Virtual studios — still in the limelight

Virtual studios create the illusion of reporters or others being in a real studio by combining chroma key video with a simulated studio set consisting of 3D computer graphics. Key and fill signals generated from the chroma key video are arranged on the simulated set. Virtual studios are sometimes enhanced by adding real-time computer graphics, as by incorporating a video wall in the background that shows other images, layering text on the scene to indicate topics, or adding or changing graphics in response to subject movement. Real-time graphics have been indispensable in program production for some time, but now that a new era of high-res 4K/8K video production is dawning, virtual studios are also enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Real-time graphics and virtual studios first appeared in the late 1990s, spurred by advances in 3D graphics. The transition from SD to HD resolution paved the way for panning and zooming in these sets, but it also required studios and broadcasters to reexamine their physical sets and how makeup was applied. When the higher resolution revealed previously unseen details—exposed nails or screws, or uneven painting in the background, for example—people gained a new appreciation for simulated sets made with computer graphics.

Toward the late 2000s, file-based workflows took off. Workstations became more powerful, with much more memory space to work with. As 3D graphics matured, it became possible to set reflections, transparency, light sources, shadows and other parameters freely and see the results in photorealistic images in real time. In the 2010s, the industry also took advantage of GPU-driven parallel processing. Although camera movement in virtual studios had been limited, it was now possible to use larger simulated spaces, and both camera movement and graphics became more dynamic.

Now, times are changing from full HD to 4K and 8K. The industry continues to turn to next-generation video. Image quality is improving, and not only through higher resolution but also a wide color gamut and high dynamic range. Once again, however, these changes are magnifying details even beyond what was revealed in the move from SD to HD. Studio sets and makeup techniques will eventually catch up to next-generation video, but initially, many in the industry may rely on photorealistic virtual studio sets enlivened by real-time graphics.