When the 2020 Major League Baseball season kicks off this week, fans will not be in the stands due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, viewers watching on FOX Sports will see “virtual fans” filling up the empty seats.
“We had a vision for making our Major League Baseball broadcasts look as natural as they were before COVID,” says Brad Zager, executive producer and executive vice president and head of production and operations for FOX Sports, told Variety in an interview. “A lot of that is having a crowd in the stadium.”
Powering the virtual fans is a motion-capture, animation, and augmented reality (AR) technology developed by animators at New York-based Silver Spoon Animation.
“Silver Spoon is proud to be collaborating with FOX Sports to bring innovation to the MLB viewing experience using real-time, 3D augmented reality,” said Dan Pack, managing director, and partner at Silver Spoon.
The company relies on Unreal Engine to help power the virtual fans, with The Future Group’s GPU-accelerated Pixotope virtual production platform. The software is powered by NVIDIA RTX Servers consisting of NVIDIA Quadro RTX 6000 GPUs. Silverdraft supercomputing provided the RTX servers used in all phases of the project.
“Our pipeline utilizes our expertise in motion capture, animation, and camera tracking, all powered by the latest technology from NVIDIA and Silverdraft,” said Pack. “At its core, our solution is meant to augment a live broadcast, not to be the main attraction. This is even more important for live sports, including baseball, as the virtual fans should add atmosphere but not take away from what matters the most: the game,” Pack said.
FOX began using the virtual setup this past weekend, during the Milwaukee at Chicago Cubs, San Francisco at Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Yankees at Washington games.
Pack says they will continue to optimize the experience as the season progresses.