Network: Now you see it, now you don't

Tobacco advertising on Formula One cars need not have been a problem for New Labour, if only it had known about a system that can remove offending advertising from your TV screen. David Fox reports.
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A new television device from the Israeli company Orad can automatically replace existing ads at sporting events with alternative ones, so Bernie Ecclestone's racing cars could keep their cigarette ads and the Government could simply prevent viewers from seeing them.

Orad's IMadGINE system can insert up to 32 different, 2D, 3D or even animated graphics boards anywhere in a live television picture, or replace existing advertising hoardings, or even change existing ads around - perhaps giving more prominence to one set of ads in one country than in another. Orad is currently developing a "country box" that will automatically tailor the message to fit.

IMadGINE has been tested at 25 events, including soccer matches, ice hockey, baseball and basketball, and in all sorts of weather. In one impressive demonstration it placed a floating advertising hoarding in the sky above the carnival crowds in Rio. In another it covered the sea with a Budweiser ad (making water sports more appealing to sponsors). It can even show reflections from a non-existent ad on a rain-soaked track, and ads placed in the centre circle of a football pitch don't mask any of the players running across it (which looks really weird when it's an animation).

It doesn't matter whether the camera is moving; the ad stays where it should be, and "it can operate with unlimited numbers of cameras", says Orad's president, Avi Sharir. "We can put information on the playing field or on the crowds" - without blocking their view.

However, Orad's high ethical standards may prevent Tony Blair from taking advantage of IMadGINE. "We decided from the beginning not to do such a thing as to change a person's face or to put an ad on a mobile object, such as a car. We will only put them on objects which could conceivably be an advertising hoarding," says Mr Sharir.

To ensure that IMadGINE users remain on-side, Orad ( intends to keep hold of how the technology is used, either through licensing users or hiring it out itself. This would seem to mean that it can't be used to replace tobacco logos on racing cars, but several other companies already use similar techniques. Britain's leading broadcast equipment manufacturer, Quantel, includes sophisticated motion tracking in its TV and film special effects devices.

However, as Mr Sharir says, sports are particularly difficult to work with because of the fast movements, rapid cuts between cameras, and players milling about, and "existing technology is not suitable for sports applications". It based its pattern recognition, motion tracking and object replacement systems on technology it used for missile tracking, so it should certainly keep up with even the fastest drivers. However, if Orad can't be persuaded to offer them to broadcasters for Formula One, there are still four years for someone else to develop a rival system to meet the European Union's deadline banning tobacco ads on cars. So the Government could sign up to the directive next week, if the directive were amended to forbid such advertising being shown on TV. This might cause problems for ITV, but if such live ad replacement were used instead of interrupting live action with commercial breaks, then Formula One fans would feel a lot happier about ITV retaining the rights.

Orad's innovative technology is already on display in Britain. Sky uses two of its sports devices: Digital Replay, an analysis tool which automatically tracks players and the ball, and shows offside lines, etc, and Virtual Replay, which creates animated 3D graphics of the action from angles not covered by the real cameras, such as the referee's eye view (just the thing for settling disputed goals). It also makes a virtual studio system used by Mollinaire, a leading London TV facility companies, and is doing work on the Internet using some of its sports technology.