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Same Game, New Rules: New Technology for Sports and News

Sports people love numbers. They love statistics and percentages. They lovescrutinizing not only the headline heroics but the stranger, more obscurearithmetic of the nation’s pastimes. And if Stephen Salvatore of Open TVhas his way, sports fans, specifically baseball fans, everywhere will soonbe feasting on more information than they have ever dreamed of-and all viatheir remote controls.

Mountain View, California-based Open TV creates operating software fordigital set-top boxes. Those systems basically grant a free pass forviewers to access additional data in a broadcast, different graphicaloverlays, alternate camera angles…the possibilities are still evolving.”We’re hardware-independent,” explains Salvatore, the company’s VP/creativedirector. “Whether someone has satellite TV, terrestrial, or cable doesn’tmatter, as long as the box is digital.”

According to Salvatore, sports coverage is the perfect forum for suchinteractive technology. “People want to get statistics, and producers havea limited amount of time to get those statistics out there,” he claims.”Viewers might see 10 to 15 percent of the information. It’s resident inthe character generator in the truck, anyway; they just don’t have thetime. There’s also the e-commerce model, people who want to buy a teamjersey, for instance.”

Salvatore says European broadcasters have shown early interest in Open TV.”At the soccer finals in England, satellite broadcasters-who have so muchbandwidth-will stream a camera behind a goalie on its own channel, plus ISOcameras on additional channels.” He also points to TPS, a Frenchbroadcaster whose main competitor is Canal+. “They don’t have the sportsrights Canal+ has,” he explains. “So they needed to come up with optionsfor their customers. They have about 25 interactive services right now: aprogram guide, car sales, an exhibit from the Louvre.” The program guide iswhere most European customers have gotten their feet wet, says Salvatore.Instead of waiting for conventional program guides to slowly scroll downthe screen, viewers can call up information by channel with a click of theremote. Similarly, Open TV has been working with EchoStar to make thebroadcaster’s weather services more convenient. Again, instead of waitingfor their region’s forecast, viewers can tap into MPEG-2 streamingtechnology for immediate answers.

Clearly, these advantages will not seem groundbreaking to advocates ofWeb-based TV technology. But Salvatore says Open TV is a different animalaltogether. “It has nothing to do with the Internet. It goes over the airalong with the TV broadcast, in synch with the audio and video. It’sdesigned for TV, not for the PC. I think it’s a mistake to believe peoplewant the PC experience with their television. Our goal is to have peoplesurf within a broadcast, not away from it.”

Getting back to baseball, Fox Sports has been using Frost, Discreet’sreal-time graphics generator, in covering major league games on the FoxSaturday Game of the Week. Fox Sports actually rolled out its new baseballlook entirely with Frost, including game score, players’ hot hitting zones,commercial notices, and the network’s trademark FoxBox.

Vice president of sports design Gary Hartley explains the journey withFrost began with January’s Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. “We purchased Frostlast summer under the guise of juicing up our studio show. We went througha lot of experimentation with the interface. For the Super Bowl, we hadFrost running the FoxBox and our lower-third graphics. The FoxBox wouldtumble down and open up into moving video.”

Hartley says the evolution of the FoxBox played a big part in testing theparameters of Frost. “We’d used Shoreline Studios software to create theFoxBox. That company merged with Pinnacle, so the software wasn’t supportedanymore. So we went to work creating a new one. We were also working onspecific animations for the All-Star Game, as well as player interstitials.Carlos Aguero stayed here one night real late, taught himself Frost, andcame up with an interstitial that uses a 3D move.”

Hartley continues: “Once we had a camera move, Carlos rendered out thelayers in [Adobe] After Effects and used Frost to texture-map them ontodifferent planes and depth. We composited that in [Quantel] Hal withdifferent team colors. Now, every week, [Frost artist] Despina DeMesquitabuilds player names from the roster.”

Hartley and company run Frost on SGI O2 machines. “When you’re doing eightbaseball games a week, an O2 is nice because you get full motion,” he says.”We’ll import an Onyx if we’re streaming video. We still run intospots-specific problems, and Frost isn’t a perfect product yet. But you cansee that it will be. Even with a 2D look, the ability to stream data isessential.”

When CBS contracted Reality Check, Hollywood to create the look for itscoverage of last fall’s NFL season, the facility turned to Everest, areal-time graphics system from Austrian company Peak. “After initialstoryboards, we went to New York to advise them on packages to buy,”recalls creative director Kory Jones. “I like Everest because I can use itas I would a 3D application to create animations. Then, instead of enteringtext for a player’s name, I’ll put in a variable for the name instead. Italso takes a data stream, which populates the variables in our animations.The NT system that drives the animation system will take a data feed fromanything: a serial digital feed from the scoreboard, a sports ticker, anational sports database.” Jones explains that each CBS truck on site isequipped with an SGI Onyx 2, that is in turn tied to a Windows NT machine.The Everest software is manned by an Everest operator where a Chyronoperator would formerly work in the chain. “CBS gives us their Onyx 2 boxesin the off-season,” says Jones, relating how Reality Check gets to push thetechnology in its down time.

“Another big benefit is all these machines at the site get hooked up withan ISDN line,” he continues. “We can e-mail stuff or get information fromthe Internet to send to the trucks or to CBS. We’re still learning howflexible these systems are. In a live-event environment, it’s a hugebenefit to be able to edit from afar.”

To further stretch how Everest could be used, programmer Scott Paskodeveloped a cloth simulation tool, which the team at Reality Check turnedinto a plug-in for their NFL work. For Kory Jones, it’s just anotherexample of how technology is rapidly overhauling how sports are brought tothe viewer. “Now we’re seeing solutions where camera data is pumping into areal-time 3D solution, and that data drives the virtual camera. The cameramoves in the real world, but you can create a fake system or a first downline, for example. There are so many things we know we can do-it’s just amatter of the industry understanding what can be done. All the things in games like ‘Quake,’ which are real-time rendered games, are ideaswe’ll be able to integrate with real environments.”

No discussion about new technology in sports would be complete without areport from the HDTV frontier. To that end, Panasonic announces itspartnership with ABC to broadcast Monday Night Football in 720 progressive.The show, Panasonic claims, will be the first live, regularly scheduled HDsporting event in prime time. The two companies will also collaborate on anHD broadcast of Super Bowl XXXIV next January. At press time, Panasonic wasin the midst of constructing a 720p mobile production truck for ABC’s NFLcoverage.

“We’ve worked with Panasonic from the start,” says ABC’s president ofbroadcast operations and engineering Preston A. Davis. “They partnered withus to build HD control rooms to feed The Wonderful World of Disney. ABC haslong believed sports programming is going to drive HDTV, and we saw this asan opportunity to test-market that.” Davis defends the company’s commitmentto the 720p format and even downplays the importance of it. “Aesthetically,progressive images produce better pictures; history will prove that. Ifinterlaced pictures were sharper, computer screens would be interlacedpictures. Also, the future of media will clearly see a convergence. Mediafinds its way onto TV sets, computer screens, etc., and progressive imageswill play better in a converged world. Third, we believe the real driver ofHD into homes is not going to be in huge, heavy CRT display devices, butrather in flat-panel display devices, which are inherently progressive.”

The current plan for ABC’s NFL coverage is to have two production teams:one for the HD broadcast and one for the analog production. Davis explains,”The HDTV truck, by necessity, will share some facilities with the analogtruck. We’ll have the same talent in the anchor booth, for instance. We’llhave to upconvert the analog feed to put them on the air [digitally]. Wemay also have to upconvert some of the instant replays and graphics. Wehope that at some point in the season we can marry these two productions,so our game cameras are actually HD cameras but offering a 4:3down-converted output. We’d like to ultimately not need six camerapositions.”

If high-definition television is the hot topic in sports production thesedays, the virtual set is likely its counterpart on the news productionside. North of the border, ONtv in Hamilton, Ontario, recently invested inOrad’s CyberSet O system and started implementing it in live newsbroadcasts in June. John McFadyen, director of news at ONtv, points outthat daily, live broadcasts with virtual sets are still a rare animal-oneither side of the border.

“We had our set delivered in January and installed that in our blue room,”he recounts. “We’ve worked with the O system from about the beginning ofApril in rehearsal, just working things out. The area in our building we’veset aside for news production has a 10-foot ceiling; there’s not a lot wecould do with that, and this just changes the rules completely.”

McFadyen says the station is currently broadcasting three hours a day fromthe CyberSet, which is the home for news anchors, weather broadcasts, and aregular feature on health. ONtv is employing a set purchased from DevlinDesign Group, San Diego. “We bought more than one set from Devlin,” saysMcFadyen, “but we haven’t even used the second one yet. We could create anenvironment for commercial production, station promo, independentproductions. With an electronic artist who’s capable, you can do anythingyou want.”

John Jarrett, systems integration project leader, explains why ONtvcommitted to Orad’s system instead of competing technologies: “The typicalV-set involves camera sensors in order to render the model correctly. Withthe Orad system, that’s accomplished by an optical pattern in the setitself. The camera has to only see the grid, and it extracts the imageitself. An infrared camera attached to the set tells the difference betweenzooms and dollies.” Jarrett says investing in a camera sensor-based systemwould have proved costly due to the need for converting the camerasthemselves. “We had just purchased Sony cameras. With the Orad CyberSet, wedidn’t have to upgrade them or go through extensive calibration. Youcalibrate each camera lens for the optical effects on the grid-it takesabout 30 seconds-and you can then move the cameras as you want. With somesystems, you have to recalibrate before each camera move.”

rom the above the border to across the pond, the BBC has forged a unionwith Teleglobe Communications Corporation, the Reston, Virginia-basedtelecommunications and broadcast transmission provider. The BBC willtransmit live news events over Teleglobe’s Asynchronous Transfer Mode(ATM)-based, fiber-optic video network. This makes Teleglobe the firstprovider of undersea, fiber-optic, trans-Atlantic broadcast transmissionsfor the English broadcaster.

“Before ATM, you couldn’t set up compressed MPEG service over fiberoptics,” notes Tom Fabian, director of broadcast global marketing forTeleglobe. “Combining ATM and MPEG gives broadcasters a clear signal, highquality, high reliability with zero piracy.” Fabian reports the BBC hasalready voiced praise for the connection in covering stateside events likethe Clinton impeachment hearings and State Department briefings on Kosovo.”They don’t have to endure the latency you get with satellite hops. Areporter in New York can conduct a talkback with someone in London, andthere’s less than 300 milliseconds of delay.”

Teleglobe is also establishing an interesting link for the CanadianBroadcast Corporation’s coverage of next year’s Olympics from Sydney.”We’re providing the transmission out of Sydney via satellite,” describesFabian. “Then, we’ll have our downlinks in Vancouver. From there, we’llfiber it to Toronto. It’s a hybrid solution that will really work forsports programmers.”

Fabian concludes: “If you’re covering international sporting events,especially a Pay-Per-View, like boxing, you have to have security andquality of signal. With increasing bandwidth, you’re going to see a hugeexpansion. It should be interesting for the video producer. They’re goingto enter a plug-and-play world.”

The groovy graphics for the Summer X Games were almost infinitely flexibleand could be customized on the fly during broadcast thanks to a modulardesign by Vanessa Marzaroli and Jens Gehlar at Fuel, Santa Monica. At theGames in San Francisco, an ESPN artist, under supervision from Fuelanimators, used a Quantel Hal to recombine multiple 2D and 3D elements withlive footage elements. The many animated elements were created at Fuel onMacs with Electric Image, Discreet’s 3D Studio MAX, and Adobe After Effects.

Fuel’s new Discreet Flame sped the compositing chores, says animator LenieRamos, and a “tool box” approach to delivering the graphics allowed the XGames broadcast look to be as spontaneous as the athletes.

ESPN recently used Lucent Technologies’ LucentVision, a real-timeinformation and analysis system for sports broadcasters, in its broadcastof the ATP Tour’s Newsweek Champions Cup tournament. The technology usescomputer vision techniques to track the position, direction, and speed of atennis player. Future uses will include virtual replays and Internetsimulcasts.

LucentVision replays are available at the ATP Tour Web Visit Murray Hill, New Jersey-based Lucent Technologies’site at for more information on the technology.

USA Networks chose two of Pinnacle’s FXDeko character generators for itscoverage of the French Open tennis tournament in May. FXDeko (for WindowsNT) includes more animation and 3D image transform capabilities than mostother CGs. Using Pinnacle’s BroadNet network, FXDeko can incorporateoff-line graphics generated by the software-only PostDeko. FXDeko canbrowse and import graphics from Quantel, Chyron, SGI, Mac, and otherWindows graphics systems.