame rates and playing around with technology to see how immersive future TV experiences can get. "To see other people looking at something very similar from a gaming point of view ... the more work that happens in this space the happier I'll be."