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BBC opens up about holographic TV trials

Broadcaster reveals how it is attempting to pre-empt the potential change in viewing habits the rise of augmented reality could bring

The BBC has spoken out about its in-house holographic TV development work, which could pave the way for television audiences to enjoy a more immersive viewing experience.

Buoyed by the burgeoning popularity of virtual reality and ultra-high-definition devices, the broadcaster decided to experiment with the concept of creating holographic content for viewers.

“While virtual reality has been grabbing the headlines, some of the world’s largest technology companies have recently been investing in mixed reality and augmented reality, which has just become a mainstream phenomenon,” wrote Cyrus Saihan, the BBC’s head of digital partnerships, in a blog post.

“But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Google-backed Magic Leap also capture the public’s imagination, we could soon find ourselves in a situation where the lines between digital content and the real world become increasingly blurred.”

This realisation prompted the BBC to begin exploring technologies and techniques that would enable it to give viewers access to holographic content in their homes.

The led to the repurposing of a 46in television that was laid down, with the screen facing the ceiling, before having a pyramid attached to it to aid the projection process.

“By placing this acrylic pyramid on our flat-screen TV, we were able to try out a modern-day version of an old Victorian theatre technique and create the illusion of floating holographic-like images,” Saihan continued.

“For this theatre trick to work, the video footage needed to be of a certain type, so we looked through the BBC public service and BBC Worldwide archives for iconic footage that matched the criteria.”

Only certain types of footage can produce the desired results, and the BBC enlisted the help of visual effects company MDH Hologram to adapt the format of the content thrown up by its trawl through the archives.

Read more about digital change at the BBC

It then set about testing the technology with a select group of people – with mixed results. Some audience members raved about how engaging it made the act of watching TV, while others complained about the quality of images produced.

“When we asked them what types of programme they thought might work well on a ‘holographic’ TV, the most popular suggestions were nature documentaries and sport,” said Saihan.

“We learnt from our experiment that the images were much more powerful when the ambient lighting levels were low and when the room was dark. We also noticed that the effect worked best when the display was positioned at eye level.”

Despite this, Saihan said the “fairly simplistic” experiment gave the BBC a useful insight into what audiences made of the technology, and what their viewing expectations were likely to be in the future.

This is an area that the BBC’s research and development team will continue to explore so the broadcaster can respond with ease to any changes in its audience’s viewing habits, he said.

“You can imagine a world where instead of watching a film star being interviewed on the sofa of a TV chat show, it feels as if they are sitting right next to you on your own sofa in your living room, or where instead of looking at a 2D image of Mount Everest, it appears as if the snow on the mountain top is falling around you.”

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Another broadcaster jumping on the VR bandwagon. It's certain to be a crowded field for lots of good reasons. Yet CinemaScope and Smell-O-Vision and the first iteration of 3D all drew lots of curious viewers who ultimately yawned and moved along. Fancy tech is only interesting for a very short while unless there's enough art and craft to make the end result interesting and worthwhile. That said, there's little doubt that VR will eventually grow up, writers will learn how to tell a good story for it, camera operators will learn how to record it, and someone will finally figure out how to quell nauseous stomachs....
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