Broadcasters, Coaches Ride Villanova’s Wavecam

By Carolyn Braff

No matter the number of camera positions installed in a basketball arena, there are some looks that stationary cameras simply cannot capture. Enter Wavecam — an indoor version of the Skycam system — and the camera angles available within that arena multiply exponentially.

A set of two aerial, robotic, mobile cameras tethered to an overhead trolley, Wavecam enables fans, coaches, and players to see the action from a whole new set of perspectives and has applications far beyond the ESPN broadcast that has already used the feed.

Engineering for Sport(s)

The Wavecam was designed by Ed Dougherty, a visiting assistant professor of engineering at Villanova University, who was a member of Emmy Award-winning team that designed the HD version of Skycam. A Villanova alumnus, Dougherty used Jake Nevin Field House as the testing ground for the system, which consists of two cameras: one that runs the length of the court, along the sideline, and one that runs the width of the court, along the baseline.

“Typically, we’re going back and forth along the sideline, but we can also move vertically. So, as we’re going back and forth, we can be at any height,” Dougherty explains. “Of course, we can pan, tilt, zoom, and focus while we’re doing that.”

Moving the two cameras along a network of durable cables is relatively simple; stabilizing them is much more complex.

“We wanted to make the camera system as small as practical so that, in an indoor venue, it wouldn’t be annoying to fans,” Dougherty explains, noting that, at 5 feet high and fairly wide, Skycam would block court views as it flew around an indoor venue. “We have the minimum number of motors in the camera system itself, and, above it, we have something called a trolley that is out of the field of view.”

The Secret’s in the Platform

The 10-foot-wide trolley houses the cameras’ motors and traverses the venue on DuraTech cables suspended in the rafters. Each camera hangs down from the trolley on thin, durable fiber cables like a marionette — or, as Dougherty says, a spider hanging on a strand of its web. At the heart of the camera stabilization is a Stewart platform, a parallel manipulator platform that he first worked with in designing a flight simulator for NASA.

“We took the concept of the Stewart platform, a six-legged platform that is the most efficient way you can move and stabilize an object in 3D space, flipped it upside down, and use that for stabilization,” Dougherty explains. “We have motors at the top that are constantly moving and keeping the cables in tension.”

Pricing Below the Sky

Dougherty describes the Wavecam system as a lower-cost, easier-to-use version of the Skycam.

“The system isn’t less sophisticated, but it’s less complex,” he says. “It actually has additional ways to make revenue on it, whereas, as far as I know, a Skycam really only has the one means of revenue, which is to sell the video signal.”

Having the system permanently in place in a university venue allows it to be leased out for various uses — as Villanova did when Chris Matthews’ Hardball tour came through town and used the system to televise a John McCain appearance on MSNBC. Just as important, having the trolley visible but not intrusive turns it into a flying billboard, which Villanova has taken advantage of by selling the space to Nike.

The installation of a Wavecam takes about two weeks from scouting to completion. Once installed, the system turns on with the flip of a switch.

“Our market is colleges, junior colleges, and maybe eventually even high schools,” Dougherty says. “We would love to do the Super Bowl, but our main interest is in being a permanent installation in all these other venues: colleges, Division III schools, high schools.”

Streaming the Wave

In addition to sending the Wavecam feed to network broadcasters, Villanova’s athletic department uses the system for any game that is not televised, utilizing the cameras for its Nova Nation All-Access video-streaming subscription service. A single operator — often Dougherty — can run the system alone, although a team of two — a pilot and an operator — is brought in for high-profile games. The pilot is responsible for moving the camera platform while the operator handles pan, tilt, zoom, and focus functions.

Any camera can be integrated into the Wavecam system. Villanova currently uses a lower-cost prosumer camera, although Panasonic HD cameras with Fujinon lenses are on the way.

“We have fiber optics through everything,” Dougherty says, “from the camera on through the truck.”

Broadcast Booth to Coaching Booth

In addition to being a boon for fans and streaming viewers, the Wavecam system is in use as a coaching tool at Penn State, where it has been installed at the Nittany Lions’ football practice facility.

“Coaches really enjoy having the ability to break down film that’s been captured by Wavecam because it can show things in a way that players can understand them much clearer,” explains Patrick Plunkett, senior account executive at Wavecam. “At Penn State’s practice facility, the Wavecam has eliminated the need for high lifts or crow’s nests, so it’s made them much more efficient.”

The new camera angles give position coaches the ability to monitor players’ footwork and handwork better than ever before.

Expanding Horizons

The Wavecam supplier — now just three years old — currently has 11 employees and, in addition to its two installations at Villanova and Penn State, is in talks with colleges in the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10 Conferences, as well as NFL indoor practice facilities and NHL teams.

“Everyone is looking for ways to make their broadcasts more appealing,” Plunkett says. “We are extremely fortunate that Wavecam has been so well received. We have never had a bad meeting.”