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Prestigious Outdoor Cycling Race Pivots to a Mixed-Reality Event During Pandemic

March 21, 2022

In the March issue of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal  Willem Vermost, a design & engineering manager from VRT, Belgium’s public tv broadcaster, describes how an outdoor cycling event was reimagined in a mere matter of days with real riders and a virtual landscape. VRT is well known for its broadcasts of the Tour of Flanders, the classic race that heralds the European cycling season, as well as races at the Olympics and world championships. But when the worldwide pandemic forced the country into lockdown, VRT considered if it was possible for professional cyclists to race from home on their roller trainers, competing virtually in an entertaining live broadcast. In his article, Vermost lays out just how VRT produced the mixed-reality cycling race, the first-ever esports Tour of Flanders.

Taking the cloud-based production from idea to broadcast in just ten days rested on the seamless collaboration of three partners:

  • Bkool provided the cycling simulator and virtual environment that enables competition with others using its platform. Bkool supports hundreds of connected devices like pulsometers, cadence sensors, and power sensors, allowing it to provide riders with the thrill of riding outdoors.
  • Kiswe Mobile provided the streaming technology that connects at-home viewers with live events and in-venue fans through interactive video experiences. Its cloud production platform delivers picture-in-picture viewing and allows digital viewers to switch in and out of guest commentor audio feeds.
  • VRT, the Belgian broadcaster, put together the live production at their offices in Brussels, using a socially distanced team operating with classic office IT infrastructures but no traditional broadcast equipment at all. While broadcasting the traditional Tour of Flanders requires a team of up to 150 people, VRT used just 12 people for this virtual event. This mix of digital natives and seasoned broadcast engineers included one director, one vision mixer, three camera operators, two commentators, one chief engineer, two support engineers, and two liaison officers bridging production and the riders at home.

To create an interesting race experience, it was important for the audience to be able to watch the riders live as they conquered the virtual locations. Infographics also played an important role to convey the slope, speed, power generated by each rider, as well as their position in the race. To add to the realism, the team incorporated images of the real track, including bends and steep hills in the virtual terrain. The two commentators used all this information, plus their knowledge of the contestants and historical facts about different parts of the course, to narrate viewers through the unique esports experience.

At each of their homes, the 13 professional cyclists accomplished their own technical setup, using only their racing bikes on a roller trainer, a laptop and smartphone. The laptop, loaded with the Bkool application, connected with their roller trainer, sending and receiving data like current speed, the friction induced by the rollers due to virtual climbing, the power generated by the cyclist, and even slipstreaming information -- feeding it all into a graphical overlay. Their smartphone, loaded with an app to set up a video stream to the cloud-based platform, captured each cyclist’s live image during the race. The Kiswe cloud platform provided audio and video processing capabilities to the three virtual cameras, the video feeds from the cyclists’ homes, and the commentators’ audio. All data connectivity between the cyclists, the cloud applications and VRT relied on the public internet.

VRT’s Vermost says that the project was a tremendous example of doing more with less, and that producing for an event of this size and reputation with non-professional equipment required the perfect collaboration among all its participants. Using a small team and tight deadlines to move from idea to implementation, it was clear that the willingness and flexibility to self-learn on the fly was key for the entire team. A good internet connection, elimination of firewalls, and use of wired internet connectivity whenever possible were critical for streaming quality. And high-performance PCs, preferably gaming laptops, were preferred to minimize delay on the line. As a result, the virtual Tour of Flanders was a huge success, and particularly attracted younger viewers in the home audience for this unique mixed-reality event.

To view the technical setup, understand the workflows, and see the livestreams delivered to the audience at home, read the complete article “Virtual Tour of Flanders” in March’s SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal.






Keywords: Tour of Flanders, sports, esports, cloud-based production, mixed reality (MR), live, MoIP, Media-over-IP.



Tag(s): Featured , News


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