Vizr.TV: Rapid evolution to the cloud

Published 21.04.2020
No doubt the corona situation puts companies in a difficult situation. But most of the Media Cluster Companies excel in digital communication, even when you need to set up your own TV channel in a couple of days to reach your customers. Read the story from Chris Black, Head of Brand and Content in Vizrt, on how Vizr.TV was born.

Vizrt is a software company that creates the world’s best software-defined visual storytelling tools for the world’s top broadcasters. Our mission is to help them deliver: more stories, better told.

Using our own tools to help achieve our mission was part of a plan hatched in the fall of 2019. By walking in our customers’ shoes, we theorized, we’ll learn more about our customers’ experience in a real, live broadcast environment, and consequently be able to better serve them.

Vizr.TV: Chris Black, Vizrt, coming to you live from his own living room. 

Vizr.TV was originally launched as a medium to communicate internally with employees. With more than 700 employees in 30 offices globally, we believe it is extremely important to ensure that every employee understands and believes in the strategic vision of the company and is aligned with our plans. We wanted Vizr.TV to be an inspiration point where we were bringing our key messages to our own people using our own tools – ‘drinking our own champagne,’ if you will. This would buy us time to build skills, work out the kinks, and polish our live production capabilities before launching it onto the world.

Then along came COVID-19 which accelerated our plans by about a year.

COVID-19 accelerates our plans
It became clear early on that major tradeshows like NAB in Las Vegas in April were going to be impacted by COVID-19, so we began looking at taking Vizr.TV public much earlier than we had planned. We started by beefing up the infrastructure we had in our main office in Bergen, Norway. We built a new control room and green screen studio and used our internal townhalls as rehearsals, testing new platforms and seeing what was possible. Our original goal was by the week of NAB (April 19), a local team would be in place in Las Vegas, while we would perform product demonstrations and virtual set shows from our Bergen office, and live stream it to our booth at NAB.

COVID-19 shuts down Norway and Austria
Suddenly we found ourselves unable to staff Vizr.TV neither from Bergen nor Austria, where we have our most robust office studios. So, we had to come up with a new plan. We had this fantastic studio that we could not use. It turns out our customers were in the exact same boat. How can we use this situation to help our customers? Let’s see if we can build a fully distributed remote production - and do it in very high quality. No laptop web cam calls allowed as a main video source.

We came up with a plan to distribute production across sites, again, relying on our own technology. Since I am the main host, I would put the studio in my living room in my flat in central Bergen. Vegard Elgesem, product manager for our Automation tools, would put the control room in his spare room at his house just outside of Bergen in Fana, Norway. We would utilize the green screen in Austria for virtual set shows and leverage our network of Viz Vectar software-defined production switchers we had distributed at peoples’ homes for demos around the world.

Vegard’s head in the cloud(s) 
Then Vegard made a suggestion. Let’s put the entire production in the cloud. Let’s virtualize our workflow. If we’re going to accelerate Vizr.TV to go public, let’s accelerate our use of our own as-yet-unreleased cloud product, something we’ve been working on for quite a while. We’ve been using instances of Viz Engine in the cloud for a couple years with a few proof-of-concepts and testing both Viz Vectar and Viz Mosart (our automation platform) in the cloud. Vegard, along with TJ Akhtar from our UK office, and Jorge Dighero from our Miami office, built an entire cloud infrastructure inside Microsoft’s Azure cloud product with all our systems virtualized. It works and it works well!  

The control room is located in the home of Vegard Elgesem, Product Manager for Automation, Vizrt.  

Next were the cameras
We moved Panasonic PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras into our homes. How do we get the great looking signal from these cameras to the virtualized production control systems? Well, we could do it with Skype. Using SkypeTX, a professional broadcast-grade of Skype built natively into Viz Vectar, we can make Skype calls directly in to the Viz Vectar and use that as a source. SkypeTX gives you professional grade tools to color correct and adjust incoming audio levels on remote Skype feeds and a host of other tools like tally and more. We use it to interview customers for some of our shows. But, what about the main production? We wanted the best possible picture and not risk connection degredation with Skype. Again, Vegard had a great idea – harnessing the power of NDI, our own IP standard. The NDI upload system takes the signal from our cameras and makes them directly discoverable as sources for the virtualized Viz Vectar. The result is great, and the picture quality is fantastic.

Time to go live
After NAB was fully cancelled, we decided to free ourselves of the tradeshow’s scheduling constraints and we built up a fairly ambitious schedule over a six-week period covering many different topics that are relevant to what the entire industry is facing today. See the full schedule here: Vizr.TV and NewTek.TV.

Unlike a tradeshow where we repeat the same presentation over and over, each show is unique with its own set of challenges. We are using the base infrastructure we created with some variants each time. Our crew is very small. I am the host. Vegard is the director and sometimes cohost and presenter. Nicolas Damuni is our creative director working remotely from his home in Paris. We also brought in Jorge Dighero from his home in Miami to direct the version for the west coast U.S. Since all the systems are in the cloud, we are free to produce shows from anywhere and test the system in real world conditions as we ready our tools for release to the market.

There are a lot of others also working on this project. R&D is providing support with the software. Professional Services is providing design for the graphics package. Support is, well, supporting us in every possible way. Sales is helping with getting customers to tune in to the shows. And, of course, Marketing is providing assistance with the entire production on a daily basis. In every instance, every group is relying on each other, gathering invaluable information and learning new things every step of the way.

Another Vizrt colleague, Product Manager Nicolas Damuni, located in Paris, is connecting to the systems in the cloud from his control room.

Has it run perfectly?
Umm. No. One thing that we had to admit early on was the fact that we are not a TV station and we will never be a TV station. We are a software company that creates the world’s best software-defined visual storytelling tools for TV stations. As it takes a master painter to create a masterpiece - even with the best of tools - we are not professional TV producers. It’s been 18 years since I ended my career at TV stations where I was a director and joined the “dark side” (vendors). Our customers are the master painters and they create masterpieces with our tools every day all over the world. Our job is to give them the greatest paintbrush the world has ever seen.

We, on the other hand, are doing this on the side of our day jobs with a skeleton crew. We’ve had issues with audio, shot framing, lip sync, color correction, graphics design, music, lighting - all the things that TV stations have professionals available to get right on a day to day basis.

Why launch one channel when you can do two?
Not only did we launch Vizr.TV, but simultaneously we also launched NewTek.TV for the Pro AV market. NewTek.TV is run from San Antonio, Texas using entirely NewTek tools such as TriCaster and TalkShow. Vizr.TV is based in Bergen but can be controlled from anywhere. The virtual set productions will be based in Vomp, Austria with remote connection to our studio in Bergen starting 27th April.

Each show is getting better as we learn more on a day to day basis. The products are getting better too, as we stress test and adjust. We’re thrilled with what we’ve already been able to do in the cloud with our own products. For us in Marketing, it was like looking into the future and liking what you see. A hopeful first taste of new champagne yet to be bottled. The information our Professional Services and Support teams gathered will go a long way towards serving our customers better. We’ll continue to learn and produce better and better shows that regularly bring the best of what Vizrt does to our customers globally. Mostly, it is helping us develop a set of products which will continue to allow them to deliver: More stories, better told.

Chris Black, Head of Brand and Content in Vizrt.

Want to learn more?
Tune in to our Tech Talks on Friday April 24 – "Behind the scenes of VizrTV":