‘Ref Cam’ Hits the Floor at WNBA Game

The WNBA and ESPN brought unprecedented video access on the court last weekend with the U.S. pro-basketball debut of “Ref Cam” during Saturday’s telecast of the Phoenix Mercury-Indiana Fever game on ABC last Saturday.

Referee Lamont Simpson (center) wore Broadcast Sports Inc.'s "Ref Cam" during a broadcast of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury-Indiana Fever game on ABC last Saturday.

VIDEO: Check out footage from Broadcast Sports, Inc.’s “Ref Cam” which was worn during a WNBA broadcast on ABC last Saturday.

The system was worn by WNBA official Lamont Simpson, with the camera positioned at the side of his head, mounted to a pair of frameless glasses.

“This is something we really wanted to test out to give fans a unique view of the play on the court, with angles that can’t otherwise be achieved,” says Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, NBA Entertainment, who got the idea for using the system after watching footage from a rugby match in France. “We thought that the WNBA was a perfect place to implement this new technology and try it out. And you could see angles that had just never been seen before [on television].”

Designed by Broadcast Sports Inc., the wireless HD mini point-of-view camera was paired with an HD mini transmitter and positioned at eye level. The camera angle brought viewers onto the court with a first-person perspective that the game director could switch to in real time.

As with any POV camera, image stabilization is one of the biggest challenges, one that is continuously tackled by the team at BSI.

BSI designed the lightweight camera system on a set of frameless glasses worn by Simpson wore throughout the game.

Referee Lamont Simpson (center) wore Broadcast Sports Inc.’s “Ref Cam” during a broadcast of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury-Indiana Fever game on ABC last Saturday.

“We’re constantly trying to make it smaller, more lateral, and more durable,” says BSI GM Peter Larsson, noting that the company is using 3D printers to construct a lightweight housing for the camera lens. “[Stabilization] is all about how firmly we can connect it to the guy’s head, because the majority of the movement is not coming from the head moving. We’ve found that the head is pretty well stabilized. It’s just that you can’t run a bolt into the side of the guy’s head to firmly attach the camera. So to make it comfortable enough where you’re not going to give them a headache yet firm enough to stop it from vibrating is a difficult compromise.”

The remote system comprises more than just the eye device. BSI’s full package includes a vest containing the transmitter and batteries that provide the power and video; Simpson wore it beneath his shirt.

Transmitting the signal was relatively simple, according to Larsson. The receive antennas were set at a high level in the arena, facing down over the court to an RF-to-fiber box that delivered the signal to the production truck via TAC-4 fiber. There, the receiver converted the signal back to microwaves and spit out the HD-SDI and the two audio signals. That made the camera a real-time camera feed.

“The signal being sent back to the truck was great, and the angles ended up working really well on replays as well,” says Hellmuth, adding, “It’s a great camera that really shows off the teamwork and ball movement that the WNBA players do every night.”

NBA Entertainment is slated to use Ref Cam again at the WNBA All-Star Game at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on July 27. According to Larsson, the system will also be used by ESPN at the MLS All-Star Game in Kansas City on July 31. CBS Sports Network is also on-board to use Ref Cam for its Arena Football League coverage.