FutureSPORT Preview: Next-Generation High-Speed Cameras Hit the Market

In just a few short years, high-speed cameras have been elevated from a luxury item used on only the most high-profile sports productions to a commonplace, even necessary tool used in everything from an RSN’s regular-season baseball game to a major network’s A game. At SVG’s FutureSPORT event on May 23, a panel of leading high-speed–camera vendors will address this rapidly changing segment of the sports-production industry.

High-speed cameras have become common for even lower-profile productions.

“The growth of high-speed cameras can only be described as explosive,” says Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman. “It is a must-have feature for many shows now. We commonly hear from networks that they feel it is the best bang for their buck in terms of special additions to their show.”

Adds Fletcher Chicago VP Dan Grainge, “These high-speed cameras went from being a high-priced tool that only the highest-end customers could have to something that is even affordable to RSNs, which are demanding it on a daily basis.”

This monumental rise in demand has caused high-speed–camera vendors and integrators to up their game by exponentially advancing the capabilities of these camera systems almost annually. Never was this rapid technological advancement more obvious than at the NAB Show last month, where two major new cameras enjoyed a coming-out party on the show floor: the NAC Hi Motion II (developed by NAC Image Technology and Ikegami) three-chip camera and Vision Research’s Phantom v642 single-chip camera.

NAC Has a Knack for Live Sports
A three-chip sensor in the NAC Hi-Motion II allows the camera to better color-match normal frame-rate cameras and, therefore, to be used as a live switchable camera for game coverage.

More than 30 NAC Hi Motion II cameras have been shipped in North America, Europe, and Australia since the camera hit the market in January, according the company. After receiving glowing reviews during NBC’s Super Bowl XLVI coverage, the camera continues to be in extremely high demand.

“The Super Bowl was when [mainstream] people started to take notice of what was happening,” says Andy Hayford, international sales manager, NAC Image Technology. “Now we’re in the fortunate position where our customers would take more if we had more to deliver.”

Phantom Gets a Facelift
The third generation of the Phantom camera adds Multi-Matrix Color Correction Technology, which allows it to accurately color-match to normal frame-rate cameras and thus to be used as a live camera during game coverage.

“The 642 is specifically focused on the broadcast market, and it brings in the ability to color-match existing broadcast cameras,” says Patrick Ott de Vries, broadcast business manager, Vision Research. “The major reason for that was customer demand and feedback.”

Established Phantom integrators Inertia Unlimited and I-MOVIX have already jumped aboard the v642 train, rolling it out in the latest X-Mo and X10 systems, respectively. Rental house Fletcher Chicago is currently upgrading its I-MOVIX systems to the v642.

Mobile TV Group, which integrates its own Phantom v640 and v641 ultra-slo-mo systems and makes them available as part of its mobile-production trucks’ camera complement, is currently testing the v642 but is still using 640 and 641 cameras.

The New Kid on the Block
At the NAB Show, AbelCine unveiled its Live Sports System, which integrates a Phantom v642 with Sony camera controls and EVS playback controls. Although AbelCine has worked with the Phantom camera in the entertainment sector for several years, the system marks the company’s first foray into live sports.

“We are offering standard Sony equipment integrated with the Phantom and with EVS-compatibility, so it looks and feels like a [typical broadcast camera],” says Moe Shore. director of business development and strategic relations, AbelCine. “We think the market has reached a level of maturity where this type of system integration with brand-name components will be welcomed.”

Taking It Live
Both the NAC and Phantom cameras address end users’ most popular request: to be able to deploy a high-speed camera as a live game camera without creating a noticeable difference for the viewer.

“It all goes to trying to make this thing look exactly like every other camera on the truck,” says Silverman. “The holy grail is to be able to use these as live-switch cameras because no one can afford to have two cameras sitting side-by-side.”

Both the Hi-Motion II and the Phantom v242 (in the I-MOVIX, Inertia Unlimited, or AbelCine integration) are capable of dual-stream live and slow-motion recording, but the key is color-matching the high-speed cameras so that the output looks identical to the standard game-coverage cameras.

“Customers have told us that our new Hi Motion II is just as good, if not better than the live output,” says Hayford. “The top-tier shows can afford to have a camera that is just for replay, but the mid-level shows can’t afford that, and they need a camera that can be used for both live and replay. We can now accomplish that.”

Compare and Contrast in the Field
Fletcher Chicago currently counts a dozen I-MOVIX Phantom-powered systems and a dozen NAC Hi-Motion II systems in its inventory. According to Grainge, the NAC cameras lend themselves to applications that require 500 frames per second (fps) or lower, and the I-MOVIX systems are suited for shows that require more than 500 or even 1,000 fps (motorsports, golf, etc.).

Their suitability also depends greatly on the position in which the camera will be deployed: the NAC is smaller and lighter than the fully assembled I-MOVIX system, and the standalone Phantom v642 is smaller than both.

“They clearly have specific applications where one works better than the other, and vice versa,” says Grainge. “They are both great leaps forward, and they can both excel in the right application. But neither one of them is the final package or holy grail for all applications.”

The Key: Lifespan vs. Investment
Grainge is not the only one with this “final package” on his mind. These systems carry not only a hefty price tag but also a rapid life-cycle, with a new model developed every few years. As a result, the rental/integrator model that has allowed Fletcher, I-MOVIX, and Inertia Unlimited to thrive remains the de facto standard (it doesn’t hurt that these companies also offer specialized on-site service for the complicated systems). Direct sales to mobile-production vendors remain rare, with only MTVG purchasing ultra-slo-mo systems on a large scale.

“This technology has such a short shelf life that we try to work [the high-speed cameras] as much as possible,” says Inertia Unlimited’s Silverman, who has already upgraded the bulk of his 22 X-Mo systems to the Phantom v642. “The cameras released this year will no doubt be obsolete by next year. You will certainly be able to use them, but they will no longer be the latest and greatest, which is what we always want to offer our customers.”

While Silverman expects the generation of Phantom to come sooner rather than later, NAC has made a more long-term commitment to its Hi-Motion II.

“We very definitely have a commitment to evolving HI-Motion II over a reasonable lifetime,” says Hayford. “Look at Hi-Motion I, which began shipping in 2007. Those cameras are still in use, and we continued to introduce new features for it as recently as 2010. We expect a similar lifespan for Hi Motion II, which gives our customers a chance to earn their money back and make a profit.”

Nonetheless, many believe that the rental model will eventually subside and truck companies will purchase high-speed cameras directly from vendors.

“We see this becoming more a part of the truck environment very soon,” says Shore. “The equation of sub-renting will most likely change in the near future, but I think there is room for both. As the market continues to expand, I think you will see a mix of sales and rental.”

Here To Stay
Regardless of the eventual business model the high-speed–camera market takes on, there is no question that these game-changing tools are here to stay.

“[Broadcasters] are now telling stories in a way that requires these tools, whether it be the ability to see the golf ball come out of the grass or the ball hit the bat,” says Grainge. “The slowing down of the image has become a requirement at all levels of production, and, over the years, the quality has increased, but the price has not. That has allowed all markets — big and small — to gain from this.”

SVG’s FutureSPORT Summit will delve further into this sector of the sports-production market with a panel titled “Next-Generation High-Speed Cameras,” moderated by HBO Sports Director of Production Jason Cohen and featuring Sony Electronics Senior Marketing Manager Mark Bonifacio, Grainge, Ott de Vries, and Shore. The event takes place on May 23 at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City.