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Mixed reality children's quiz programme Smart&Dart

Smart&Dart is a new children’s quiz programme produced by AVROTROS and Skyhigh TV. Presented by soap star Buddy Vedder, it has a unique studio setting which makes clever use of a 360-degree chromakey green screen and mixed-reality technology. Almost everything the viewer sees is added in real time by computer, including moving elements, lighting effects and videos.

The computer systems rely on tracking cameras to plot the relative positions of virtual elements such as the backdrops, darts and even the ‘audience’. They are then superimposed on the physical set in the studio, which is also known as the ‘dome’.

The result is a spectacular look-and-feel and a unique viewer experience. “This has never been done on this scale before,” says Gerard de Vries, Mixed Reality Project Manager with UNITED, which developed the set in association with Skyhigh TV and AVROTROS.

“Mixed reality adds an extra dimension to television and we shall certainly examine opportunities to use it in other programmes,” adds Linda Zuidinga, production manager for Skyhigh TV.

Smart&Dart is broadcast by AVROTROS at 17:20 every weekday as part of the NPO Zapp block.

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Mixed reality children's quiz programme Smart&Dart

It is a strange sight: a huge dart board surrounded by green walls and cameras. This is the studio in which the new children’s quiz programme Smart&Dart is being given an entirely new dimension.

Smart&Dart is produced by Skyhigh TV for AVROTROS. On the circular studio set, only the presenter’s podium, the dartboard and the two desks behind which the contestants stand actually exist in real life. Everything else is added digitally. The viewer sees a spectacular virtual decor.

UNITED and Skyhigh TV have created this unique experience by surrounding the studio set (the ‘dome’) with chromakey green screens. Six Red Spy tracking cameras are mounted on the regular broadcast cameras. Hundreds of stickers on the ceiling allow the tracking cameras to pinpoint their exact position at any moment, whereupon the computer systems add the virtual and graphic elements in the right place and with the right perspective.

“In the past, sailors used to plot their position using the stars,” explains Gerard de Vries, Mixed Reality Project Manager with UNITED. “This is exactly the same principle: the tracking cameras know where they are in relation to the stickers. The computers feed back data to the camera operators, who can even zoom in on virtual elements or alter the depth of field.”

Do the darts really exist? 
For a programme like Smart&Dart, mixed reality has many practical benefits. The game involves contestants throwing huge darts. Obviously, the real thing would be far from practical. Even the virtual equivalent is not needed in every shot: they get in the way. “The user-friendly computer allows us to remove them with one press of the button,” says Marino Rottier, UNITED’s Mixed Reality operator. 

The result is unprecedented flexibility. “It allows us to use the space in a very creative way,” adds Remco Bogaard, Smart&Dart’s studio director. “We can decide which objects are to appear on screen at any moment, and we do so in real time.”

Mixed reality is certainly very useful in terms of positioning. With a circular set, it would be difficult or impossible to keep cameras out of every wide shot. With mixed reality, you can just superimpose some virtual object over the camera (and cameraman). “It saves a lot of time and trouble,” Rottier says. 

Although the result is a seamless blend of real and virtual elements, production planning for Smart&Dart proved a complex process. De Vries describes it as “a very interesting learning curve.”

Unprecedented

Mixed reality is nothing new but never before has it been used on this scale. Smart&Dart is unique in every respect. There was much for UNITED and Skyhigh TV to think about and the entire project had to be completed in a relatively short time: just four weeks.

It was the software which proved the most time-consuming part of the process. “First, we built the dome with the help of our 3D designers,” recalls De Vries. “Next we integrated the various objects and elements in Frontier, the system that UNITED uses to construct the virtual studio. That is demands extreme accuracy.” Frontier, supplied by Ross Video, is based on the Unreal Engine software used to design 3D computer games.

The 360-degree green screen set was built, the lighting plan was finalized and the computer systems installed and configured. These were exciting times. “We saw the Smart&Dart concept in operation for the very first time in the studio,” says De Vries. “Up to that moment we just had to hope that everything would turn out as we had planned.”

There was very little time for any changes or corrections: the recording and broadcast schedule was very tight. Smart&Dart was first broadcast on 4 September as part of the NPO Zapp block, just two weeks after United had finished recording no fewer than fifty episodes.

Live on tape
Smart&Dart was recorded ‘live on tape’ so everything had to be right first time: there would be no second chance during post-production. That was a challenge, but the result is very impressive, says Skyhigh TV’s production manager Linda Zuidinga. “Mixed reality adds another dimension to television and we will certainly explore opportunities to use it in other programmes.”

Marcel Kuijer, editor of Smart&Dart, agrees. “What we have achieved will be the envy of many a programme maker. I know that several large broadcasters have already tried, but the result is nowhere near as good as Smart&Dart.”

This children’s quiz programme is likely to pave the way for other virtual studio productions. “The technology offers so many possibilities,” De Vries points out. “You can take an entirely different approach to studio design and you can even add interactive elements. I am really proud of what we have achieved.”

For more information, please don't hesitate to contact our sales department via sales@united4all.nl or call +31 35 77 33 100.

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