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PVI virtual technology sold to ESPN, Sportvision

In a series of at-times complex, three-way negotiations over the past few months, the former Princeton Video Images (now known as PVI Virtual Media Services), located in Lawrenceville, NJ, has been sold to two organizations heavily involved in live sports production that have promised to further the digital virtual insertion technology and continue to service its existing clients. PVI Virtual Media Services has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Cablevision Systems.

In separate announcements, Sportvision, in Chicago, and ESPN, based in Bristol, CT, both said they had purchased a part of the company and will use it for different purposes. Sportvision said it has acquired “certain intellectual property, assets and contractual relationships” enabling Sportvision to commercially market and provide all PVI products and services both domestically and internationally.

For its part, ESPN said it bought “substantially all of the intellectual property” of PVI Virtual Media Services and will use the technology for its own in-house development.

Under the terms of the two deals, each company can license the technology royalty-free from the other when necessary.

PVI’s inVU system, originally marketed as L-VIS (Live Video Insertion System), is used by the broadcast centers of CBS Sports (in New York) and Fox Sports Net (in Houston), and they will continue to do so going forward. Sportvision will market the PVI studio-based football system as well as its proprietary football technology, the virtual 1st and Ten yellow-line system, in which broadcast cameras at the venues are mounted on instrumented heads, with related processing onboard the on-site production truck.

The PVI technology is considered less costly to implement because it is inserted at the network facility using pattern recognition algorithms to create and then electronically insert images into a live broadcast. This allows a user to provide the technology to multiple games (or commercial ads/promotions) simultaneously from the same facility. The Sportvision system is more costly to deploy yet is said to result in a higher quality and more accurate image.

ESPN now uses Sportvision’s 1st and Ten line for its “Monday Night Football” coverage and other live football games. It would appear that one of the network’s interests in PVI is the prospect of reducing the cost of using such virtual technology.

“The ability to insert the line (or any other graphic elements) downstream of the live production is very cost-effective and something that we wanted to get our hands around, refine it and make it fit within our footprint here,” said Anthony Bailey, vice president of emerging technology at ESPN.

He said that in addition to the intellectual property of Virtual Media Services, the network has acquired all of the engineering staff at PVI and will retain its Lawrenceville location as a separate R&D division to continue to develop virtual insertion products for such applications as advertising on the field of play, interactive TV apps and various sports metrics and analysis systems.

“We had no interest in keeping PVI as a business,” Bailey said. “Our goal is to strengthen our internal patent portfolio while also acquiring the brain power and the intellectual property behind it to build new and exciting products for our air. We generate a lot of content during the year, and we're starting to look at increasingly bringing the control of such programming in-house.”

Mike Jakob, president and COO for Sportvision, said his company’s agreement allows Sportvision to market the PVI products, including the inVU system, to whomever the company chooses and can customize them for specific clients as necessary. Sportvision has won nine Emmy Awards for its products, including three for its 1st and Ten line and K Zone products and three for its work with NASCAR.

Sportvision offers a full portfolio of virtual insertion products, including NBC’s Synthetic Video on “Sunday Night Football” and the PITCHf/x system, which is deployed in every MLB ballpark and is extensively used by TBS Sports and Fox Sports during live baseball telecasts.

“Sportvision was very interested in the ability to take PVI (along with our own) virtual technology to under-developed markets around the world,” Jakob said. “We also have gained a number of key client relationships that we hope to grow and enhance as time goes on.”

Jakob said Sportvision also hopes to advance the technology as appropriate and perhaps combine it with some of its own products and systems to add new functionality.

“We either own or have a perpetual license to all of the technology required to market and enhance the PVI products,” he said. “For us, owning versus licensing the technology was an immaterial distinction. What was important was having access to the technology. We have a lot of ideas on how to implement it in a variety of new ways.”

Jakob said his company is excited about the prospect of offering the two systems to new clients and giving them the choice of how sophisticated they want to get with their projects and how much money they have to spend.

“There may be a package of national games where they want to use the higher-end solution and another set of regional games where the less-costly option might be appropriate. Either way, we win the business and have a solution that helps produce and enhance sporting events very efficiently,” he said.

Jakob added that the company is looking to offer products and services beyond virtual insertion.

“We’re interested in new opportunities where we can become more integrated into the sports telecast,” he said. “This can include tracking data and objects in order to add new value for the viewer.”