FutureSPORT: Imaging Advances Offer New Looks for Fans

Attendees at last week’s FutureSPORT had a chance to learn about some of the most recent advances in POV– and high-speed–camera development, and it looks like next-generation technologies will continue to give sports-production professionals more options, greater flexibility, and better ways to make the fan viewing experience everything it needs to be.

From left: BSI's Peter Larsson, Inertia Unlimited’s Jeff Silverman, and Fletcher's Dan Grainge

From left: BSI’s Peter Larsson, Inertia Unlimited’s Jeff Silverman, and Fletcher’s Dan Grainge

For example, ESPN’s deployment of the Pyloncam for Monday Night Football this season places cameras, mics, and transmission gear within the pylons on the goal line of a football field. Fox Sports had previously placed SD cameras in a pylon, but the push by ESPN’s innovation group took the technology to the next level: the cameras not only had to be unobtrusive and fit within the pylon but also had to be designed to take a pounding and, with safety the priority, ensure that it doesn’t injure the players.

“It’s been an interesting project,” reported BSI GM Peter Larsson. “The ESPN innovation group created a central core with ventilation so that air could blow through it from the top to the bottom. It’s been very successful, and everyone seems to like it so far.”

Later this month, Fox Sports will give Major League Baseball fans a new look at the sport, with Dirtcam making the leap to second base. This week, Dirtcam will once again be deployed at first base and in front of home plate for the American League Division Series games in Toronto. Not only is it small, but it can pan, providing different looks to the production team.

“The camera profile is one-tenth of an inch above the ground and three-sixteenths of an inch wide,” said Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman. “It is also capable of shooting in 4K and completely wireless.”

The camera is derived from previous POV systems like the Gophercam, a standard part of Fox Sports NASCAR coverage.

Fletcher VP Dan Grainge added that the Pico 4K miniature camera, about the size of a cigar, is giving a new replay look not only for ESPN’s X Games but also for Fox regional basketball games, for which it is placed behind the backboard.

“Regional networks do a ton of shows, and they want an A-game look at a B-game price,” he explained. “Pico gives them that opportunity.”

The challenge facing providers of these next-generation technologies is that the systems have to be absolutely perfect when they leave the shop.

“You can’t afford to go out and experiment in the field anymore,” said Larsson. “It has to work the first time, and that does mean greater costs on our end.”

The systems also need to match the other camera systems, and that is slowing innovation while increasing sleepless nights.

High Speed Becomes the Norm
The use of high-speed cameras also continues to expand. Fox Sports will use six of them for the ALCS and World Series games, and Sony HDC-4300 cameras will be operating in high-speed mode as well. But the advantage of traditional high-speed cameras is that they require fewer EVS channels to operate, which makes playback easier (and cheaper).

One of the interesting developments to watch in the coming months will be the transition to UHD broadcasting and how it impacts the replay market. Broadcasters are already using 4K cameras within their productions, but they are used to allow the production team to zoom into a 4K image and extract an HD image that matches the resolution of the HD broadcast. There are currently no systems that can provide, say, 8K or 16K resolution and allow a 4K extraction so that a replay will match the 4K/UHD broadcast.

The smaller pixels of 8K mean less light per pixel, which means that the light sensitivity is compromised. That means lesser picture quality in low-light (and, in particular, night) situations.

“8K is very difficult to do, and it does not match the quality we would like,” said Grainge. “It is also not right around the corner. Without a question, the technology will improve, but it will [take] another couple of years to go through another cycle of high-speed–camera development”

Larsson also referred to the million-dollar question: having enough spectrum at an event to allow wireless POV cameras to be operated properly. Spectrum is being pulled away from the industry, and the only solution is to stay in higher frequencies and make compression more efficient. But that means more receive sites, which raises costs and causes other problems.