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The End of Authenticity

So far, the widely witnessed applications of real-time video manipulation have been in benign arenas like sports and entertainment. Already last year, however, the technology began diffusing beyond these venues into applications that raised eyebrows. Last fall, for instance, CBS hired PVI to virtually insert the network’s familiar logo all over New York City-on buildings, billboards, fountains and other places-during broadcasts of the network’s The Early Show. The New York Times ran a front-page story in January raising questions about the journalistic ethics of altering the appearance of what is really there.

The combination of real-time virtual insertion, cyber-puppeteering, video rewriting and other video manipulation technologies with a mass-media infrastructure that instantly delivers news video worldwide has some analysts worried. “Imagine you are the government of a hypothetical country that wants more international financial assistance,” says George Washington University’s Livingston. “You might send video of a remote area with people starving to death and it may never have happened,” he says.

Haseltine agrees. “I’m amazed that we have not seen phony video,” he says, before backpedaling a bit: “Maybe we have. Who would know?”

It’s just the sort of scenario played out in the 1998 movie Wag the Dog, in which top presidential aides conspire with a Hollywood producer to televise a virtually crafted war between the United States and Albania to deflect attention from a budding Presidential scandal. Haseltine and others wonder when reality will imitate art imitating reality.

The importance of the issue will only intensify as the technology becomes more accessible. What now typically requires an $80,000 box of electronics the size of a small refrigerator should soon be doable with a palm-sized card (and ultimately a single chip) that fits inside a commercial video recorder, according to Winarsky. “This will be available to people in Circuit City,” he says. Consumer gear for virtual video insertion is likely to require a camcorder with a specialized image-processing card or chip. This hardware will take signals from the camera’s electronic image sensors and convert them into a form that can be analyzed and manipulated in a computer using appropriate software-much as photo editors at newspapers use Adobe Photoshop and other programs to “clean up” digital image files. A home user might, for instance, insert absent family members into the latest reunion tape or remove strangers they would prefer not to be in the scene-bringing Soviet-style historical revisions right into the family den.

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