Main photo: Ben Carlin with his Sports Emmy. The inscription reads: 2019 Sports Emmy Awards; Outstanding Digital Innovation; Red Bull Rampage; “Virtual Production”; Red Bull TV; Ben Carlin, Producer. (supplied)
Having been nominated for an Emmy twice before, Ben Carlin brought it home his third time around.
Carlin is part of a creative technology agency, XR Media Group, that created a virtual production for a live broadcast for Red Bull TV that won a Sports Emmy for outstanding digital innovation.
“We’ve worked together for a couple of years,” said Carlin, who’s part owner of the company. “In the past we were nominated as part of a larger studio, Digital Domain. This time it was with our own company. You’re always named personally on these nominations but winning this one with the startup company that we put together only a year before this project felt gratifying in a pretty major way.”
Brands come to Carlin’s company with a goal or problem they have for a project that they think can be solved with extended reality technology. XR Media Group then works to find a creative solution with advanced technology to accomplish the goal or solve the problem.
This can include creating mobile augmented reality apps, or photogrammetry, which is the process of building 3D models by taking pictures of spaces and stitching them together to create a digital version of a real world object or environment, often for virtual reality applications.
Red Bull Rampage is a mountain biking competition in Utah.
“It’s probably the most famous mountain biking competition in the world,” said Carlin. “If you’ve ever seen videos online of these mountain bikers just flinging their bodies off of impossibly high cliffs, while also doing back flips and landing it and carrying on and doing it off another cliff, that’s Red Bull Rampage. It’s kind of famous for being crazy. The cool thing about it is that it takes place pretty much in the middle of nowhere near Zion National Park in Utah. The thing about that is that it makes it really difficult for people to get there and actually watch it in person. The size of the crowd they allow is only 2,000 people. The site is covered in rattlesnakes, tarantulas and jagged cliffs. So it’s actually a dangerous place to visit as a pedestrian. Red Bull came to us and said they have an issue with trying to present the scale to people on television. They wanted to present it better and in more of a three dimensional way.
“We landed on an idea to use augmented reality graphics in the live broadcast, which is kind of like using video game graphics and placing them into the real world. It’s hard to tell looking on TV what the mountain bikers path is and where they’re going because every rider takes a different path. It’s not a typical straight course that has big flags and pylons, it’s just a bunch of dirt,” said Carlin. “If an athlete was to use a picture of the mountain to describe where they were going to go, they would just take a pencil and draw a line down the picture. We took that simple concept and made a super complicated version using 3D technology. The process started by using photogrammetry to scan the mountain using drones, so a drone flies up and down the mountain and takes hundreds of photographs and we use that to create a highly detailed 3D model that we can work with. From that 3D model we animate the mountain and plot those lines and throw up dust and make it look like the line is being drawn right on the mountain, which gives it some impact and makes it look like it’s in that environment. We can create these little preview animations of the line drawing itself down the rider’s path and going off jumps to show viewers at home what to expect before the rider steps on their bike. Then at the same time we used live camera tracking technology to lay that same line over the mountain in the real world using augmented reality in the live broadcast.”
Or to simplify all of that, Carlin described it as, “We combined really high end video game graphics with a live broadcast at a sporting event.”
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the production:
The first version of this type of technology was a line for NFL games or when the puck would glow for NHL games.
“I think we’re going to see more of this in every sporting event from now on,” said Carlin. “For the first year we really scaled it back and made it simple. But in future, next year if there is a Rampage, they didn’t hold it this year due to COVID-19, but we had it lined up to push this the next step further and use multiple cameras.”
Much like most things in 2020 the awards were presented over Zoom.
“I’m not huge into the glitz and glam of these things, I’ve shot the red carpet for the Oscars three times and I don’t get swept up in that kind of thing, but it’s funny how when it’s you it changes a little bit,” said Carlin. “I felt like I would have loved to be there on the night to hear it announced and go through the whole thing. I might not be the guy who runs up to the stage and makes the acceptance speech but putting on a tuxedo and having a glass of champagne with the crew would have been really cool.”
Carlin was living and working in the U.S. for a number of years but wanted to return to Muskoka and be able to create high end projects here, which he did two years ago.
“It’s not been easy,” he said. “Myself and my team kind of made remote working cool before it was cool. When COVID-19 hit at the beginning of the year our work, and the way we work, didn’t really change. I’m here and I have a partner in Kelowna and another one in Dallas. We’re used to jumping on Zoom calls once a week and running conference calls from the home office near the lake, with partners in Norway in one time zone and then partners in Los Angeles in another time zone.”
Carlin wants to encourage others who have big dreams.
“It’s good to know that just because you grow up in a small town doesn’t mean that you can’t do big things. This whole crazy ride I’ve been on started when I was 15 or 16 filming snowboard videos with my buddies and getting into trouble around Huntsville,” he said. “But that’s how I started learning, by picking up a camera and learning how to use the computer to edit videos. Not only can you start out on a great adventure and a great career from Huntsville but you can end up doing it in Huntsville too. I obviously had to leave the town to get some of the experiences under my belt to be able to take on these kinds of projects but coming back here feels great and I don’t intend on going anywhere any time soon.”
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