At RIT, Tech Students Become Sports Technicians

By Carolyn Braff

Students at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) have always been tech-savvy, but now that both their men’s and women’s hockey teams are ranked in the top 10 of their respective divisions, the students have become sports-savvy as well. To help advance both of those fronts, RIT students and staff have built a mobile-production truck from scratch — in about four months — enabling students to get the live-broadcast experience that was once missing from the school’s Educational Technology Center program.

For the past five years, RIT has produced a weekly half-hour show showcasing the university’s athletic programs.

SportsZone airs on Time Warner Cable and locally on ESPN2 in the Upstate New York market. So, when the cable system asked the university to start taping more of its games — especially those of its Division I men’s hockey team — to air live on the local sports channel, the timing was right to improve the school’s facilities.

James Bober, lead engineer at Educational Technology Center Engineering Services, took the lead in advising on the design for the mobile-production truck, although the students did the majority of the work.

“The trailer itself was bought as an empty shell,” says Bober, who spent 20 years working in broadcast television before coming to RIT. “We designed and built the whole facility. My background is in working for different manufacturers that worked in the mobile realm of broadcast television, so it wasn’t foreign territory for me.”

RIT purchased a 24-foot video- and audio-production trailer from TecNec, the VPTR-24, which is priced at $28,995. It came equipped only with racks, carpeting, and consoles, and the RIT students went to work designing and outfitting it. With the first men’s hockey game looming on Oct. 17, a normal 9- to 12-month process had to be completed in four months. Darren Hansen, a graduate student in network-systems administration, drew up the plans for the truck and handed them over to fifth-year electrical-engineering student Andrzej Lubaska after Labor Day. More than 17,000 feet of cable and wires was cut between mid September and the first week in October, setting the stage for the first production in mid October.

“We picked the individual elements in the truck based upon requirements of what our product needed to be, my familiarity with equipment, and the reliability of the vendors chosen,” Bober explains. “The truck is fully high-definition and fully capable of both HD and SD simultaneous output.”

Anchored by a 24-input Grass Valley Kayak 150 HD-SDI switcher, the truck houses five Panasonic AG-HPX500 P2 HD cameras with Fujinon lenses, which can be used as standalone ENG units as well. Two Panasonic 50-inch plasma screens coupled with a 32-input Harris Zandar Predator II multiviewer serve as the monitor wall, and a Yamaha M7CL 40×16 digital mixer handles the audio capabilities (a Mackie 1402 is on board for backup). The microphone complement includes nine Crown PCC 160s, four Sennheiser K6 shotguns, two Shure SM63 interview mics, and lavalier, wireless, and table microphones.

Also on board is a DNF four-way ST300-T slow-mo controller, Clearcom PIC-4702 Program Interrupt Controller, four Panasonic AJ-HPM110P P2 decks, an AJ-SD93 DVCPro deck for backup, two JBL LSR6325P powered speakers and metering by Wohler, Evertz dual HD-SDI/SD-SDI closed-caption encoder and corresponding decoders, and Vinten Vision 11 and Vision 100 tripods.

The truck is fully HD-capable, but, since Time Warner and ESPN currently take an SD 4:3 signal, Bober’s team must downconvert its signal before sending it to the cable company.

“We are working with Time Warner so that, as they upgrade their infrastructure to be putting sports out in high-definition, we are ready, willing, and able to move forward instantly,” says Bober.

The

SportsZone program is part of the Educational Technology Center but is purely extracurricular, so a staff of 10 students works with an engineering and production staff to train on the state-of-the-art equipment.

“As we’re doing live events, it’s a combination of full-time staff, some freelancers, and students in the truck, probably about a 50-50 split at present time,” Bober explains. “We’re looking at probably 10-12 students between working in the truck and on-camera, but ultimately, as we gear up and are able to train more students, that figure will weigh considerably heavier onto students as opposed to staff or outside contractors.”

Currently, the RIT staff is responsible for two hockey games a weekend, which translates into about six hours of on-air programming, but Bober’s team is in the process of scheduling coverage for lacrosse and basketball as well. There is also talk of covering away games next year, as well as the possibility of renting the RIT truck to other local universities.

No matter where the truck ends up, the Rochester, NY, television market is on the verge of an influx of sports programming, courtesy of a group of talented student engineers-turned-sports-technicians at RIT.