Three-dimensional images that spin 360 degrees, talking replays, ultra HDTV and sports fans selecting their own replays from the comfort of their couch.
It’s all coming to a television set near you. In fact, some of it’s already here.
"There is a lot of new technology coming for sports fans, because we think the market is there. We wanted to be a part of it," said Aviv Shapira, chief of operations and programs for a 2-year-old company called Replay Technologies. "Fans always want something that brings them closer to the game. We think we have found a way to do that."
Replay Technologies, a company based in California’s Silicon Valley, founded by Israeli expatriates who once helped develop drones for the military, is at the forefront of the emerging fan experience. Its freeD system (short for free-dimension video) was unveiled at New York’s Yankee Stadium in April. The system has since been used during this NFL season on the giant video boards at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and also was shown during two NBC "Sunday Night Football" telecasts from the stadium in Arlington, Texas.
According to Shapira, freeD creates so-called "bullet time" footage — nicknamed for Keanu Reeves’ bullet-dodging scenes in the movie "The Matrix" — that not only provides a 360-degree perspective to entertain fans but potentially could help referees make calls. The image has a three-dimensional effect, but it’s shown on a two-dimensional plane that can be viewed on a regular television.
At the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Replay Technologies first had to install 24 ultra high-definition (12-megapixel) cameras in a circle around the venue. The cameras capture three-dimensional pixels, which are then sent to a server and pieced together to create a 360-degree view for broadcast producers.
But there are some drawbacks. The replay takes about 30 seconds to put together, so it’s not quite "instant replay." And this season, the replays were limited to plays in the red zone. Also, for now, the system is in use only at Yankee Stadium and AT&T Stadium.
Shapira said Replay Technologies hopes to install the freeD system at more venues, starting with baseball stadiums in 2014, and is in negotiations to do so.
At some point, Shapira said, freeD might be used as a tool to help umpires replay close plays. And further down the road, Replay Technologies envisions putting replay in the hands of viewers.
"We think this eventually will completely change the way replays are used," he said.
Shapira said plans are in place to provide Cowboys fans in the high-end seats at AT&T Stadium the opportunity to use the technology as soon as next season. Bringing the technology into the homes of viewers, he estimates, could happen in two to three years.
"Currently, we give the broadcasters and producers the freedom to choose their camera view," Shapira said. "We are working on giving the viewers at home an interactive tool that enables them to see the game from a different point of view.
"They could see the play from the pitcher’s eyes or from the batter’s eyes. Think of it like holding a joystick during a video game and being able to move the camera around the field."
But Replay Technologies isn’t the only company looking to change how we experience sports. Here are some other products in the works:
Talking replay » Tony Verna was the director who first brought instant replay to television during the 1963 Army-Navy football game. Now, at age 79, he has secured a patent for another system he calls "talking replays."
The idea is to allow viewers to hear to what’s going on from the athletes. Before the game, athletes involved in key matchups — for example, a cornerback playing against a star wide receiver — would be interviewed about specific game situations. The audio would be stored so it could be called up to air during replays.
"The point of it is that you would not only hear from the announcers, you would get the player’s insights," Verna said. "This gives a voice to the players."
Verna has tested the system in some high school games in Southern California.
Ultra HDTV » Less than a year after the debut of ultra high-definition TV, the next-generation television format, prices have been dramatically reduced. Now, instead of paying $7,000 or more for a 65-inch ultra high-definition TV, consumers can get them for about $5,500. That’s still a hunk of change, but it’s the wave of the future as the clarity gets better, and the price drops.
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