Virtual fans in an empty stadium. That is the magic of technology that we are going to be witnessing soon at the IPL on our TV screens.
A game without spectators? A lofted ‘maximum’ without cheers and whistles? A dismissal without jeers and drum-beats? What fun would such a cricket match be? So, true to its entertainment-before-cricket credo, the IPL is going to bring in the missing fans, albeit digitally. To give the game a full dose of ‘normalcy’, the IPL and its broadcaster Star TV are most likely going to re-create the carnival atmosphere in the stands using best-of-class technology tools for a better match experience for folks watching the action on television from the comfort of their sofas and couches at home.
Star TV is said to be checking out the Fox version which features fans who appear life-like and three-dimensional in the broadcast. Almost real, and life-like. They could well be getting their technology and learnings from sister broadcaster Fox who have implemented some of the new tricks of the trade for baseball fixtures of the Major League Baseball in the US earlier in the season.
Fox worked on the ‘virtual spectators’ project with Silver Spoon, a real-time animation and virtual production studio. Silver Spoon scanned in all the ballparks and fans so their motions, both sitting and standing, could be properly rendered. The fans can do up to 500 actions, ranging from high fives during a home run to unison gyrating doing the wave. The system can control the percentage of fans in the stadium during a game, as well as pre-determine who they are cheering for. For example, in the baseball game last Saturday between Brewers and Cubs, technology could create a crowd that was 75 per cent Cubs and 25 per cent Brewers supporters. It could also make it appear as if most of them left when it was a 9-1 ballgame in the ninth inning.
Interestingly, the system is also able to adapt to the weather. If and when the temperature gets colder in the fall, winter jackets and hats can be added to the fans! In Dubai, it may be umbrellas and sun visors?!
Will these virtual actions and props be able to substitute for the real thing? The excited, pumped-up fans dancing and prancing all over the stadium? The genuine noise and din of every IPL match? To be honest, no one is really sure. Even in the US where some of these technologies have been experimented with, feedback is tepid. Though, most critics concede that the results are getting better and better with every subsequent exposure. The learning, both of the machines, and the men behind the machines is nearly exponential.
Besides ‘bums on seats’, the electric atmosphere in any stadium is also created by the hi-decibel sounds that create the magic. There is work at hand for the BCCI there too. Precedents are already available on how to fill that important void when there are no humans in the stands. In fact, there is already a ‘phygital’ solution that transports fans from their homes to the live match in the stadium, and makes them feel they are actually joining the merriment and fun at the actual venue.
An app trialed in Japan allows smartphone users to cheer – or jeer – remotely during a match. When the first J-League match kicked off on 4 July, Japan’s top-flight soccer teams were playing to empty stands. But viewers at home were still able to cheer – or jeer – remotely.
Earlier in May, a new app which plays fans’ claps, cheers and chants out aloud into the stadium was tested at the 50,000-seat Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa – one of the biggest in the country. Developed by musical instrument makers Yamaha, the ‘Remote Cheerer powered by SoundUD’ app was connected to 58 speakers around the stadium to try to recreate the atmosphere of a normal match. During the trial match between J-League clubs Shimizu S-Pulse and Júbilo Iwata, users in various remote locations sent cheers, applause, jeers and club chants into the stadium via their smartphones. The results were simply stunning. More importantly, fans could also choose the part of the stadium to which their audio was delivered, allowing them to support players after a goal, as if they were in the stands behind it.
On how real the spectators look and feel in the live telecast will also depend on how many of the IPL cameras are able to be synched in with the virtual ads on the perimeter and the scoreboards. That split second timing is the crucial ‘realness’ of the experience. In the Fox coverage so far of the baseball games, they have been able to manage one out of ten cameras. If they can get up to four out of ten in sync, the visual impact will be enhanced manifolds.
From initial suggestions in March when the pandemic triggered the postponement of the League, for filling the stadium with cardboard cutouts to where technology will be able to place thousands of recreated fans digitally onto seats, this is great progress. Only the ethical question remains whether we will then be watching cricket or a circus version of it, enhanced or photo-shopped by editors in a studio? Is the make-believe really necessary? That the game being held in tough times is not a consolation in itself that we should be able to covet and celebrate, without wanting to additionally pine for the bells and whistles?
Any case, let us wait and watch. It will all be good fun. Who knows, they may even be able to manage to have Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh dancing in the stands for opposing teams, all virtually … with Alia and Deepika clapping from the corporate boxes! Whoa! I’m lovin’ it!
Carol Goyal, a Mumbai based writer, loves the game of cricket. She is keenly following its new trajectory into virtual replication and augmented reality.