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X Games: ESPN's Tech Lab

The X Games—ESPN's annual celebration of extreme sports—has become the cable network's test lab because of the freedom it provides.

"We kind of own everything because ESPN invented the X Games," said Coordinating Director Paul DiPietro. "ESPN works with the sports organizers on the event—we don't deal with a league [or venue]. If we're trying to get a different piece of gear or a different angle, we can work with the course designer to move some of the course. Having the full control of everything makes it a lot easier to be experimental."


DiPietro said the idea of an "Olympics of alternative sports" came from Ron Semiao, now a senior vice president at ESPN Original Entertainment. The first Summer X Games was held in 1995 in Providence, R.I. Production changed dramatically for Winter X Games 2004, when the broadcast went live.

"Signal flow and communications had to change," said DiPietro. "We had to change our workflow for that."

And because up to 16 channels of audio were required, the crew was ESPN's first to "split everything out, embed it and send it out [as a menu]" with directions to "pick whatever you want," he said.

The crew went tapeless for the 2006 Winter X Games, and this year adopted a DNxHD codec to direct Avid/EVS file transfer workflows. According to Coordinating Technical Manager Stephen Raymond, DNxHD was then used for the Little League World Series, Figure Skating Championships, and the U.S. Open golf tournament in June.

A crew rigs pairs of Red Ones and Canon XL H1s for the Staples Center 3D test. In addition to revolutionizing operations with its multiple embedded audio and tapeless workflows, the X Games team also pioneered the use of HD, aerial and point of view cameras. For example, said DiPietro, the "helmet-cam" was used on skysurfing before it was recreated for the NFL or Major League Baseball coverage.

Perhaps the best known device originating from the X Games is the "X-ducer," developed in 2000 by the late Ron Scalise, audio project manager for ESPN Remote Operations (see "Xtending Audio," Aug. 20, 2008). Instead of picking up airborne audio, the plastic transducer squares generate sounds from vibrations in the solid materials they come in contact with, thus making them more effective than other microphones at isolating specific sound effects. They're now standard equipment in covering figure skating, NBA games and other events.


DiPietro credits his team's curiosity, drive and ability to share as key to developing new approaches for the X Games, disseminating them throughout ESPN, and picking up new ideas from other sports. New technologies debuted at this summer's X Games range from 3D high resolution digital cinematography to applications sparked by warehouse tracking technologies to a 24-hour audio-over-fiber solution.

The August 1 3D test at the Staples Center involved nine camera locations. It was overseen by two Culver City, Calif.-based companies, Creat3 and High-Ground Media. Eight new small-form, portable, dual-link 422 MegaCine recorders developed by Germany's Fraunhofer Institute were used to record stereoscopic camera pairs, according to ESPN Coordinating Technical Manager Steve Raymond.

One pair of Silicon Imaging's direct-to-disk 2K Micro cameras was set up at the athlete staging area atop the Big Air ramp; another pair was mounted on a hot head platform above the Quarter Pipe.

A pair of Red One direct-to-disk cameras was placed on the lip of the Big Air landing ramp, and a second pair was at the ramp's base. Two others were placed on either side of the Big Air ramp for a "hyper-stereo" wide shot. And a fourth pair of Red Ones with 10 mm lenses was placed on top of the Best Trick landing.

A pair of Canon XL H1 camcorders was positioned on the Moto Start Ramp platform, shooting towards the Quarter Pipe. One pair of close-focusing, handheld Canon HV-20 camcorders, equipped with a beam splitter, was on the event floor's field of play, while another pair was mounted on a roving Steadicam.

"We were able to harvest a great deal of information and media from this effort that will help guide us towards making the right choices in future 3D endeavors," said Raymond. But he concluded that working in 3D will continue to be challenging until technologies needed to streamline the workflow become more readily available.

Cameras used for the broadcast included high speed models from NAC Imaging and HD equipment from Sony and Thomson Grass Valley.


Jay Schweitzer operates a Red One 3D camera rig (lower left) while John Gillian operates a Polecam 3D setup with Silicon Imaging's 2K Micro cameras (dangling mid-air). Cameraman Mike Byrd uses an LDK6000 near the action. Radio frequency tags typically used in warehouses to track assets were used at the Summer X Games to better measure Big Air jumps and track broadcast equipment rentals.

Displaying the height of Big Air jumps on the 30-foot LED tower at Staples took about a half second last year, according to ESPN Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. This year, the time delay was cut to a fraction of that, thanks to a system of ultra-wideband radio frequency tags on the skates and bikes, plus receivers provided by Multispectral Solutions and ESPN's special purpose calculations.

"We initially developed this for arena football, tracking the players on the field," said consultant Ken Demers, who developed the calculations. Orlins found out about the arena football project when he bumped into Marris' boss at Dunkin Donuts. The technology could be further refined to a radar-based GPS application at the Winter X Games.

"In winter we face the greater challenge of doing the same type of measurements over a 500-foot snow pipe," Raymond said. "We're definitely doing a lot of research to improve that."

Meanwhile, Henry Rousseau, senior technical producer for ESPN Event Operations, used scanning technology to work out an inventory accountability system. His goal was to eliminate the amount of rental equipment that gets lost—as well as the man-hours spent trying to track down equipment at the end of an event.

Databases from ESPN, the event production group handling credentials, the mobile truck provider and other vendors were combined to barcode the equipment and its handlers. Exiting equipment was scanned by wands and matched with the person taking it. Asentrix Systems, the asset management division of Akona Consulting, provided WiseTrack Check/Return software for the radios and MobileForce and WiseTrack CORE apps for the vendor equipment. Symbol/Motorola provided hardware.

Prior to the event Rousseau noted, "If this works out we're hoping to use this on other large scale events, like Monday Night Football and NASCAR."


Moving media around the ESPN X Games production infrastructure was enhanced this year by faster connections.

"The thing that we discovered last winter was that we had a lot of challenges with network traffic flows because of the 3x normal file size," said Raymond. At this year's Summer X Games the EVS technology was upgraded to XT2s enhanced with a Gigabit Ethernet interface to allow secondary media movement across the network, instead of relying on one grand plan.

Right Viper's CP communication, a 24-hour audio over fiber solution, was also installed.

"It kept us from having to run 25 pair of copper everywhere," said Raymond.