Adrian Pennington tracks key technology advances in the production of sport for television.
Advances in sports production technology tend to congregate around major international events when broadcasters are prepared to pay a premium for innovations that give them an edge over the opposition.
They don't get bigger than the Olympic Games where the demand to replay action from every possible angle is huge. This summer's host broadcaster Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (BOB - a joint venture between Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and regular Olympic producer International Sports Broadcasting promises the first fully HD Games delivered at 1080/50i.
The production will employ more than 60 HD OB units; more than 1,000 HD cameras; and over 450 VTRs.
The track and field athletics alone will feature over thirty HD cameras plus over 30 remote mini-cams plugged into pole vaults; high jump poles; fitted to hammer throw nets; or into the ground on the javelin pitch as well as a variety of trackside and aerial cameras.
Panasonic has been an official Olympic sponsor since 1988 (through to 2012). This year's agreement includes recording all feeds onto DVCPRO HD using a combination of tape and, another first, P2 solid state memory from the P2HD AJ-HPX2100 and 3000 camcorders.
Camera Corps will be among additional suppliers to BOB, fielding over 250 HD camera systems, 18 motorised tracking systems, plus remote heads and large camera cranes.
Bolstering BOBs main cameras will be a range of specialist miniature, wireless and super slow motion equipment, the technology for which has until recently only been able to record SD signals.
Featuring a camera head the size of a golf ball, and weighing just two ounces, the Iconix HD-RH1 is the world's smallest professional HD camera reflected in its US $16,000 price tag. Polecam, which makes the lightweight, flexible single-operator camera boom, says it has noticed an upturn in sales coinciding with the sales of mini-HD cameras (Toshiba' s 1080i IK-HD1/ Camera Corps' HD MiniZoom are others) particularly for sports.
The Iconix and Polecam combination has been used for live broadcast trials during American Football (NFL) games, the EURO2008 Final Draw and provided the in goal shots at every game of 2006 World Cup.
A unique BBC department, BBC Resources Special Cameras, is responsible for some of the most unique camera angles in world sport. Its most famous application is the stumpcam, now standard issue for cricket coverage. It has also put remotely-operated 360-degree cameras in rugby posts - now in HD; mini-cams onboard A1 GP cars and in the bullseye for archery contests.
Its HD Plunge Cam, developed for the host broadcast of the Asian Games Doha 2006, will feature in Beijing and is built to track divers to 4m below the surface and withstand considerable pressure on the glass and seals.
The department either converts domestic camcorders or adapts widescreen anamorphic, security or medical (endoscopic) lenses and then upconverts the signal to HD.
Its most recent design was the build of six minicams and batteries into the two-inch diameter sleeve surrounding a flagpole. FlagstickCam debuted at 2007's US Masters.
The division has also been testing flash memory mini-cams for use on board rally cars. Considerably lighter and more robust than mini-DVs, flash-based devices allow additional cameras to be fixed to each car increasing the editorial armoury of World Rally Championship producer and rights owner North One.
"Most available technology is available to everyone," notes North One, CEO, Neil Duncanson. "It's how smart you are in using it that counts."
RF HD cameras
Formula One body FIA has so far resisted HD so as not to disenfranchise its majority SD audience but signs are it may launch in hi-def this season (which includes the Bahrain Grand Prix on April 6 with Abu Dhabi to debut in 2009).
This is a sport whose profile has been significantly boosted by the clever implementation of on-board cameras delivering live signals at speeds over 150mph. An HD production (orchestrated by the FIA's in-house unit) depends on the robustness of HD microwave links from car to trackside as well as greater use of RF cameras in the pit lane - a hazardous environment at the best of times without compounding matters with yards of cable.
"No one can claim RF HD is all finished," declares sales manager Dave Remnant of RF pioneers Link Research. "Our RF SD is five years old and it's still being improved. You can't drag cables into a garage but viewers expect action from the pit lane so RF enables operators to move in fast, get the shot and stay out of the way.
Link believes it holds a crucial advantage over competitors by using its own FPGA-based MPEG-2 encoding rather than industry standard DVB-T. "This makes for a much high data rate between transmitter and receiver, better even than SD over DVB," claims Remnant.
When it comes to super-slo motion cameras the technical trade off is speed versus image quality: as the frame rate increases available light to produce picture clarity decreases. Nonetheless, products from Arri Media and Belgium's i-Movix attempt to push those boundaries.
Arri's Hi-Motion, deployed by the UK's Sky Sports for its cricket and Premiership coverage, records at 300fps to provides 22 seconds of storage (double that of a year ago) available for immediate playback at six or 12 times slowdown live-to-air, with no processing delay.
"There are also significant operational improvements in remote control and replay as a result of customer feedback," claims product manager Andy Hayford.
The i-Movix SprintCam Live records 1080i at 8000fps using Photron APX RS cameras and is specifically designed to integrate with EVS servers - the defacto standard for live sports production. At 1000fps, it is claimed to cache 30 seconds and has been active at several PGA golf tournaments and Red Bull XFighter events.
The downsides are a heavyweight price tag (from U$250,000 for 1000fps up to U $750,000 for a 5000fps unit) and a 'noisy' picture. The Photron features a single 10bit CMOS sensor so the level of detail in images even played back from a 1000fps will not match those of cameras with three sensors.
"Any technology should be gauged by what it adds in terms of telling the story," notes Robert Charles, controller of Sport for UK terrestrial channel Five. "1000fps images provide glamour and really tell you something about the movement of a racket or the leg muscles on a rugby player.
Wirecams (overhead cameras) illustrate the linear relationship between players on a pitch.
Cameras in goalposts can get you right to the heart of the action. But technology should not be used for its own sake or it can obstruct the story.
Producers can often make more impact with creative graphics than by adding another camera channel. Few sports presentations seem complete without 3D analysis tools, many of which stem from image tracking technology.
Already in regular use by Al Jazeera Sport for its soccer coverage (initially purchased to produce soccer during the Asian Games 2006) is Red Bee's Piero, which can extract 3D images from live action and place 'virtual' players in a CG stadium.
It has been optimised at 720p for American Football's NFL in a bid to crack the US market. A tennis application will follow featuring 'hot spots' highlighting where the player has travelled during a point.
UEFA is set to field a new analysis system for the Euro 2008 Championships which, for the first time, tracks how far players run throughout a game, speed of shot and the distance of free kicks to the goal.
The image recognition system, devised by Italy's Delta Tre, comprises two banks of eight cameras that overlap to cover all zones on the pitch.
An operator takes an image of the player at the start, assigns that to the area where they are standing and cameras then automatically follow their movement, updating information constantly and live throughout the entire game.
The future of sports production could also well lie in 3D (stereoscopic) presentation. 3D trials were conducted during the World Cup 2006 and successfully broadcast in the US for an NBA basketball game last year.
BBC Outside Broadcasts' lead engineering manager for Wimbledon, Adrian Kingston says, "3D is initially a niche product but if there's to be widespread production in 3D, I'll bet it ends up as parallel - not separate. That is, one set of cameras providing images for 3D HD, 2D HD, SD, internet and mobile applications.
Neil Duncanson was wowed by a demonstration at sports broadcast conference Sportel.
"Although it's far too expensive right now, it's not too far fetched to say the future of sports production could lie in live 3D.