Zero Density’s Aydemir Sahin Explores New Frontiers and Innovation in Virtual Studio Production

* This interview originally published on BizTechReports

According to recent Parks Associates TV-viewing research, video consumption from on-demand sources continues to gain a larger segment of viewership, while live TV viewership is on the decline. As the landscape continues to transform through both consumer viewing habits and the growing variety of content sources such as live TV, over-the-top (OTT) and online, broadcasters are looking for ways to present unique, relevant offerings that can adapt to this dynamic market while also being cost-effective.

Broadcasters’ interest in virtual studio technology — which turns sets for news or other television production studios into immersive environments that can be digitally configured in an infinite number of ways — has been reignited thanks to this technology entering a new, more mature and profitable stage of development, according to Aydemir Sahin, VP of Product and Support for Zero Density, in a podcast interview with BizTechReports.

Podcast Interview with Aydemir Sahin

“For a very long time, the virtual studio was deployed as a means of controlling production budgets. Graphics are easier to implement, change and reuse as opposed to actual, physical decor. People were viewing the virtual studio as a tool to balance their budget. Eventually, virtual production turned out to be unusable because the results were not good enough or were not believable,” says Sahin.

Years ago, U.S. news broadcasters attempted to leverage virtual studio technology, but it proved to be expensive, difficult to use and didn’t look appealing to viewers. Although the virtual studio provided broadcasters with more flexibility in changing studio set designs, its application was premature, and the broadcast industry lost interest.

However, according to Sahin, today’s comeback of the virtual studio is driven by the evolution of technologies that allow studios to create visuals that not only look real, but also offer levels of interaction and functionality that cannot be reproduced in real life. “That is the most appealing aspect for the future of virtual studio production,” explains Sahin.

The technologies Sahin is referring to are the 360-degree video and gaming engines used today to create the types of engaging and immersive experiences that consumers increasingly want. Zero Density developed its virtual studio tool, “Reality,” which utilizes Epic Games’ Unreal game engine. In the virtual studio environment, a game engine provides real-time composition, and that is what makes Reality such a leap forward.

“We have the ability to change video to anything we like any time we want. What if we could send the raw signals to the client stations and have them do the rendering on their systems? Viewers could then watch a news broadcast from a brilliant Fox Studio set, or viewers could watch a news broadcast from a beach. In the end, client stations would be the ones to decide on what their viewers would see,” says Sahin.

Zero Density considers itself to be an R&D outfit, according to Sahin, and its first idea was to revisit the concept of virtual studio production.

“In a nutshell, we took the old approach, and we visited other disciplines to see what could be done. We realized that virtual production was already being done well in Hollywood movies — in visual effects. But the catch was that it wasn’t real time. That was always done in the postproduction era. We brought this visual effect pipeline model into a real-time environment and changed the industry two years ago,” says Sahin.

By utilizing the concepts from visual effects and film postproduction, Sahin sees great potential when combining real-time application to create better production efficiencies.

“In the upcoming versions of Reality, Zero Density will push more into the previsualization of cinema or even real-time shooting of movies and cinema. Based on Unreal Engine, a popular rendering engine, we could shoot on-site and collect information such as RAW images from cameras, the graphics and the tracking data. All these data could go into one single stream and be delivered to the postproduction side.  By enabling the production side to begin working on the things that have been already shot, this could effectively lower budgets and increase productivity in the cinema and movie business,” says Sahin.

Pivoting from the movies and film, Sahin also sees enormous potential in the flexibility afforded by virtual sets in the broadcasting industry.

“You could broadcast a show in front of Russia’s Red Square and broadcast another show from Times Square in New York. The client would be able to make that decision [of which to use]; however, it’s not limited to only the client,” explains Sahin.

Additionally, thanks to Reality’s node-based compositing system and the digitization of content delivery, Sahin believes product placement and personalized video advertising can be better leveraged.

“The advertising and commercial teams could also make decisions for the viewer as well. For example, the producers could create a piece of paper that says Reality on it, and that paper is sitting on the desk in plain view within the virtual environment. For another viewer, the paper would be an ad for eyeglasses sitting on the table. This means that advertisers can monetize using this technology in a better way. It’s the best way to hide commercials, so that people don’t get annoyed while still seeing the message,” says Sahin.

These opportunities that Zero Density’s Reality presents provide new models for creating greater efficiency for film and broadcast production and monetizing video advertising; however, according to Sahin, the true transformative application of virtual studio technology occurs when software and virtualization are combined.

“We are not solely focused on creating a virtual studio tool. Zero Density is looking to create a platform that allows clients to crunch numbers, visualize data or process audio. Now that everything is digital — we will be concentrating on building a cluster-based platform to do whatever clients want based in software,” says Sahin.

As consumer desire for on-demand video content increases, the mix of pay TV, cable, OTT, online video and their monetization models will continue to change. However, for virtual studio production, it appears its time has finally come

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