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A view of the future

Interactive technology will soon transform the way viewers experience sports on television.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 14, 2001


It is a Sunday afternoon in September, not too many years from now.

The lawn is mowed. The leak is fixed. You are free to be a weekend warrior.

Today, you think, I'm going to play receiver.

Drink in one hand, chips and salsa within reach of the other, you grab the remote and place the order to your cable company: Bucs at Vikings. You select "Moss."

Soon, with help from the 50-inch TV and surround sound in your living room, you become Randy Moss, seeing the field as he sees it, watching digitized images of one Bucs defender after another fall away as you head for the end zone.

And you haven't left your recliner.

All in all, you think (as you munch on a chip) that even if the Bucs have to lose, this is more fun than what you did last weekend -- when you watched a NASCAR race from inside Jeff Gordon's car. Which would normally be fine, except this time you couldn't see much because there were too many drivers in front of him.

* * *

Such is the future of sports television -- or at least part of it -- for those who will want it.

You always will be able to flip on a baseball game and have it be just baseball. The grass will be greener, the crack of the bat will be clearer and there will be a virtual ad behind home plate, but otherwise it will be the same old game. And there always will be a producer trying to figure out the best way to tell the masses about it.

But if you want your favorite sport to work like a video game, experts say, you will be able to do that too: Play a game back on the Internet, insert yourself into the action, watch on pay-per-view from any angle you can imagine. Such diversions will be made possible by interactive technology that probably will be the Next Big Thing, as soon as someone figures out how to make it happen.

Plenty of people are working on it. But in the meantime, the way sports on television is presented is changing in many little ways, too.

Networks are paying big bucks to outside companies for technology that gathers information in faster and more interesting ways, or provides audiences with viewpoints they've never seen before.

Witness the staggering number of gizmos rolled out since last year's Olympics. We can now, at a glance -- that is if the darned things are working -- see how close a swimmer is to a world record, learn the speed of a hockey player, find out how many feet Gordon's car is from Bobby Labonte's or see, within a fraction of an inch, whether a pitch should be a ball or a strike.

And while you're watching that new, they-hope-improved broadcast, network executives also are seeking creative ways to tuck advertising into the event.

"There's a major change going on in the whole advertising community," said Bill Squadron, CEO of New York City-based Sportvision. "It has to do with the fact that, traditionally, people are not watching 30-second commercials."

But, for example, viewers might respond to a virtual soda ad that doubles as a method of telling them the speed of a pitch.

Or, "say you get rid of some of the 30-second spots by having an ad on the first-down line (in football)," said Gene Dwyer, chief technology officer of Lawrenceville, N.J.-based Princeton Video Image. "That might make (the ad) more tolerable."

Virtual advertising accounts for a large chunk of what industry leaders like PVI and Sportvision are working on. Not only is the technology in demand, it's a good way to generate funding for other projects, since creating new technologies is both time consuming and expensive.

So is perfecting them.

Most of the recent technological advances have been better received than the much-ridiculed glowing puck introduced by Fox for hockey in 1996. But none of them meets the "a-HA!" standard of the first-down line, created by Sportvision for ESPN in 1998 and now in use worldwide.

Some technologies haven't worked well; others may not be used again. EyeVision, the rotating instant replay system created by CBS and PVI, provided some key replays during the Super Bowl but was so ineffective at the Final Four that it wasn't even used in the championship game.

And while the global positioning satellite system designed for NASCAR by Sportvision can spit out almost any statistic imaginable and has been well-received, there have been many glitches during its first season. It didn't work at all during Saturday night's Pepsi 400, which was NBC's first race under a landmark six-year contract with NASCAR. The omission weakened the telecast, angered NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and left fans used to seeing the system on Fox broadcasts mystified.

Such temporary setbacks, however, aren't likely to dampen the enthusiasm of technology companies. For example, Sportvision executives still talk fondly about the glowing puck, and want those who liked it to be able to see it again.

"What we really see coming over the horizon is this new generation of interactive set top boxes," Squadron said. "The capability is going to be there to do a lot more than scroll down a program guide. Lighting up a hockey puck, picking the drivers you want to follow throughout the race. If you have four drivers that are your favorite drivers, you can have little boxes at the bottom of the screen, telling you exactly where they are, how fast they're going."

Not everyone wants to choose their own adventure, however. And doing so doesn't always make for interesting television. During hockey season, one Canadian network kept a camera trained on Mario Lemieux and allowed fans to pay to see him nonstop. But after a while, people lost interest.

That's why many of the new developments in TV technology will continue to be about information gathering and statistical analysis for the broader audience, things that provide a "richness of content," said Jerry Gepner, a co-founder of Sportvision and now a Fox executive vice president.

"You have a producer who is trying to tell you the story, and he has a limited amount of time," Gepner said.

"We're not going to turn your TV into a PlayStation 2. But if you want to, it will be available."

HIGH-TECH TOYS

Networks are doing more than adding camera angles and microphones to take you closer to the action. Here's a look at some of the recent and upcoming developments in TV sports technology:

EYEVISION, CBS/SCANVISION, ABC: Developed by Princeton Video Image and others for CBS' Super Bowl broadcast in January and now available to other networks, it uses 30 digital, robot-controlled cameras that provide rotating replays. At the Super Bowl, it provided at least two key replays, but was less spectacular in the Stanley Cup final and proved not useful at all during the Final Four.

FOXTRAX, FOX/RACE CHASE, NBC: Developed by Sportvision for NASCAR for use by Fox and NBC, it uses telemetry and global positioning satellite technology to determine such factors as the cars' speed, distance between them and their location on the track. When it works, it's fascinating, but it was not operational for NBC's NASCAR debut Saturday night.

TRAKUS DSI, ABC: Ever wonder how many miles a hockey player skates in a game? This Digital Sports Information system, developed by a company called Trakus Inc. and used in ABC's broadcast of the NHL All-Star Game, determined speed and distance that players traveled by tracking radio signals emitted by flat patches embedded in their helmets.

SWIMMING WORLD RECORD LINE, NBC: Similar to the first-down line in football, it showed viewers how close swimmers were to the world record during Olympic broadcasts. The Tel Aviv-based company that developed it also was able to digitally insert the flags of the swimmers' countries into the lanes. NBC plans to apply the same concept to downhill skiing for the Salt Lake City Olympics, possibly with a line showing the pace of the leader.

THE "NEW" FOXBOX; FOX, FOX SPORTS NET AND FX: The network wants more than just a score box in the corner. The new FoxBox is stripped across the top of the screen, and is a launching point for other informational graphics. It likely will be used for NFL coverage this fall, but when or how much has not been determined.

K ZONE, ESPN: Developed by Sportvision for Sunday Night Baseball, it uses computers and special camera angles to outline a batter's strike zone from the front, back and sides. It was introduced this month and initially will be used only for replays.

SHOTLINK, PGA TOUR: With technology being phased in this summer, the tour will use Palm devices, wireless radio and lasers to "record as much as we can about every shot in golf," said Steve Evans, vice president for information systems. Reams of information eventually will be available to TV viewers, visitors to the tour's Web site and fans attending events.

VIRTUAL ADS: A category in itself, networks and sports technology companies are working on ways to incorporate advertising into broadcasts (within, they say, the limits of good taste). Examples include computer-generated ads behind home plate in baseball, and ads tied to the first-down line in college football. With technology from PVI, ESPN recently has begun inserting virtual ads into games on ESPN Classic, a move that has drawn some criticism.

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