Television, Computers & Sports

Roone Arledge, innovative television sports pioneer, said that television tools such as instant replays, slow motion and even superimposing the names of the players on the screen after a good play were called gimmicks when they were introduced.

The computer invasion into television production that began years ago with the character generator continues to grow. As directors and producers continue to look for tools and techniques that will lead to a more informed viewer, they are increasingly turning to computer-based viewer enhancement tools.

Computer driven techniques cover a wide range of possibilities. Some of them have been successful, some not. Just as computer graphics were considered gimmicks at one point, some of these technologies will be normal in the future. Below is a review of some of the past technologies as well as some of the newest ones.

One of the original technological enhancements to television sports was the glowing hockey puck created by Fox Sports called the FoxTrax.

“The goal was simple. Make the televised image of a hockey puck glow so it’s easier for the viewer to spot, and, when it’s going really fast, put a tail on it showing its path. The company hoped the system could overcome the main complaint about televised hockey: The trouble that casual viewers have in following the fast-moving puck on television screens.

To track the puck, a number of parameters had to be fed into a computer system and updated continually. First, the system had to know exactly where the broadcast cameras were focused. It also had to have some idea of how each camera lens distorts the image; different brands of lenses vary. It then had to figure out which camera’s feed was being displayed to viewers at any moment.

Meanwhile, the system had to know where the puck was and how fast it was traveling, and then it had to create a graphic based on that data and overlay it continuously onto the video image.

All of these things had to be exactly synchronized, as the cameras were zooming and panning and the puck was traveling at up to 100 miles an hour.

Making it work required putting infrared transmitters into each hockey puck. Technically, the project was a success. But serious hockey fans hated it. After three years, NHL broadcasts in the United States switched networks, and the system died a quiet death. The FoxTrax system’s technology has now been adapted and is used to highlight racecars during motor sports events. The glow technology allows a commentator to illustrate a specific car’s place on the track when it is near other cars.

A number of companies have now created virtual lines on the field of play of different sports and they have become almost the norm. The virtual line on the field of play was more difficult to develop than the hockey puck since the line needed to be perfectly straight (which is difficult with the variety of lenses used), had to look realistic when located on rough ground next to the actual field lines and had to appear under the players. This technology was almost immediately accepted by the viewers in sports like football, soccer and cricket.

Global positioning system (GPS) technology is used in race cars in conjunction with computer graphics to give the viewer detailed information about the driver’s name, car’s position on the course, speed, brake status and tachometer.

Matrix-style computer/camera systems give the viewer a look at the action from multiple vantage points.

Although there are multiple systems using different technology, all of the systems potentially provide a 360-degree view of a sports image.

Robotically controlled cameras, placed 5-12 degrees apart, are used to capture the images. Some of the systems have software that fills in some of the missing information between the camera’s images, actually providing moving images as well as still images.

A server channel records each individual camera, allowing the system’s operator to provide a replay and cut between the multiple DDRs. This provides the capability to rotate the viewer perspective around an image of a play before resuming action.

A camera operator will control one of the cameras as a master camera. The other cameras will synchronize, following the cue of the master camera, focusing on the same action, such as a golfer.

Each camera interacts with the master camera, constantly adjusting its zoom and focus to keep the image of the golfer the same size as in the images of all the other cameras. “This shared center of focus is what creates the illusion that the player can be seen in three dimensions,” said Takeo Kanade, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and a computer vision expert. “When images taken at the same time by each camera are viewed sequentially, the effects is of walking or flying around the player.”

The system has been used for all types of sports. Larry Barbatsoulis, CBS technical director, said, “In individual sports, like gymnastics, I could do a 360 around someone doing a rings routine, or the long jump, or a pole vault. Imagine freezing a guy who’s going backwards over the high jump, then revolving around him to show his form.”

SimulCam transposes a live athlete’s performance with the previous or record holder’s performance. This simultaneous broadcast of the two performances looked so real that unknowing viewers during the 2002 Winter Olympics voiced concern that the two athletes should not be skiing so close together.

This computer transposition system allows the audience the opportunity to compare two performances, allowing them to observe the minute differences in the athletes’ movements. This technology can be used with any sports that included individual performances within certain constraints on the field of play.

Another transposition technology, CyberSport, creates a virtual runner that moves at a world record pace around an athletics track as a race unfolds. Like SimilCam, the virtual runner adds to the drama of the race, allowing the viewer to understand how the current race compares to others.

StroMotion was first used by ABC Sports to allow the viewer to analyze the quadruple jump in figure skating. The technology shows individual video frames of the athlete’s performance within one visible frame. Since some sports occur so rapidly that the viewer cannot see the detailed action, StroMotion can break the action down to show key frames, compiling them into one frame, allowing the viewer to analyze the athlete’s action.

A number of companies provide virtual ad services. These services generally use a type of chromakey technology to place the ads on the screen. The systems electronically replace existing advertising signs and banners or insert graphics right on the field of play with advertising that has been sold to television program sponsors. While the virtual ads are not seen if you are at the venue, they are added to the broadcast output for the viewing audience.

Internet sites and television continue to partner together to attract viewers and provide interactive experiences for sports fans. One Internet application called PitCommand allows paid subscribers to watch a virtual aerial view of the race and view the track and data for any car they select, run instant replays at will, and change track perspective.

Another company has created sports webcasting technologies that allow sports fans to “watch and play” live or delayed sports events on their computers. Their player and ball automatic tracking methods, combined with Intel’s Web 3D environment, generate live or delayed 3D graphical simulations of live soccer action.

Fans get to enjoy a graphical visualization of the match with the added functionality of choosing their viewpoint (for example, viewing the entire match through the eyes of one player).

RACEf/x is developing interactive television games that will allow viewers to insert their own virtual racecar onto the screen and allow them to race against the professional drivers during a race.

Jim Owens is the Chair of the Communication Arts Department at Asbury College, has worked on the broadcast of nine Olympics and is the author of the book Television Sports Broadcasting. He can be reached at